Hazlitt Magazine

I Could Live Without Speaking: Part IV

A Self-Portrait, Experiment, and Homage.

'I Read Books As If They Are Places': An Interview with Helen Oyeyemi

The author of Gingerbread on K-Dramas, travelling, and coded stories. 

There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This

Bob Fosse’s current revival makes sense, but the wave of appreciation will also be a reckoning: moral immunity has been rescinded for geniuses.

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‘I Read Books As If They Are Places’: An Interview with Helen Oyeyemi

The author of Gingerbread on K-Dramas, travelling, and coded stories. 

Helen Oyeyemi’s work always holds an element of discovery. She describes books as places she visits, and her writing invites readers to do the same. Whether that place is a locked garden, an ancestral home (or several), or an imagined country, the reader is left with the feeling that they’re being guided through by a hand they can’t see, persistently tugging them left or right or sideways. There are many places it feels like Oyeyemi’s latest novel, Gingerbread (Hamish Hamilton), could take you, if you were so inclined. Some of those places are physical: the characters in the book cross borders in trunks, live in houses where the rooms occasionally move or the stairs keep out all but the most determined visitors, and sleep in beds watched over by flowering dolls. But the spaces are also internal: There’s the space created by the suspension of reality that comes with a dramatic health incident and the subsequent, if you’re lucky, healing. Or the cavern carved when someone we love disappoints us entirely and we probably should have seen it coming. Or the space between childhood and adulthood, where we begin to understand the bargains we strike to afford growing up. In each of these places, our reality skews just a little. Gingerbread’s narrative suspends us in Harriet’s tale of her childhood and adolescence while her daughter Perdita recovers from a hospitalization. The reader is allowed into this sojourn from reality, and then, when Perdita is again well, the world tumbles back like Harriet’s signature gingerbread to the floor. First, a few crumbs, and then the whole damn box: family, friends (who Harriet’s not sure about yet—she’s waiting for a sign), meetings and exams and essays and candles that won’t stay lit and houses that might not let you enter. The world keeps going when you remove yourself from it, but like Harriet’s oft-disappearing oldest friend Gretel, your absence is noted.   Haley Cullingham: I wanted to start by talking about place, because I find the way that you write about place so fascinating and, especially in this book, it was such a dominant theme to me. I know you’ve lived in a bunch of different cities, and you travel a fair bit, too. If you’re going somewhere, do you read stories of the place? Helen Oyeyemi: No. I was so interested that you even said that place came through strongly, because I don’t think about place too much. Place is very abstract. So, I guess my approach to place is, I read books as if they are places. It’s more like going into a book. And so, there isn’t that geographic sense, it’s more abstract and interior. There are details that you can pick out and leave the rest quite vague in certain ways. Which I guess is how I travel, just looking at the things that I’m interested in and the rest is sort of a blur. What are some of the places that have left the strongest impression on you? I love Seoul, I try to be there every year, and not just for a few days but weeks. Budapest, I was there for a year and I still think about it a lot. I think about the two cities, and the bridges that connect them, and also the walls that have cannonball marks on them and just the way that the city wears everything that’s happened to it, similar to how you see a shroud and an evening gown, there’s this strange mix of pride in having survived so many things and also this great sadness and melancholy. Where else? Istanbul. I’ve only been there once but I think about that trip a lot.  Do you think you’ll go back?   I think I liked Istanbul so much that I’m worried if I go back it would be disappointing in some way. I say that with most cities, going back, but I’ve started to really love returning. Maybe that’s the thing with Seoul, there’s just more and more city. Or maybe it’s just the way that cities turn over and change so quickly. There’s always something more to see or find out.  When you go back to Seoul, do you revisit a lot, or do you tend to explore new things? I find new corners. With Seoul, there haven’t been places that I feel I need to go back to, but I have been back to Jeju Island, which kind of makes a bit of a cameo toward the end of Gingerbread, but it was two completely different experiences. The first time I went on my own, and I was completely overwhelmed and absorbed in the best way by how lush Jeju is. It was a tumbling into the sea of impressions. And the second time, I went with a friend. We rode this bike, it was so scary. It was a two-person kind of a bike, kind of a wagon, and my friend was like, “I can do this, I can get us around,” but we were on these coastal paths and I just pictured, like, we were going to fall directly into the water. So, it was precarious and fun and different. [laughs] Were you both pedaling? I was just the passenger. I was just wearing this helmet and screaming, which I think she didn’t appreciate. So, the second time was more rambunctious. When you start thinking about a book, does it start with a character, does it start with a story, does it just start with a feeling of wanting to go somewhere? How does that begin for you? It’s been different with every book. So, with Boy, Snow, Bird, I was doing the wicked stepmother story, but I was also doing ‘50s America, and so I had to place myself within that, which was actually a delight because I love the films of that era—Hollywood from the ‘30s to the ‘50s is entirely my space. So, it was kind of fun to write in that register and to think in that register. And then for What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours I just had keys, and then I wrote stories about the keys. With Gingerbread, it was much more abstract, because I had this substance that I wanted to interrogate, and place at the centre of a story without making the meaning of it too clear, because that would be boring. I wanted to allude to various things and suggest various things around this concept of gingerbread, and so it was a lot more slippery to write, and also it felt like more of an adventure, which came from not knowing what sort of book it was going to be. I was wondering if, the way you’ve talked about the keys, if the gingerbread was a similar feeling. I thought it was going to be but the keys, it was straightforward. Nine keys, nine stories. Gingerbread was… [laughs] Touching on the food stuff, for you, is there kinship between cooking and creating a story? Are those things that feel connected? Yes, and the same with consuming the cooking and reading, so I suppose it was all quite densely layered in there. Since I’ve been going around with Gingerbread, hearing people talk about it, and reading the things people write about it, of all of my books, I think this is the one I most want to say: there are lots of things in here. There are lots of ingredients. I’ve become slightly worried when one element is pulled out, and it’s said that the book is about one thing. It’s about all of the things—I’m not saying it’s not about that, but there are so many other things that it is equally about. So many that, in fact, you can’t mention them, which makes it very difficult for anyone who hasn’t read it who’s trying to decide whether to read it. One of the moments when that struck me the most is that little part where you’re talking about Simon, and the way that he would emotionally manipulate his way into getting more gingerbread. To me at least, I was like, this is such a perfect and wonderfully succinct description of addiction. But the books are always so layered that you just have this moment where it’s perfectly clear, and then it’s like, new thing. Yeah, so gingerbread is a way to talk about many things, and then, like, if someone says [gasps] you just say, “Oh, it’s just about gingerbread, I’m only talking about gingerbread.” In some way I feel like it’s a female way of telling stories, I feel like feminine stories have always been quite coded in that way, just in case anyone tries to, like, burn me at the stake or something, you can be like, “No, I was just talking about gingerbread.”  It’s just a recipe, it’s fine. Yeah. So, the codedness, I’m in two minds about the way that it persists into the 21st century. But I don’t think I did it because I was afraid. I think it’s converted into being more on the fun side. Can you talk a bit more about what you mean when you say you’re not sure how you feel about how it persists in the 21st century? Yeah, I mean, a way of writing or speaking elusively that, in some ways it’s about fear of being punished for what you have to say or what you think, that persisting, it makes me sad, and it’s maybe part of the reason why I don’t tweet or do things like that, just because I kind of see people having an opinion, and everyone being like [mimes a pile on]. It’s sad that it may still be necessary to use it for those original purposes, but I don’t think that that was what I was doing with Gingerbread. [laughs]  The book made me think a lot about how there’s always that close connection between things we wield as nourishment, and things we wield as weaponry. Was that something you were thinking about?   I don’t know if I can put it properly into words, but the power that you have over someone by feeding them, or not feeding them, as the case may be. But along with getting to eat and offering something to eat, I was also thinking about children earning their keep and not necessarily eating for free, because they have a role that they have to play, and I guess that line of thought turned into the strange interlude with the Gingerbread Girls and having to perform being children for money. It was the ways in which food can become currency. I give you food, you give me affection, and other forms of that same transaction. I was reading a Bookforum interview you did in 2016, and one of the things you talked about was the idea of being drawn to things that have a certain “faith in storytelling.” And you also used the description of something having “an engine of meaning.” I was wondering if there were any recent stories, whether they’re films or books, that fulfill that for you. One of my favourite films ever is Celine and Julie Go Boating. It has so much imaginative force that it becomes sort of madcap and misshapen around the edges, and the two characters start forgetting when they first met each other, and it’s as if they have always in fact known each other, since before before the story. A snake eating its own tail. But also, there’s this, not exactly a subplot, but counter-plot, where they themselves enter another story and try to hijack the meaning of that story. It’s that engagement that I recognize as a reader or a film watcher where you participate in a story but you’re not subject to its rules. Like being under a spell, but also casting one yourself at the same time, spell and counterspell. So, anything like that that just becomes very magic and reckless and starts pushing the frames of its own existence out further and further. Are there any stories that have been created recently that are starting to take on the significance that fairytales have had? That are starting to bleed into consciousness in that same way?   It might be more of a visual thing, even a televisual thing, than a written words thing. Maybe my obsession with Korean drama is part of this, because there’s a certain tone that they take, which I also recognize from the golden age of Hollywood, especially the screwball comedies and the film noir. I think those, fairytales and K-Drama have something in common. They’re stories that don’t really need you to believe them, they’re just saying. But the things that they’re just saying are resonant on all kinds of levels, like, you laugh, and you sort of wince, and you cry, you just have these responses to what seems like an elaborate, or a vocabulary of, it almost seems like psychology archetypes that they’ve arranged for you and circulated so that you see them in a completely new way. Do you miss some characters from the book more than others?   I miss Perdita. She’s in the story, but she’s like, “Oh well.” I feel like a lot of people become aware that they’re in stories and they’re like, “No, I want out of the story!” or they try to figure out how to game the story so that they can be the main character of the story. You’ve spoken before about how the Czech version of “Once upon a time” is “There was and there wasn’t.” That, to me, feels like a perfect way to talk about Druhástrana. This may be negated by what you said above about the influence of place, but I was wondering if Prague, where you currently live, had crept in in that way. I think it has, yeah. I have not tried to keep it out. Like you said, I will say that I’m someone who’s indifferent to place so I’m quite interested in the fact that there’s bits of Czech in there, and I don’t know what’s going to happen with future books. We’ll see. And there’s Druhástrana, which means “other side” but can also mean “other page” in Czech. And so of course, if you had this country that only Czechs know about, it would make sense for it to have a bookish aspect. Druhástrana as an unknown quantity, it’s a little bit like Czechia. I didn’t know anything about it before I moved there. Prague, it’s just so glorious and strange and wonderful, like, “you’ve been here all my life?” It was very strange. It felt hidden, like I said a magic word and there was Prague. Did you go there knowing you were going to move there? No, I went for a few days and hated it. It was not a good time to go. It was peak tourist season, the weather was terrible, the food was terrible. But I was with a friend that I love very much, and we would have phone conversations being like, “remember when we went to Prague and it was terrible?” And then a year later I just moved and it was completely different. Or I was completely different. You’ve talked a bit about watching K-Dramas while you were writing. Was there anything else that you were listening to, or reading while you were working on this that stands out? There was a lot of the Bill Evans Trio, a little bit of Coltrane as well. And then there was some K-Pop, there was some rap, there’s one song by Big Sean, which I can probably rap off by heart, but I won’t. In the book, Perdita’s grandmother, Margot, talks about houses that look sensible until you get inside, which made me think of your novel White is for Witching as well. I was wondering why you’re drawn to those spaces?  I don’t know that I’m drawn to them. I mean, part of the house thing was maybe a little bit of a joke, because everyone’s always saying to me, “You’re so interested in houses.” And I’m like, “Am I?” “Haunted houses especially!” and I’m like, “Am I?” [laughs] and so it was kind of fun to have these haunted houses that weren’t haunted.  Do you have a favourite haunted house story? No. Oh wait, can I go back in time? Obviously The Haunting of Hill House! The thing about The Haunting of Hill House is that because the house is positioned as sentient, you forget that it’s a haunted house story, so that’s why it slipped my mind. When you’re writing about the gingerbread recipe in the book, you write about the difference between “choking down risk and swallowing it gladly,” and I just thought that was such a lovely way to describe it. I was wondering what inspired that idea? Honestly, I just ate a lot of gingerbread. I just would eat it, and then write down what I thought whilst eating it. And so, it was just something that came to me. Because I guess I was like, what if this gingerbread was poisonous? Would I continue eating it? Probably.
There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This

Bob Fosse’s current revival makes sense, but the wave of appreciation will also be a reckoning: moral immunity has been rescinded for geniuses.

In 1974, Bob Fosse—the director-choreographer best known then for his smash Broadway musicals and his film Cabaret—set out to adapt a literary novel, Ending by Hilma Wolitzer, about a man dying quietly from cancer. Fosse’s style was associated with sequins and pelvic thrusts, deliberate excess that pleased immediately, while speaking to like-minded cynics through its undertones. By contrast, this project would be somber and austere: a drama about existential confrontation. Fosse went to great lengths to avoid that confrontation; susceptible to depression the moment he slowed down, he lived to die on his feet. He took amphetamines in the morning and afternoon; smoked more than five packs of Camels a day; slept around recklessly, sabotaging his most loving relationships; and took on more work than his system could handle. At the time, he was already editing a biopic about Lenny Bruce, and staging a musical, Chicago, to star his estranged wife, Gwen Verdon. Before Ending could get underway, he was hospitalized with severe chest pains and told he was about to have a heart attack.  When he emerged from the hospital a month later—after bypass surgery followed by another heart attack—the project took on a different significance. “The closer we got to shooting the more depressed I became,” he told the New York Times. “I thought, there must be some way of making death lighter, more interesting, and sharing it in terms I could handle. I didn’t know if I could live with that kind of pain for a year and a half.” He realized that his death movie would have to be a musical, and that the material had to be his own.  Fosse, along with Robert Alan Aurthur, whom he’d hired to write the script, began interviewing friends, family and colleagues, people who’d been around during Fosse’s health crisis. Partly for research, and partly because the project would fail if it didn’t include their perspective; he couldn’t redeem his character without their sympathy. Fosse had put his loved ones through a lot, particularly the women, and he wanted the film to be “honest”—at least in terms he could handle. Interviewees were instructed to be unsparing, although most knew him well enough to guess what he could stand to hear. “You list your crimes at the slightest provocation,” said his friend Herb Gardner, quoted by Martin Gottfried in his 1990 Fosse biography. “I think you do it to absolve yourself. You go on record with your sins. It’s the final play, the biggest con of all.” * One of Fosse’s greatest gifts was drawing the universal out of his own negativity: Cabaret, for instance, a show-business love story set against the rise of the Nazis, worked because it used every sensorial resource to establish a mood of dread and inevitability at the corners of pleasure. This mood was Fosse’s default, and he could extrapolate from it. His work was always personal, but All That Jazz was the first piece to make that self-involvement explicit. The film tells the story of Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), a womanizing director-choreographer who is staging a musical starring his estranged wife as he edits a film about a standup comedian. He takes uppers every morning, smokes in the shower, cheats on his girlfriend—played by Ann Reinking, Fosse’s former partner—with dancers in his employ, while insisting she remain faithful to him; he breaks promises to his daughter and receives glares from his ex (Leland Palmer). In quiet moments he retreats to a room in his mind, where he reflects on his many indiscretions to a beautiful Angel of Death (Jessica Lange). In the end, as he succumbs to a heart attack, he directs his own finale: a multipart spectacle replete with fan dancers, glowing-eyed mannequin heads, and an audience of everyone he’s ever known. All That Jazz was a great success. It won four out of its nine Oscar nominations, tied for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and grossed more than anyone expected at the box office. The reviews were ambivalent, but clear on the film’s importance: Critics fixated on Fosse’s narcissism, and noted the character’s chauvinism, but many were doubly impressed that he’d pulled off a premise so obnoxious. The film works because it’s not about Bob Fosse—it’s about death, remorse, and moral failure, grim but mundane emotional realities familiar to anyone, disturbing to everyone, and somehow rendered entertaining. The film’s great generosity was to make terrible feelings bearable, doing for dread what the musical comedy normally does for romance: blow it up like a fireworks display and give it movement. As Fosse told an interviewer, “I made All That Jazz because I thought it would be a good show.” It was hard to know what to do next. Not only had Fosse directed his own life and death—blown his load, thematically—he was feeling exposed: while he might have judged himself relentlessly, in publicizing his flaws he’d invited outside moral scrutiny. The film had set up a self-reckoning he wasn’t prepared to complete: He’d made a public admission of his failures while, in staging his own execution, declining the possibility of atoning for them. Fosse toyed with various projects, but nothing really stuck until his best friend, Paddy Chayefsky, passed along a true crime feature from the Village Voice. It was an awful, brutal story, much grislier than anything Fosse had adapted in the past. But it resonated with him immediately. “Death of a Playmate,” by Teresa Carpenter, told the story of 20-year-old Dorothy Stratten, who’d been “discovered” at a Vancouver Dairy Queen by a former pimp and self-described talent manager named Paul Snider. He romanced her, convinced her to pose nude, and sent the pictures to Playboy; then he followed her to Los Angeles to cash in on her sudden success. Snider’s desperate, controlling manner alienated the Playboy crowd, and created a huge strain on Dorothy, who agreed to marry him out of a sense of obligation. She began an affair with the director Peter Bogdanovich, who had cast her in his film They All Laughed, and Snider hired a private detective to follow them around. When Dorothy came by Snider's apartment on August 14, 1980, to discuss the financials of their separation, he violently raped her, shot her in the face, desecrated her corpse, then shot himself. To adapt the story at all was ethically suspect. But it contained all the themes Fosse had wrestled with his entire career—sex, show business, failure, death—and harked back to the personal trauma that had spawned them to begin with. While All That Jazz had swapped out the worst for a decoy, the events of Stratten’s murder were too recent for aesthetic distance; adapting them would require the kind of painful, exacting honesty he’d been avoiding. Each character in the narrative spoke to some part of his own psyche and personal history, and together they formed a case study in the pathologies of attention, exploitation, and male entitlement. But Fosse, raw and defensive, saw himself in Paul Snider; and set out, disastrously, to tell his story. * At another stage of his life, Fosse might have identified most with Stratten, with whom he shared certain formative experiences. She was only 17 when she met Snider, and her dreams were adapted to her circumstances: raised by a single mother who cleaned houses for a living and later studied nursing at night, she was used to helping out with family finances, and figured she’d go to work as a secretary after graduating high school. Her experiences with men were limited, and painful: her father had left the family when she was four; her only boyfriend had been emotionally abusive, and she’d never enjoyed sleeping with him. “I dreaded the end of the night when I had to give myself up to him,” she said in her private writings, excerpted by Bogdanovich in The Killing of the Unicorn, which he wrote in the aftermath of her murder. “It was sort of like a game I kept losing and that was how I lost.” Snider was sweet at first, Carpenter writes, and his life was much flashier than anything she was used to. He drove her around in his Corvette, bought her jewelry, took her to prom, and made her feel beautiful. With his prodding, she took naturally to the camera, and handled herself with poise at the Playboy Mansion, although nothing in her life had prepared her for glamor, or condescension, at such scale. She was lavished with attention she’d never dreamed she might command, while expected to perform for strangers who treated her like a dish at a free buffet. Fosse’s own sensibilities were forged under similar circumstances. Born in Chicago in 1927, Fosse was the youngest son of six kids in a middle-class Methodist family. His father sold insurance, and later worked on the road as a salesman for Hershey. They lived modestly and weathered the Depression relatively well. Bob had an early knack for performance, though he became a dancer almost by accident: his mother had asked him to accompany his sister to dance class; she was too shy to participate, so he took her place. The school, stationed in a former apartment above a drugstore, was a show business academy, meant to teach kids the art of entertaining and groom the most promising ones for professional management. The school’s overseer, a mustachioed vaudeville enthusiast named Frederic Weaver, paired Fosse with a boy named Charles Grass, and booked them for gigs around Chicago and on the road. The duo took what they could get—and what they got, often, were slots in down-and-out burlesque clubs, where the two barely teenage boys were tasked with dancing for drunken patrons between strip acts. In their downtime they’d finish their homework backstage or in Charles’s mom’s car. Fosse’s life until then had been sheltered: he’d been a religious kid, and this new nighttime existence instilled excitement, terror, and shame. “I can romanticize it, but it was an awful life,” he told the San Francisco Examiner in 1979. “I was very lonely, very scared. You know, hotel rooms in strange towns, and I was all alone, thirteen or fourteen, too shy to talk to anyone, not really knowing what it was all about, and among—not the best people.”  Fosse received a lot of attention from the dancers. They rubbed up against him and may have coerced him into acts he wasn’t ready for; they also humiliated him, waiting until he was about to go onstage and then fondling him to give him an erection. The adults he trusted weren’t concerned: His mother, who doted on him, figured he just wouldn’t look at the naked ladies. Weaver, a mentor, had booked the gigs in the first place. Fosse was making money. In high school, Fosse was a star student, and popular—athlete, Latin club and prom committee member, senior class president. “I could go back to school and tell the guys stories that were at least 75 percent true,” he told Rolling Stone. “It gave me an edge. I had mixed feelings about it, though. I was very excited, but I wasn’t ready for sex.” He didn’t tell anyone what he got up to at night and struggled internally with the shame. “I think it’s done me a lot of harm, being exposed to things that early that I shouldn’t have been exposed to… It left some scar that I have not quite been able to figure out,” he told the Examiner. “He coded it as an early sexual initiation,” Sam Wasson said in a Vanity Fair interview about his 2013 Fosse biography, on which the FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon is based, “so it hasn’t really been spoken of as abuse until this book.” The strip clubs were where Fosse learned to give pleasure, both intimately and publicly, and where the two would fuse; also, where pleasure connected with dread. As a choreographer he would adapt much of his physical vocabulary from burlesque, but the sex in his work is striking less for its erotic power than its grotesqueness—his dancers seem menacing, disassociated; they telegraph glee, but not pleasure. Cognitive dissonance would become the de facto mood of his work, down to the grain of his gestures. (“Every movement is against itself,” one dancer, quoted by Gottfried, said of a seemingly breezy dance in the musical Pippin. “Your body is moving one way, and you’re pulling it the other way… the audience will feel it, this tension working against this appearance of great ease, and that will draw them in.”) The people he met in those strip clubs would become, in Wasson’s words, his “dramatis personae,” and his characters were often drawn from his self-image as it formed within that environment: sweet people stuck in demoralizing situations, longing for some version of wholesomeness they feel life has barred them from, an archetype neither male nor female. Sally Bowles, of Cabaret, performs in a cheap nightclub, but dreams of stardom and flirts with domesticity. Lenny Bruce and his wife, Honey Harlow, meet on the nightclub circuit, where he does standup and she dances; they fall in love, start a family, and self-immolate together. Like Stratten, and at least half his audience, Fosse knew what it felt like to understand sex as a cruel joke at one’s own expense. But his foundational pain had long twisted away from the root, and taking her experience seriously would have required a self-interrogation that he was not, or was no longer, prepared to do. * Fosse had less in common with Snider, whose attitude toward sex was much less complicated, and who measured prestige in cash, though, as Carpenter writes, he wasn’t particularly good at making it. He made an income organizing automotive shows and sometimes wet t-shirt contests, but his hustles fell short of making him rich, and he was once hung by his ankles off a hotel balcony by loan sharks to whom he was in debt. Like Fosse, he was consumed by ambitions so intense that their frustration felt like suffering, but Fosse’s frustrations were largely illusory, as real as they felt. Success had come relatively easy to Fosse, an overachiever by nature; he landed his second audition after moving to New York in 1946, and by the late 1970s exercised near total control on his sets, receiving more leeway than most directors could expect. He also commandeered troops of young women, whose bodies were his material. But early experiences with doubting producers and Hollywood casting directors had given him a chip on his shoulder, and he liked to think of himself as an underdog. Fosse kept a low overhead on his ego. In some ways this was a style—he wore basic black, kept his number listed in the phone book, and took his lunches at the Carnegie Deli—and in some ways an ethos; he was known for his helpfulness and compassion toward the hopefuls who auditioned for his shows. Work coming above all, it was a motivator: Success depressed him nearly as much as failure—it promised more failure ahead, and unsettled his self-image—and he did his best when he imagined himself up against a goliath. (When Cabaret won big at the Oscars, the same year he won Emmys and Tonys for Liza with a Z and Pippin, he fell into a serious depression and briefly checked himself into a mental health facility.) In all, it was a bulwark against guilt. As long as Fosse felt persecuted, he could ignore the ways he abused his own power. Snider was a pathetic character—a true failure, professionally and morally. In him, Fosse saw his own malignant emotions manifest, decades’ worth of bitterness and resentment that festered without a material corollary. What they actually had in common was less sympathetic, but Fosse was looking to show that Snider’s pain—and his own—had a basis. “I somehow identified with him because he was trying to get in,” Fosse told Rolling Stone. “It’s not that I’ve been excluded that much, but I know that sense of them all knowing something I don’t know. And that makes me very angry. I’d like to be offered all of Hollywood’s perks, just so I could refuse them.” Ignoring the obvious—the fact that Snider used and manipulated women for his own gain, and turned violent when his claim to other people was frustrated—Fosse attributed Snider’s crime to rejection by the Hollywood elite, which aligned better with his own self-mythology. “If they would have accepted him into that group,” Gottfried quotes him, “then the tragedy would not have happened.” The only way to justify this approach was to diminish Dorothy to a variable—to think of her, as Paul did, as a means to an end. * Fosse, in earlier years, had shown a rare empathy with women; this affinity, in fact, gave rise to his gifts as choreographer and director. He could relate to his dancers and actresses; he could also render their experiences with care and attention. Fosse’s first self-conceived Broadway show, Sweet Charity, had transposed Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria—about a woman who works as a prostitute in Rome, hopes for true love, but who is defrauded by the men in whom she trusts—to a Times Square dance hall. The protagonist is drawn with real identification, as well as real cynicism: It’s not her line of work, dancing with men by the song, that sources the pathos—Fosse, refreshingly, mostly avoided “fallen women” tropes—but the fact that she’s stuck in a dead-end gig she hates, with no prospects. She was partly inspired, as Fosse biographer Kevin Winkler notes, by the female dancers Fosse worked with, who made great physical and emotional sacrifices for their craft, only to see their opportunities steeply limited with age. From his earliest years as a performer, women were Fosse’s mentors, closest collaborators, eminences grise, and fodder for his vision. As a capability and a resource, his empathy was double-edged: It made his work powerful and humane, and allowed him to direct star-making performances by talents such as Liza Minnelli; but, like Snider, he learned very early how to use it to his advantage. The women who did the most for Bob Fosse were, as with Snider, the ones to whom he was married. He met his first wife, Marion (later Mary Ann, or Mary-Ann) Niles, on his first show, a revue called Call Me Mister. She was a little older—24 to his 20 at the time they got hitched—and a beautiful tap dancer, who had performed in more exclusive venues than he had; they formed a duo, and started gigging around the US and Canada. Eventually they landed jobs on a revue called Dance Me a Song, starring Joan McCracken, a comedic actress beloved by Broadway audiences and producers alike. Fosse fell for her, and, in Wasson’s words, “snapped Mary-Ann from his life like training wheels.” “Joan was the biggest influence in my life,” Fosse would tell American Film magazine in 1979. “She was the one who changed it and gave it direction.” McCracken, who was ten years his senior, was worldly, bohemian and eccentric—she read widely, painted, and attended parties with people like Truman Capote, the partner of her ex-husband, Jack Dunphy. She wrote stories and essays—including a 1946 essay for Dance Magazine in which she proposed new methods of capturing movement in cinema—and shared her inner riches with her younger boyfriend. McCracken told him he was too good to be dancing in nightclubs, and encouraged him to study movement, acting and music, as well as to undergo psychoanalysis. She also pushed him to try his hand at choreography. [[{"fid":"6705071","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Fosse was reluctant at first. He’d signed a contract with MGM in 1951, and though he wasn’t getting much work in the movies, he still dreamed of being a performer. But McCracken lobbied on his behalf to the Broadway powerhouse George Abbott who, at her insistence, hired him to choreograph an adaptation of the Book-of-the-Month Club novel 7 ½ Cents. Abbott was skeptical of hiring someone so inexperienced, but the musical, retitled The Pajama Game, would go on to win Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Performance by a Featured Actress, and—for 27-year-old Fosse—Best Choreography. Abbott quickly offered him another job: another book adaptation, to be titled Damn Yankees, featuring the rising star Gwen Verdon, who had recently won a Tony for her show-stopping performance in Cole Porter’s Can-Can. The two were nervous to work together; at their first meeting, they smoked in tandem as he showed her the dance that would become one of her signatures: “Whatever Lola Wants.” By day’s end they had melted each other’s reserve. “She was hot when I met her,” Fosse told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. “That alabaster skin, those eyes, that bantam-rooster walk. Her in the leotard I will never forget.” They quickly began an affair, which was no secret on the set of Damn Yankees, or to Joan McCracken. It would mark the beginning of a great romance and a career-making collaboration; also the start of a lifelong cycle of betrayal and self-recrimination that would source the worst of Fosse’s anguish, and power some of his best work. *  Having optioned Carpenter’s article with his own money, Fosse sought a backer for his new project, which would be called Star 80, after the vanity license plate Snider obtained for the Mercedes he bought following Stratten’s success. Dan Melnick, who’d produced All That Jazz, declined—he found the material too depressing—but Fosse found a patron in Alan Ladd Jr., who offered him, as Winkler writes in his 2018 biography, “the biggest salary of his career,” along with minimal oversight. Ironically, the biggest pushback on Star 80 would come from the bereaved.  Fosse set about writing the script himself, a goal he’d been working toward, Wasson notes, since the start of his career. This project, he hoped, would be totally his own. There was the matter of Stratten’s loved ones, of course—the people to whom this had happened—who weren’t happy with the film, and expressed these concerns through their lawyers. In a 1982 memo to his attorney, retrieved by Winkler, Bogdanovich decried Fosse’s flat characterization of Stratten and called Fosse’s script “an apologia for a murderer.” (In a recent New York magazine interview, Bogdanovich remembers calling Fosse directly to ask why he was making the film in the first place: “He said, ‘Well, we think it’s a good story.’”) Fosse wanted Star 80 to look and feel as “real” as possible. He had always been attentive to detail: On Cabaret, Wasson reports, he spent weeks “auditioning” shades of red for a scene in which blood is shown on pavement; for Lenny, Wasson writes elsewhere, he hired real servers to act as extras in bar scenes, because they knew the right way to place a glass down on a table. Charity Hope Valentine’s physicality, notes Winkler, was “suggested to [Verdon and Fosse] by the women behind the make-up counter at Bloomingdale’s, whose feet burned from standing all day. To relieve the pressure, they cocked the hip of one leg while sharply flexing the heel of the other, pushing down into the floor.” These touches deepened the work, creating its mood subliminally.  Fosse retraced Carpenter’s research, poring over police reports and interviewing people who’d known and worked with the couple. He sent Wolfgang Glattes, his first assistant director, out to Vancouver ahead of him to scout locations from Stratten’s life. Glattes found the Dairy Queen where she'd worked; they’d secure a permit to shoot there. Dorothy’s mother’s house was off-limits, so Glattes, according to Gottfried, drove up and down the street in order to recreate the setting at a nearby location. Back in Los Angeles, at Fosse’s request, he snuck around the house where Dorothy had really been murdered. “You could still see the bullet holes in the walls,” Glattes told Fosse biographer Kevin Boyd Grubb. “That blood was still on the ceiling; someone had tried to paint over it, but it came through.” He told Wasson that Fosse insisted on using Snider's actual carpet. Glattes argued that blood wouldn’t show up on brown, but this didn’t dissuade the director. It wasn’t clear what this commitment to “accuracy” was meant to arouse in an audience. It might have fostered an uncanniness that feels appropriately sickening, but it seems in retrospect more like a failure of abstract thinking. The ultra-literal, materialist approach did little to establish verisimilitude; instead, it seemed to preclude broader moral and contextual considerations that might have doubled back on the project. (No one watching the film would have known the carpet’s provenance but thinking through what sort of carpet a person like Snider would own might have yielded a more evocative detail.) It was also unnecessarily invasive, with the effect of reducing the lives of his subjects to a set of artifacts—as if by collecting details, Fosse could reassemble the events himself, without thinking too hard about how it had felt to live them.  *  As Fosse’s affair with Verdon quickened, McCracken’s health began to decline. In the past she’d been relatively tolerant of Fosse’s extramarital flings, but this one, she could tell, was serious. Her heart was already strained by diabetes, but “the problems with Fosse added immeasurably to her distress,” her doctor told her biographer, Lisa Jo Sagolla. “She grew seriously depressed.” In spring of 1955, McCracken received an offer to perform the leading role in a touring production of Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, but on the road, the physical demands grew beyond her management. She quit the tour, and, back in New York, had a heart attack, followed by a likely second, followed by a bout of pneumonia.  Fosse, newly in love with Verdon, didn’t come around much to visit her in the hospital. Instead, Wasson writes, he saw his psychiatrist up to five times a week, to wring out his guilt for abandoning her. When he did visit McCracken, he arrived “only at odd hours,” and pitied himself for his own negligence, shifting the burden of his remorse to her—McCracken might have forgiven him, but he wouldn’t let it go. Upon her release, she was told that, for health reasons, her dancing career was over. Verdon had already made the cover of Time magazine for her role as Lola in Damn Yankees. [[{"fid":"6705076","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] For months and years afterward, Fosse would call up McCracken when he needed someone to talk to, often in the middle of the night, Sagolla writes; at least once, he trailed her in the shadows down the street. The night of April 2, 1960, he called to ask if she’d ever consider getting back together; long since moved on, she told him no. The next day, he quietly married Verdon. In 1961, McCracken died suddenly of a heart attack, at the age of 43. Fosse couldn’t bring himself to attend her funeral. Instead, he stood and watched from across West 72nd Street. “Do you know what the only thing Bob can retain is? Sorrow,” Verdon would tell American Film magazine. “He can have half a million in the bank, all the Tonys, Oscars, and Emmys one human being can amass in a lifetime, and all he lives with is the fact that Joan McCracken died so young on him.” Fosse never earned the right to forgive himself; even if the damage was never again so monumental, he would repeat the pattern. * Fosse had liked Melanie Griffith for the part of Dorothy—“she understands girl,” he wrote in his notes, cited by Winkler—but Mariel Hemingway, who shared an agent with Fosse, was dead set on the part. In recent years she’d received an Oscar nomination for her role as Woody Allen’s teenage girlfriend in Manhattan, and she’d starred as an aspiring Olympic track runner in Robert Towne’s Personal Best. Fosse thought she might be too boyish for the part, but Hemingway was persistent. “Dorothy was a classic victim,” he told her at a meeting. “She let Paul control her, right up until the end. I don’t see you that way.” Hemingway, recalling this in her memoir Out Came the Sun, explained that while she’d never had a Snider in her life, she knew about the pressure to be agreeable and put her needs aside in order to please other people. “One other thing,” Fosse added. “You’re not a voluptuous person.” Hemingway had been considering breast implants for a while, she writes. Fosse’s assistant gave her the name of a cosmetic surgeon, and after the procedure, she got the part. Casting for Snider was a more involved process. Sam Shepard and Mandy Patinkin read for the role. Fosse pursued Robert De Niro, to no avail. Richard Gere, who’d recently starred in American Gigolo, was the frontrunner; but Eric Roberts, though a less established name, had, in Wasson’s words, “a star’s good looks and charm but a character actor’s fearlessness.” After six grueling auditions, he convinced Fosse of his talent and versatility, as well as his willingness to be a good acolyte. Like Roy Scheider, who trailed Fosse for weeks in order to inhabit his mindset and mannerisms, Roberts was to play a version of Fosse. Fosse closely managed Hemingway’s character research. “He gave me everything,” she told Wasson. “He’d give me tapes to watch, he’d talk about being damaged goods, he taught me how to walk in high heels. He put on my high heels and showed me. Once he said, ‘You’re so innocent and all-American but you’re not. You come from this sick family.’” Conversely, Wasson notes, he encouraged Roberts to take a more experiential approach. “I got a real sense of what it was like to be an outcast,” Roberts told Kevin Boyd Grubb. “I started dressing like Paul, talking like him, thinking like him. I hung out in the same nightclubs he did, and got to know these so-called real people who went there. They gave me a horrible time, made me feel like shit. I’d bring my little reports back to Fosse. He’d wallow in them.” Amid all this, Roberts and Fosse took time to bond—road-tripping together to Vancouver, touring strip clubs in LA. “Even though he cut himself off from being paternal with me,” the actor told Gottfried, “he reminded me of my dad.” * Verdon and Fosse, despite the origins of their relationship, would be canonized as a pair. Theirs was not a muse-visionary relationship, but a symbiotic one: Verdon animated Fosse’s ideas, and Fosse built showcases for Verdon’s particular talents. He developed Sweet Charity with her, partly as a “gift” to welcome her back to Broadway after the birth of their daughter, Nicole Providence, the apple of his eye—“there was this point of great happiness,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “and I wanted to give Gwen something wonderful. I wanted to give her the best show she ever had.” Years later he would develop Chicago partly to give her one last star turn before she retired, and out of guilt for what he’d put her through. Verdon would also serve indispensably behind the scenes. When Shirley MacLaine was picked to star in the film adaptation of Charity, she selflessly flew to LA to help train her replacement. She accompanied Fosse to Germany for Cabaret, working for free on whatever task needed filling. When the German costume crew proved worse than unhelpful (given the instruction, “before the war,” they replied, according to Minnelli, “What war?”), she thrifted some of Liza’s most iconic ensembles. She even flew back to New York to pick out just the right gorilla suit for “If You Could See Her.” Shortly after her return, Wasson reports, she walked in on her husband—who was already involved with a translator on set—with a “couple of German girls,” and walked out. Verdon would never fully leave Fosse. A few years later, when he was in hospital for heart surgery, she’d play den mother to his much-younger girlfriends. She’d serve as his dance assistant long after she had retired from performing, and, along with Ann Reinking, Fosse’s next great love, work to preserve his choreographic legacy after he died. She put up with him because she loved him, and because she had to—his work was hers, too; and while she embodied and co-developed his vision, and at one time received the applause, he was the author and executor. Since he had no intention of changing his behavior, Verdon accepted the unfair conditions, and by necessity demonstrated the emotional discipline he lacked. Fosse wouldn’t change, but he would feel guilty; that guilt would provide thematic kindling. In All That Jazz, Gideon’s ex-wife, rehearsing for their show together, listens as he whines about his creative frustrations. “You want to quit the show? Quit the show,” she says. “You don’t have to do anything for me. But just don’t kid yourself that you’re doing the show for any other reason except guilt about me.” Chicago’s premise—two murderous showgirls attempt to game the justice system by turning their trials into media spectacle—was a transposition of Fosse’s MO, and foreshadowed what All That Jazz would do in earnest: convert his moral failings into theater. As Fosse accrued more psychic weight, and more power, his girlfriends got younger and younger—from peers and mentors to girls in their early 20s, without established careers of their own. “I like to take these young girls and mold them,” he told American Film. “I guess it’s a Pygmalion complex.” Younger women were easier to take lightly, and to discard. Wasson relays an anecdote: sitting in a van scouting locations for Star 80, the film’s director of photography, Sven Nykvist, asked the director why he preferred girls so green. “Their stories are shorter,” he replied.  * Just before Star 80’s rehearsals started, Fosse met with Hemingway in the bar of her hotel for a drink. After a while he suggested they head up to her suite for a nightcap. “The elevator let us off at my floor. I let us into my room,” she wrote, “And then, for the next fifteen minutes, I ran rings around the couch while Bob Fosse chased me for the purposes of sex.” She told him she had a boyfriend—Robert Towne, her previous director—but this only prompted a barrage of insults about his work. Finally, she told him she wasn’t interested, which seemed to catch him off guard. “I have never not fucked my leading lady,” he said. “No, wait. Once,” meaning Shirley MacLaine, “and it was a disaster.” Hemingway replied, “Meet the first.” On Star 80, Fosse was setting up a work dynamic to recreate the powerlessness that Stratten—and, long ago, Fosse himself—had experienced in her personal and professional life. His directorial style had, in the past, verged on callous—or instance when, Wasson reports, he’d told the teenage boy playing his teenage self in All That Jazz that it would be “great if you could really get hard” for the scene where strippers molest him before a performance. But with Hemingway handed such a limited emotional palate—the character was, as he’d said, merely a “classic victim”—his demands on her seemed specifically intended to draw out her pain and vulnerability. “Bob wasn’t just a taskmaster when it came to physical aspects of the film,” Hemingway wrote. “He was an emotional tyrant, too. There were days when he was kind and supportive, and other days when he would look at me icily and say, ‘You’re such a manipulative little cunt.’ He was provoking me, not entirely seriously, but he was also feeding into what he felt the film needed.” During a difficult sex scene, Fosse told Roberts to remove the dance belt covering his genitals, claiming the camera was catching the outline. Roberts was embarrassed—“I didn’t understand why he couldn’t just rearrange the sheets or something so that you couldn’t see the goddamn belt underneath,” he told Grubb—but he complied. Roberts had been a “dream” during rehearsals, Hemingway wrote, but once shooting began, and he settled deeper into the character, he became a “a monster. He wouldn’t look at me until cameras started, or he would stomp down on my toes before a close-up,” she wrote. “He even spit in my face once, and I let it happen because I knew that his character was all about freakish possessiveness and moments of petulance.” Fosse meant to reprimand him, but decided against it. “I realized what he was doing,” he said in an interview, cited by Wasson. “He was trying to feel what it’s like to say the wrong things and have people reject you and what that does to you and how it sours you.” During one scene, after Roberts flubbed a line once too often, Fosse summoned him behind the camera. “Look at me,” he said in Gottfried's account. “Look at me! If I weren’t successfu;—look at me—that’s Paul Snider… now show me me.” * Fosse had always been sexually compulsive, never bothering much to respect professional boundaries—Debbie Reynolds recalled being poked in the back by his erection on set at MGM—and he got away with it, mostly, because most men did. “You can assume he’s going to try to make you,” an anonymous dancer told a reporter for People in 1980. “He tries with every girl and gets a fair percentage. He’s so casual. He doesn’t give you much respect.” Another dancer added, “He’s not easily discouraged. If you tell him you’re engaged, he keeps asking if the wedding hasn’t been called off.” Fosse would claim that this was integral to his creative process. “I have to know we’re in perfect sync,” he told an acquaintance, interviewed by Wasson, “and she has to know exactly where I’m coming from.” By Wasson’s account, Fosse comes across as something of a sexual dynamo, whose talent for giving pleasure, and pain, was holistic and productive. “Sex was a medium for Fosse,” he writes. “It was as much a physical act as it was an opportunity to learn about and merge with his female collaborators, a way of giving to them so they could give back more and better—that is, if they didn’t break under the pressure or retreat in anger.” Wasson glosses over a story that Fosse’s previous biographer, Martin Gottfried, reports in considerably more detail. Jennifer Nairn-Smith, a Balanchine-trained ballerina, first danced for Fosse in Pippin, and had to kick him in the groin when he first advanced on her after a friendly outing. During rehearsals he bullied her to the point of tears, all the while calling her regularly to harass her for sex. “It made me so nervous,” she told Gottfried. “I’m a ballet dancer, and you do what a choreographer says. You could drag me around the floor. I had no self-esteem.” (Balanchine was known for his own line-crossing and abuse of power.) Finally, Fosse wore her down. [[{"fid":"6705081","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] Nairn-Smith continued to see Fosse while he started his relationship with Ann Reinking, but left eventually, Gottfried reports, with a note on the mirror in lipstick: “To whom it may concern/A threeway to nowhere/I’m out!” Fosse called her the next day and “was so abusive that years later she was still suppressing the memory of his rage and unwilling even to repeat what he had said.  Nairn-Smith would inspire two different characters in All That Jazz: a dippy, not especially talented dancer who gladly hops into bed with Gideon after her audition and receives some tough love from him during rehearsals; and an ex-girlfriend in a flashback sequence who abandons their menage-a-trois on a much treaclier note: “I’m sorry. I cannot share you anymore. I want you all to myself, or not at all.” Nairn-Smith appears in the film as a dancer, observing her representation from the sidelines. Fosse was beloved, if conflictedly, by many of the performers who worked with him; he cared about their careers and appreciated their talents, and he had the personal and structural power to compel forgiveness when he hurt them. In turn, this allowed him to think of himself as forgivable, and removed the pressure to reform. When his guilt mounted a depression, he had plenty of sympathetic women to call in the middle of the night for consolation. Even his first wife, Mary Ann Niles, received his cries for support—“though reluctant,” Lisa Jo Sagolla writes, “she always invited him in.”   Joe Gideon is shown as a womanizer, not a rake—a powerful and attractive man who simply takes what’s offered. His self-awareness is proposed as a saving grace. (“Oh fuck him, he never picks me,” one dancer says after an audition. “Honey, I did fuck him, and he never picks me either,” another replies. This plays as a roundabout testament to the character’s integrity.) Gideon’s take on his own odiousness feels like deliberate overstatement, a public relations trick—the character was a cad; he did things that 1970s-era critics might have called misogynistic; but he never went over the lip of what was allowed to men like him. * As production on Star 80 wore on, dread mounted on set. One day, Fosse received a letter from Dorothy’s younger sister, Louise, “handwritten in her tenth-grade cursive,” Wasson writes, “telling him he didn’t know the truth, that he was hurting her and her family.” Fosse “professed to be overcome with guilt. He did not want to hurt her. He did not want to hurt anyone.” The moral questions Fosse had avoided during pre-production were barging forth in flashes of doubting panic—doubting panic was normal, but this time it had a basis. The project was collapsing the neurotic cycle that sourced his best work: Fosse would behave badly, reflect on himself, and reproduce the churnings of his conscience. Star 80 was the violation itself, and these moments of clarity might have felt like waking during surgery. Fosse performed his remorse in strange and maudlin ways, Wasson continues—muttering to the actor Cliff Robertson, playing Hefner, about the necessity of saving Dorothy Stratten from her inevitable fate; placing bouquets of roses on the craft services table, with a note addressed “To Dorothy.” Nevertheless, the production ran unabated toward the inevitable murder scene. Fosse had secured a permit to film it in the room where Snider had really raped, tortured and murdered Stratten fewer than two years earlier.  Fosse had choreographed every last movement “like a dance,” Wasson reports, which he directed in soft, appeasing tones to Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. In the film, Stratten’s murder is appropriately horrible to watch, with no shock or thrill attached, nothing to stoke adrenaline—the feeling it most evokes is nausea. This seems almost respectful, until one considers the more unsettling question: if not for reasons of smut, or pathos—if not to make a point, or provoke a bodily response—why film it at all? Fosse may have grappled with, or suppressed, this question as he sat with editor Alan Heim in post-production, reviewing all the rage and gore and misery he had coerced and captured over the past four months. All the ethical quandaries he had blocked out or deferred during the film’s development might have surged up in the moment of its climax; he may have been penitent and uneasy, as he better understood what he’d done, and the reaction it would invite. But the impact of these doubts was negligible. Before the film’s premiere, he leaked photographs of Hemingway in character as Dorothy to Playboy, for their “Sex in Cinema” issue, without her consent. It was a strange decision—there’s little eroticism in the film itself; Hemingway’s sexuality is viscerally awkward and ill-fitting, just as Fosse intended it to be. The stunt might have been purely promotional, or a favor to Hefner, who had let him use Playboy’s logo in the film. But whatever his rationale, Fosse’s decision to exploit Hemingway was in keeping with his appraisal of her character’s autonomy, her status as a cipher in the story of her own death. Ultimately, he did it because he could. “I may have complained to my agent or cried to my friends,” Hemingway wrote. “I may have felt private rage and public shame. But in the end, after I ground my teeth, after I cursed out Bob Fosse’s name in my head, after I worried and wondered how it would all affect my career, I realized there was nothing I could do, and I just let it happen.” *  Early screenings of Star 80 provoked uncomfortable reactions. At one showing, Alan Heim recalled to Gottfried, as the film neared the murder scene an entire row walked out in a huddle. At a screening for cast and crew and friends, the room was bloated with unease; Roberts’s performance was the only thing anyone felt comfortable praising. If All That Jazz had invited moral in addition to aesthetic judgment, Star 80 demanded it. There was no way to look at the film without some disturbing question as to its maker’s intentions; the reviews weren’t all bad, but the negative ones were damning. David Denby called the film “a small pool of dark, ill-smelling bile.” Andrew Sarris, arriving late to the film class he taught at Columbia after a screening, called it “the most disgusting, misogynistic movie I think I’ve ever seen,” a former student remembered in the Village Voice, and said he thought he was going to be sick; his review called it “the biggest treat for women-haters this side of the underground circuit.” Pauline Kael, who had praised Cabaret as one of the most significant movie musicals ever made, wrote a more tempered and perhaps devastating response: “Fosse must believe that he can make art out of anything.”  The film was garish and profane, they wrote, empty glitz; it failed to develop its protagonists, parading them out as tropes from the start; it dehumanized Dorothy Stratten and made a spectacle of her death for no reason. “Three days after it had opened,” Glattes told Gottfried, “Bob knew it for a flop.”  “Bob Fosse’s movie is all rhythm without notes—fancy footwork and weak surmise, based on insufficient research and knowledge, along with a built-in early decision to create an apologia for the killer,” Bogdanovich wrote in The Killing of the Unicorn, published the following year. The book is a difficult read, not only for its content but because of the eerie, idealizing tone Bogdanovich, then in his mid-40s, takes toward his deceased 20-year-old girlfriend, and the level of intimate detail he divulges about her and their private life. (He’d go on to marry Dorothy’s younger sister, Louise, the year she turned 20.) Nevertheless, it’s the only document of Stratten’s life from the time that does much to establish her personhood. From Bogdanovich’s rendering, one gets the impression of a kind and thoughtful person, whose politeness, though it scanned as pliability, was a way of looking after herself. Despite the book’s sanctimoniousness it devotes an appropriate amount of time and consideration to Star 80’s most obvious omission: the dehumanization of women, a line from Snider through Playboy’s working culture to the director who adapted it. “The film’s showy mediocrity and repressed misogyny define none of us as much as it does its director and his Playboy collaborators,” Bogdanovich writes. More than the violence, it’s Stratten’s absence that makes the film most unnerving: the character’s underdevelopment and absolute passivity, against all the scrupulous attention to the raw materials of her life. Fosse told Kevin Kelly of the Boston Globe that he’d conceived Star 80 “as a neon conceit ‘for all the terrible mental confusion that rejection can stimulate.’” The film does get at a jarring emotional reality: the illusory, abject and violent states one can be submerged by when the ego is frustrated; how painful and debasing and ruinous they can be, to the individual as well as their targets. Fosse, having lived out both sides of harm, and shown a rare capacity to sit in his own shame, was uniquely qualified to direct that film. But Star 80, unlike the best of his work, was not an attempt to stage his own cognitive dissonance—the tension between his feelings and his beliefs, or his behavior and his conscience—but, instead, to resolve it, by doubling down on the worst in himself, by nullifying his targets. The film did exactly what he meant it to, though not in the way he’d hoped. *  All That Jazz and Star 80 are outcomes of the same creative process; they represent Fosse at his best and his worst. Looked at now, All That Jazz might seem like an egregious example of an obsolete genre: a nasty protagonist reflecting with self-deprecation on the harm he has done. But what sets it apart is the fact that it tries not to exclude any portion of its audience. A film like Woody Allen’s Manhattan adopts its protagonist’s worldview; to sympathize with Isaac, you have to suspend your empathy for Tracy. Joe Gideon’s humanity is arbitrated by the women around him, and you don’t have to like him to enjoy his death. The film works relentlessly to earn your attention, and it demonstrates Fosse’s grudging commitment to never entirely forgiving himself. Gideon’s original sin, in Fosse’s conception, is allowing show business to completely consume his personal responsibilities, such that even death is a show. This is also his redemption: he turns his mistakes into a brilliant spectacle. And the film works, against the odds, because it is. Part of Fosse’s genius was the seeming paradoxicality of his talents: both a showman and a neurotic, he married Broadway imperatives—attentiveness to an audience that must be entertained—to art-house themes, and the basic pains of living. Neurosis is stasis, a knowing that makes no difference; through some miracle of vision and technique, Fosse was able to give it motion. This required him to subjugate his worst impulses: to give pleasure without denying the worst, he needed to understand himself in relation to other people. Star 80’s creative failures were moral ones: the film represents the only instance in which Fosse served himself ahead of his audience. It was the vanity project All That Jazz never was, and the last film he would ever make. Fosse received other film offers but declined them. It seemed as though cinema had moved on to sex comedies and action flicks, while Broadway had moved on to blockbuster musicals less focused on dance than big voices and pyrotechnics; his final Broadway show, 1986’s Big Deal, closed after two months. Fosse contented himself by helping other people on their projects, and retreated to his house in Quogue, where he took up birdwatching, and began a serious relationship with a gentle 23-year-old named Phoebe Ungerer. In 1986, along with Gwen Verdon, he oversaw a successful Broadway revival of Sweet Charity starring Debbie Allen; he and Verdon accompanied the show on its national tour the following year. On September 23, in Washington D.C., Fosse delivered a speech to the company, and went home to change for the show’s opening at the National Theater. He suffered a massive heart attack, and collapsed at a crosswalk into Gwen Verdon’s arms. By the time the show began an hour later, he was gone. Today, Fosse’s influence lives in the ether: as a choreographer, his style passed through that of Michael Jackson into basic conversational movement. Beyoncé’s video for “Single Ladies” was based on a Fosse routine; even Freddy Krueger was modeled in part on his look. His iconography is ubiquitous and seems, out of context, both classy and kitsch, like the signature stamp on a line of collectible antiques. This makes his work continually discoverable: there’s always a new crop of filmgoers, or theater nerds in the making, surprised to learn that Fosse was an auteur.  His current revival makes sense: Fosse was interested in the psychology of living to please an audience, the merging of life and material, and—above all—the impossibility of pure pleasure. Though not always explicitly, his work was concerned with the social, historical, and personal traumas coiled at the heart of our joys and escapes. Rather than banishing difficult truths for the sake of entertainment, Fosse staged their emergence from below, or encroachment from the margins. This wave of appreciation will also be a reckoning. Fosse’s behavior was never a secret, and not much will be revealed that wasn’t known, or inferable, decades ago; but moral immunity has been rescinded for geniuses, and the humanity of those harmed is not so easy to discount, at least in criticism, when it complicates the legacy of someone beloved. The liminal, disturbing emotions that come with this process—the restive coexistence of pleasure and disgust, the disappointment and self-suspicion—form the mood of Fosse’s work; this mood feels appropriate for its consumption.
I Could Live Without Speaking: Part IV

A Self-Portrait, Experiment, and Homage.

When Mountains Were Ugly

Over the centuries, the mountains moved. Our inner landscapes shifted to accommodate new forms of beauty, old forms of worship.

Four years ago, I experienced a moment that froze time. I was hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire when a fog descended. In the trees, it didn’t seem so bad. I could still make out a few bright orange markers, and the trail was wide and clear, easy enough to follow. I was headed down the mountain, back on the same trail I had taken earlier that day to the summit. I knew my way—or I thought I did. Far ahead of me, my then-boyfriend, Garrett, walked swiftly and purposefully over roots and stone, more sure-footed than I, and in better shape, too. Suddenly, the trees parted and I stepped onto an open expanse of bare granite. I could see no farther than a few feet in front of my face. Garrett was gone, and in his place, a white nothingness. At first, I was struck by the mercurial beauty of the cold, silencing fog. It enveloped me completely, a damp silver-white embrace. But soon, I realized my predicament. Somewhere to my right was a sharp cliff. Somewhere to my left was a slow, sloping embankment. In between was a path, marked only by a few scattered flat patches of faded spray-paint. I took a few tentative steps, my body moving molasses-slow through the vapor. I called for my boyfriend, but I heard no response. He had vanished. I was alone. I have a lifelong fear of heights, but never had I faced a fall so blindly. I knew that should I veer the wrong way by a few feet, I would fall. I would hit rock, and then trees, and perhaps if I was lucky, a pine would slow my descent, but, if I were to fall, my soft body would certainly hit against the hard bones of nature. I could imagine exactly how I would break, how my skin would split and my organs would compress. Afraid and disoriented and haunted by these imaginary pains, I got down on my hands and feet and began to crawl, like a child, like an animal, until I again reached the relative safety of the forested path. I called for Garrett again and again, until, finally, I gave up and waited, crying against a pine tree, sticky, cold and exhausted, for him to return. For my sight to return. For the world to remember me.  This isn’t the first time I’ve gone astray in the mountains, and yet even though nature keeps reminding me of its raw indifference and hard edges, I keep coming back for more. I have moved several times in the past decade. Finally, I moved into the woods, where I live in a cabin surrounded by tall white pines and sugar maples. I can be hiking in the White Mountains in under an hour, and from my favorite lake, I can see their blue and purple peaks rising on the western horizon, a permanent streak of twilight. Each move has brought me farther north, and closer to mountains. Sometimes, it’s not enough to live nearby. At various times in my life, I’ve gone on pilgrimages to frosty mountains, Icelandic peaks and Canadian forests. I don’t vacation on beaches—I spend my money flying north, driving north, getting ever higher on the thin, cold air. One arctic winter, I was shivering in my parka, wrapped tightly in layers of scarves, my face surrounded by a halo of coyote fur. The deck was slick with layers of ice, and the snow came down wet and hard. It was past midnight and there was no one else on the deck of the ship, but soon they would come, ready to disembark. I wasn’t getting off at Lofoten. I would ride Hurtigurten ferry (which also doubled as a cruise ship for elderly Europeans and a mail boat for residents of the arctic islands) up to Hammerfest, a city located at 68 degrees north. But I chose this slow means of travel for one reason: I wanted to see Lofoten. I had planned my journey north around this archipelago, even though I could have flown from Oslo to Hammerfest in a matter of hours. I spent a week making my way up the coast, from ferry to train to bus back to ferry again. I ate nothing but bread and cheese; I slept in the tiniest budget cabin available. But I was determined to see these mountains. And I did see them, though it was dark and the world around me was washed in shades of indigo and gray, deep purples interrupted by a chain of yellow lights shining out of house windows and from street lamps. I could still see the mountains, which jutted from the ocean like broken teeth, ragged and sharp. In pictures, this landscape looked like something from a fantasy novel or a Magic: the Gathering playing card. In person, it was even colder, even more raw and sharp and brutal. It was beautiful; it was sublime.  [[{"fid":"6704906","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Fra Lofoten, by Theodor Severin Kittelsen. Photo via Wikiart.   We tend to think about beauty as though it were an immutable quality. Evolutionary psychologists have spent years trying to convince the general public that we are drawn to certain traits for good reason. Some of this is utter nonsense—particularly when it comes to standards of feminine beauty—but some of it sounds plausible. We like symmetry because asymmetry can be a sign of illness or disease. We like flowers because they can help us figure out what part of a plant will be edible. Supposedly, we like glittery gemstones because the gleam of their crystalline structure reminds us of how light scatters on water. Water is needed for life to exist, ergo we find crystals beautiful because they remind us of quenching our thirst, of survival. And yet, beauty doesn’t always work that way. We want beauty to follow logic, partially because we find comfort in patterns, in organization, in replication. We want to think an appreciation for certain scenery or certain items is innate, built into our brains and bodies from birth. But history tells a different story. Ugly and beautiful are two categories that mutate and overlap. The Lofoten Islands are now considered beautiful, a natural wonder, a place to go and take pretty pictures of rosy dawns and rustic fishing shacks. Yet once, they were ugly. Once, all mountains were ugly. *** Edgar Allan Poe never visited Lofoten, but he chose it as the setting for his 1841 story “A Descent Into the Maelstrom.” In this short tale, the narrator climbs into the cliffs of Lofoten, led by a white-haired fisherman, where he is regaled with tales of the Moskoe-ström (the Viking version of Charybdis). “A panorama more deplorably desolate no human imagination can conceive,” writes Poe. “To the right and left, as far as the eye could reach, there lay outstretched, like ramparts of the world, lines of horridly black and beetling cliff.” The deadly whirlpool swirls and churns below the two men as they talk, discussing the deadly nature of this wildly gyrating abyss, the waves of which echo the mountains in their stark, sinister gray violence. In the distance, he spies still more islands, “hideously craggy and barren.” The land is “gloomy” and “ghastly” and the ocean is a frigid hellscape. The entire scene, cursed. Poe’s description of these peaks is about as fantastical and morbid as one would expect from that death-dwelling writer. But horror has always served as a mirror for society and its discontents. Poe’s writing was extreme and exaggerated, but it wasn’t entirely out of step with how early Americans settlers generally viewed mountains, nor how their European predecessors understood the heights of the globe. Stephen Bayley, author of Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything, argues that although we’re now practically “required by custom” to admire Alpine vistas, “mountains were once thought disgusting: they were dangerous, frightening and home to nasty demons and bandits.”  Examples of this tradition can be found all over Europe, reflected even in the place names of various mountains and heights. In Northern Germany, high in the Harz Mountains, there is plateau called the Hexentanzplatz (or the “Witches’ Dance Floor”). Surrounded by strange rock formations, it was believed that this was where pagans came to worship. (In the same mountains, there is also a place called the Teufelsmauer or “Devil’s Wall”.) From the 1500s to the 1700s, it was common belief in Sweden that witches roamed the mountains, and that they flew to the highest peaks to have their check-ins with the devil. The 1600s saw a spate of witch trials and executions, the largest of which happened in the mountainous region of Gästrikland in 1675. The townsfolk of Torsåker were gripped by hysteria, driven mad by fear and religious fervor. Nearly one hundred people were accused, and seventy-one were put to death in a spot known as “The Mountain of the Snake.” The so-called witches were beheaded, drained of blood, and burned. These days, the town is perhaps best known for its annual bluegrass festival. “In the afternoons, the mountains get a bluish hue—its own Blue Ridge Mountain,” claims the festival organizers. The Swiss, too, believed that evil dwelled in the heights. In the early 18th century, Swiss physician and philosopher Johann Jakob Scheuchzer published a natural history of the Alps, in which he described in great detail the hideous dragons that populated the mountains. Near the alpine town of Glarus lived an animal “with the head of a cat, with large eyes.” It was “long a foot, with a thick body, four limbs, and something like breasts pending from the belly… it was soft and full of poisoned blood.” Other eyewitnesses claimed to Scheuchzer that they had seen snake-like creatures with human faces slithering amongst the rocks. One man even said he saw a flying serpent breathing fire. The prints that accompanied Scheuchzer’s treatise are incredible, filled with sinewy, furry monsters with cats’ heads or baby faces. Their mountainous playground is shown in vivid detail. It’s a landscape of steep peaks and sharp edges, small figures lost in a world of heavy diagonals and dark shadows. These images are interesting, but they are not beautiful. They emphasize the deadliness of the mountains and the hideousness of its creatures. Before the technological taming of the world, mountains and forests were places where bad things happened—trolls lurked, wolves prowled, and witches tended to their strange gardens and chicken-legged houses. Fairytales and folktales were filled with warnings, particularly for young girls. Don’t go out at night, don’t venture into the wilderness alone, don’t get raped, don’t get captured, don’t let yourself be ruined. In fairytales, fear and ugliness have always been deeply intertwined. Villains have scars on their faces and witches have warts. The landscape followed the same sort of circular logic. If it was bad, it was ugly, and if it was ugly, well, then it was probably bad. This only began to change in the 18th century, and even then, mountains were appreciated for the emotions that they could induce: the awareness of human smallness and frailty, the sense of wonder and fear, the reminder of mortality. Some artists were able to see the beauty of the mountains from an earlier date, argues Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. “This is one area of the imagination where artists seem to have been ahead of the curve,” he writes, citing Leonardo da Vinci and Titian as examples. These Renaissance artists (both of whom hailed from mountain towns) painted glorious scenes of the high life, but, adds Johnson, “a lot of the time, in Renaissance art, a mountain is just a sharp jagged dry rock.” Mountains were “ugly raw wildernesses of stone, murderous enemies of cultivated life.”   Perhaps the largest factor in the widespread rewriting of the peaks came from Natural theology. This doctrine, which spread across Europe in the early 1700s, argued that “the world in all its aspects was an image given by God to man,” writes Robert MacFarlane in Mountains of the Mind. “To scrutinize nature, to discern its patterns and its idiosyncrasies, was thus a form of worship… Therefore, to visit the upper world and contemplate its marvels was to be elevated spiritually as well as physically.” MacFarlane argues that the advent of Natural theology was “crucial in revoking the reputation of mountains as aesthetically displeasing.” If such majestic and towering creations were the work of God, a majestic and towering force in His own right, then how dare we think of them as anything but beautiful? While some early naturalists believed peaks harbored treacherous beasts and unnatural women, a few also considered them a more neutral source of magic. Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner lived during the 15th century and his writing showed him to be a “lover of the mountain world in a century when such love was considered lunatic,” writes MacFarlane. Gesner proposed that mountains were a place unlike any other, where the normal laws of physics need not apply. Even the brightest sunlight couldn’t melt ice, and normally transparent winds became startlingly visible. “Up there,” Gesner wrote, waterfalls could flow upwards. Like Gesner, MacFarlane feels the presence of some “other-place” when he’s high in the mountains. I imagine this is what deep-water divers feel like when they’re descending into deep blue caverns, or what astronauts feel when they leave earth’s gravitational pull. “Going into the mountains—into what one nineteenth-century poet called ‘that weird white realm’—is like pushing through the fur coats into Narnia,” writes MacFarlane. “In the mountainous world things behave in odd and unexpected ways. Time, too, bends and alters… And if something goes wrong in the mountains, then time shivers and refigures in the moment, that incident.” Between the 1700s to the 1900s, the cultural messaging around mountains underwent a series of transformations. Slowly but surely, mountains went from being viewed as “ugly and fearsome” to “terrible but godly” to “beautiful and vital” (to, finally, with the late 20th century embrace of ski culture, “fun and fancy”). Once modernity took hold, many previously negative (and previously dangerous) things began to seem less threatening. Fears changed, and aesthetics naturally followed. In Winter: Five Windows on the Season, Adam Gopnik classifies the “mind for winter” (named after a line in Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Snow Man”) as a thoroughly “modern taste.” “A taste for winter, a love for winter vistas—a belief that they are as beautiful and seductive in their own way, and as essential to the human spirit and the human souls as any summer sense—is part of the modern condition,” Gopnik writes. Likewise, he identifies the cultural appreciation for the “mysterious, the strange, the sublime” as a modern taste. Although Gopnik is writing about a season, he could also be talking about the landscape itself. Having a mind for mountains is a modern construction, like being able to enjoy abstract art or ride through the landscape at 70 miles per hour without fainting from dizziness. Just as the word “awesome” changed meanings over the centuries, shifting from fearsome and terrible to radical and excellent, so too have the mountains moved. Our inner landscapes have shifted to accommodate new forms of beauty, old forms of worship. *** I’m drawn to the jagged heights, pulled as though my heart was a magnet and they were aching heaps of lodestone. Like other residents of Maine, I call the long purple sprawl of Katahdin “beautiful” and extol the aesthetic virtues of Tumbledown. And I suppose they are lovely, particularly Tumbledown Mountain. With a clear blue glacial pool at the summit, ringed by evergreens, it makes for pretty pictures. My local mountains are just as good—Mount Douglas looks down upon a landscape of evergreens and lakes that shine silver in the cloudy light and Mount Pleasant is strewn with boulders and covered in lichen, sage green and granite gray. But I don’t really go into the mountains to take pictures, nor do I go on hikes to see natural beauty. I chase something else. I enjoy feeling displaced, untethered, unstrung from the ties of my life. I go into the mountains for the same reason people once believed they were ugly, for the same reason I watch horror movies and for the same reason I enjoy standing on the frozen beach in the middle of winter. It’s the frisson of excitement, the sense that is just one wrong step away. I’m drawn to the feeling of vertigo. I like wondering whether I will jump. There is a tinge of magic in danger, and there is beauty to be found in the sublime. Instagram may be the greatest enemy of real life wonderment, but still, I use it to document these moments. I take pictures, small flat squares to hold the memory of these grand encounters. On every hike, I find myself stocking my pockets with round pebbles and Lilliputian pinecones. The same impulse leads me to fill my digital storage with miniature versions of nature. These are fragmentary souvenirs, shards of the thing, but I keep collecting them anyway, hoping that a photo will stand in for the palliative pain of seeing my smallness, feeling my insignificance. I didn’t always upload the image to Instagram, and I certainly don’t paint them or print them out. I mostly keep the beauty to myself. But I still might, on a day when I feel too small. But for now, these frail images serve as a visual synechdoches, like the pebbles I collect, like my beach stones. It’s something I use to mark my movement through the world. A trail of breadcrumbs leading from my mundane, boring digital life to the weird, fantastical beauty beyond. 
‘People Live Before and After Violence’: An Interview with Marlon James

The author of Black Leopard, Red Wolf on the intellectual responsibilities of the reader, Die Hard and Vin Diesel, and gay action heroes.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Bond Street Books), Marlon James’s fourth novel and his follow-up to his Man Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, is a Molotov cocktail through the window of the literary status quo: it’s a fantasy novel, the first in a trilogy, about a group of outsiders who go on a quest, crossing mythical African kingdoms to find a missing boy. There’s Tracker, a runaway who seeks his lost people, only to reject them when he learns their truth; there’s the shape-shifting leopard who is his best friend; there’s a giant who is not a giant; a compass that is a human infected with lightning and kept in a cage; and a feminist separatist witch, whose line “Thank the gods for this man to tell us what we already know” is coming soon to a tote bag near you. Their reasons for seeking the boy are as varied as who they are: for money, to restore a royal lineage, or just for something to do. This book leaves the reader breathless. Stories act as portals to other stories, and then become other stories still. People turn into animals, a god-butcher spies on the heroes in their dreams, white scientists grow flowers out of hair, and all of this is mixed with true horror, like the scenes that take place at a slave auction. The novel criss-crosses genres, from the classic trickster tropes, to repeated scenes of teleportation, to an empire in the sky with a grim dystopian core. Through it all, blistering fight sequences jostle with moments of tender friendship, and families are found and lost. And this is only Book One. In all this wildness, the novel repeatedly leads its reader to ask, what makes a story, a story? And what are stories good for, if we cannot trust them to answer our questions about what really happened, or to give us the meaning we crave? I interviewed Marlon on stage at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, for Sheridan Reads. In front of an audience of two hundred, who packed into the campus bar just to see him, we talked about the intellectual responsibilities of the reader, how violence can be ethical, Die Hard and Vin Diesel, and gay action heroes. Thea Lim: Much has been made of the fact that you’ve described Black Leopard, Red Wolf as an African Game of Thrones. Sometimes, when diasporic writers present an experience that has been as yet underrepresented in Western fiction, they’re interpreted as offering a guide to their world, for outsiders to their world. Yet more often, diasporic writers are just trying to write about their own experience, so that readers of colour like them can see themselves on the page. Does your work fulfil one of those functions—a guide or a mirror—or is it something else entirely? Marlon James: I do like the idea of fiction communicating something that hasn't been communicated before. But I didn't really write this for the white gaze. Or anybody's gaze, really. For me, first and foremost, it was a duty to story. I mean, I committed to writing the hard way. I could have easily written more accessible novels. I quite know how to write them. I tell people I've been trying to sell out for years. It's just that my idea of a sell-out is my novel about, you know, nine black women who have an all-female slave insurrection. That says commercial pay dirt to me. I think, ultimately, I still believe that the book that's in your head should be the book that comes out on your page. And I think that, if you have too many considerations happening between here and there, then you kind of end up with a novel that was written by a committee, despite your really, really best intentions. I also think, one of the things that writing this book reinforced for me, is that in a lot of the oral tradition, the reader—well, in this case, the listener—has a lot of work to do. So, for me, it's not necessarily that I'm writing a bridge, so much as, "Here are the ingredients, build a bridge and come over here." In all the great books that I've read, you know, Beloved isn't trying to reach me, I have to reach Beloved. Dogeaters isn’t trying to reach me, I have to reach Dogeaters. Master and Margarita isn't trying to reach me, I have to reach over. I think people forget what an active activity—that's redundant, but you get what I'm saying—what an active activity reading is. It's more than just opening a book and expecting the book to, you know, here we are, now entertain us. There's a lot of work that the reader has to do, and I think that's what I was thinking of more than anything else. Ultimately you’re saying, it’s the needs of the story that come first, more than anybody else’s. And speaking of the reader having to reach over, discussions of your work often touch on violence; you were recently called a “virtuoso of violence” by author Victor LaValle. But in order to write violence well, a writer has to know how much is too much. Something my creative writing students and I often grapple with is how to ethically represent violence, specifically sexual violence. Do you have personal guidelines that determine how you employ or represent rape in your work, or does that also come down to the needs of the story? I always find it interesting that people say that my novels are filled with violence, or violence-drenched, because they're really not. You know, the average type of action films we watched in the ‘80s and ‘90s are Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger films. They're killing anywhere between 48 and 70 people. I did not kill 48 to 70 people in my book. But if one of those killings in those movies was, say, a shot to the stomach—and I say a shot to the stomach because that’s very painful and very slow—can you imagine if one of those hundreds of people [Bruce Willis] shot was a father or had three kids and was forced to be in this job, or was just going through the suffering of dying…it would be a completely different film. We would say, "Oh my god, Die Hard is so disturbing!" instead of, "Die Hard is a Christmas movie!" It’s one of my favourite Christmas movies. Listen, I adore that movie, I adore it, but I know I recognize how, what is happening is that these movies are selling violence without suffering. And I think the reason why I get tagged with violence is because I don't separate those. Because you let the reader see the suffering. Because violence comes with suffering and violence comes with aftermath. How can you be non-explicit about violence? Violence is an explicit act. You're sometimes literally breaking a body open. I think for me the most difficult scenes in my book, I have to turn myself into a reporter, so my overall advice is take a journalism class. Because you have to go in and get a story, but you have to be respectful. You have to be respectful but explicit. Or instead of explicit, clear. When you shirk on it, it's kind of an insult to people who suffer it. Like, people say to me they can't read my novel [The Book of Night Women] because it’s about slavery. I’m going to guess that reading about slavery is slightly better than being a slave. How you know when you’ve slid into a kind pornography of violence is when we become numb. If it's still visceral, if it's still disturbing, it's doing a good thing. If it's like, "Oh, Lord, another one," then you’ve slid into pornography. People live before and after violence. And I think that's also important, that yes, there’s suffering, but there is also survival. And there’s also living with the consequences and living with pain and living with dismemberment. And I think because for me, I don't shirk from any of those things, so people think it's violent. Violence should be violent. Sex should be sexy. So be simple and be clear and don't blink. So if a character does experience violence, then there have to be repercussions. And is that true even for secondary or smaller characters in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, of which there are many—were you able to find space in the narrative to show how they experience violence as well? Well, what I’m about to say almost sounds like it contradicts what I just said before, but then there’s also the off-stage event. There’s also the thing we don’t see, that people are reeling from. And certainly for the supporting characters and characters walking around those scenes, that also becomes important. It sounds like I’m contradicting what I just said about being explicit, but it’s still explicit. There are stages and there is aftermath and if the story is true to that, then we'll get the full range. But I think it's also important to know that people who experience these things are surviving, and survival is also important, and how you write survival is important. And the flip side of violence is intimacy and tenderness, of which there’s also a lot in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, especially between the men in the novel, and specifically queer men. Recently, there was a thread on social media asking people to list popular narratives that showed “healthy men's relationships,” where that was defined as men supporting each other through emotional growth. At that time, all I could think of was the Fast and Furious movies. But I would now add Black Leopard, Red Wolf to that list.  I’ve always wanted to be nearer to Vin Diesel. [Laughs] Because there are so many points when Mossi and Leopard really try to encourage Tracker, your protagonist, to have more of an emotional fluency and self-awareness. Did you model those relationships after anything in particular, or was there something you wanted to say about bonds between men? The first thing I wanted to do is separate masculinity from sexuality, which I think doesn’t happen enough. It's been interesting, for example, watching people wrap in their head around such a go-getter action hero being all about the boys. Well, both Black Leopard and Red Wolf are gay, spoiler alert. So that was the first thing to separate. But also to explore tenderness. I actually think Tracker's most tender relationship is with the Ogo, and he has this absolute affection for this guy. And a huge part of that affection comes from [Tracker] giving the Ogo space to confront his own demons. He understands that the best thing he can give the Ogo is his ears and he sits down and listens to him all through the night. And that to me is intimacy too. And the Ogo is one of the members of Tracker's entourage in the story’s main quest to find a lost boy, and it’s interesting because Tracker does not come across as, particularly, someone whose empathy is his driving force. But something in the Ogo spurs him to decide he wants to listen to him. What is it in the Ogo that sparks that? You know, I’ve been trying to figure that out myself. There is a kind of innocence there. I really resisted doing the gentle giants. He's not gentle, which is a huge part of his story.  He is not gentle at all. And also he can't shut up, when most giants are like "wooo" and that's like an entire sentence. But with the Ogo, they make the mistake of telling him something and he goes on talking for almost up to two hours and won't shut up. But I still think he's kind of adorable, in his way. Did you have a model for your gay male action hero? I can think of Omar from The Wire, but I can't think of anybody else. Omar would be a great person to mirror off, if I had actually watched The Wire. It’s one of the grievous sins against Western Civilization that I’ve only seen Season 1 of The Wire, I did not watch the rest. Who did I model Tracker after? I'm not sure. I came across so many different kinds of characters in my research of African mythology and a lot of African epics, and I've always liked the kind of, not necessarily anti-hero, but the kind of trickster, hustler kind of character, and African storytelling abounds with them. One thing is, in an Anansi story, to listen to an Anansi story, you have to come to terms with the fact that whoever is telling the story might be tricking you. So what is it to know that the narrator is unreliable, that a trickster is setting the story? That shifting is not just shifting truth, it's shifting shape, it's shifting identity, it's shifting sexual preference. I love the whole idea that nothing is fixed in this universe. As it should be, I don't think anything should be. And I think that in a lot of ways, that influenced Tracker. But also, you know, Tracker goes from being a brat to a full on asshole and then he learns some really, really good lessons, the hard way. I don't know, maybe he is a different version of myself—I tend not to put myself in my stories. But you slipped in through Tracker? Tracker's stance on religion may be like mine. Because when people say, I don't believe in God, I say, I don’t believe in belief.  Which we hear Tracker saying, it’s one of his catchphrases. He says that quite a bit. So like you say, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a story about stories. Sometimes, especially in the parts with the Ogo, it's a story within a story within a story. And much of the novel is fun and epic and fantastical, but then there’s a real vein of sorrow that runs through it. And I began to think that part of what the book is exploring is how we turn to stories to try to cope with or manage the traumas of life, and yet what Tracker really struggles with near the end of the book, actually on the second last page—which was my favourite part—is how sometimes stories can’t really help us make meaning. So what are stories to you? What do you hope they can do, whether it’s the stories you read, or the stories you write?  I'm not as hopeless about story as Tracker is, because I actually do think stories heal, or at least stories make a space for it. And the thing with stories, particularly in the oral tradition, is they played so many roles, and that's why it amazes me how convoluted and how tricky oral story could be. Because we're reading novels and we complain about their difficulty. "It's too labyrinthine, I don't understand it, and it keeps going around." But in the oral tradition, when a story might deliberately be tricking you, you have to listen to the story and also figure out what really is going on. The oral tradition places a way greater trust in the intellectual capabilities of the listener than we sometimes place in the reader. That, to me, was super interesting, and I definitely wanted to carry it over. Which is why [in my novel] there are stories on top of stories and there are parts you've got to figure out, and there are parts where you're left adrift. And hopefully the current will come and grab you, and pull you back in. Because I think the bond between listener and storyteller is different. I mean, to use a Joan Didion line, which I stole in this book, we do tell stories in order to live. And we tell stories in order to live on. And we tell stories in order to persevere. And we tell stories to bring glory to people who don't necessarily have glory, or get glory. So ultimately, storytelling is a healing act. It's a community-building act. And almost every culture has it serve that purpose. So I knew I wanted to write a novel that, in some way, at least tries to capture that. Do you think that active listening to a story—having to listen and to put the pieces together yourself and do the work—is that also healing? Or is it just the act of telling your story that heals? Oh, definitely the act of listening [is healing]. And really for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes just to hear a story. Or to hear ourselves in the story. Or to be told the subtext. “The story's this but what you are really telling me is this.” That's why we have fables. That's why we have allegory. Stories are also detective work and stories reveal, sometimes not in the space you expect it to reveal, something about us. For me when I'm writing, I'm very conscious that a novel should have volume. That it should sound like it should be read aloud. That's why the audio book is really good. I did listen to parts of it. The reader, Dion Graham, is amazing.  I kind of wrote it for him. Specifically with him in mind?   Not for Dion Graham in particular, although he is amazing. But I wrote it to be read aloud.  [[{"fid":"6704971","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original"}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] I wanted to ask you a question about working with editors. Especially because you say that this is a book that you wanted to be labyrinthine and voluminous, and I was wondering if your editors ever pushed back against that, if they ever wanted you to be more obvious. Or were they just along for the ride? My main editor is Jake Morrissey, but I also had my Canadian editors read it, and then after that, I don’t know if my Canadian or my American editors knew this, but I had a British editor read it too. Because at a certain point we've all read the book so much, and this completely fresh eye comes in and goes, "Wow, this first section is maybe too long." One, a good editor doesn’t tell you what to write. Which is why I think people like Gordon Lish are not good editors. But a good editor will keep at you until you've written it. Like, Jake would say, "I don't think you got it." And then I'd go back, and he’d say, "I still don't think you have it." Did you ever say no, you’re wrong, or did you accept that? No, I'm pretty good at listening to editors. They don't tell me what to write, I don't tell them what to edit. And I also trust my editors. That's the thing—I think you have to trust your editor. That an editor's eye is not a reader's eye. And there's a certain point in your manuscript where you just don't have the eyes for it. You just don't. I know you've been living with it for ten years, and you look at it, but I'm an editor as well and, for example, when I teach my students, the way I read their work is not the way they read their work. I do think intimacy with the work sometimes really turns a certain blindness to your work, that's natural. Sometimes you can shift that by, well, if you really want to torture yourself, have your friend read it to you. Like, out loud? Yes, read it out loud. There are things your ears will hear that your eyes won't see. But to come back to the editor relationship, I remember my second novel, this is one of the things that I wouldn’t have picked up, but an editor picked it up. [In The Book of Night Women] my character just left the house burning to the ground with everybody in it. It's a family novel. [Laughs.] And she goes back to her old plantation, to the old people she always knew, and I just went on with the plot and moved on. And my editor said to me, if I go back to people I've known all my life, but I'm under the suspicion of having done a terrible thing, wouldn't that change the dynamic of how everybody relates to me? It never occurred to me. But it would. My editor was right. Because people who didn't like me might respect me now, people who thought I was nice probably think I'm evil, some people will fear me when they didn't before, some people might finally think I'm cool—you know, you burn down master’s house, of course you're cool—but it never occurred to me. And I think sometimes those things, sort of the deeper nuance, and the deeper relationship between characters, is something a really good editor can bring out in a manuscript. They're not trying to re-write your book. If your book needs to be rewritten, trust me, you won't get as far as them, I'm sorry. It's interesting you say that it didn't occur to you, because it sounds like what your editor was talking about was the very thing you said earlier, about how violence should resonate. The problem with the scene, the way you’d written it, is that there wasn’t impact. Well, I learn, so. I wonder if what a good editor does is they sort of read as your highest self. Like, they read as you would read, but on your best, most fabulous day.  Yes, but I also think an editor sometimes has to get tough on a manuscript, and that's where, from the beginning, writers start to really sort of flinch because your book is your baby. I always go, just think of your book as your fourth baby. It's like, "Take it please." It’s like, “I’m tired.” So I have to ask you a question about music, because you always talk a lot about music in your interviews. I saw you interviewed with David Chariandy last year in Toronto, and you said you’d been listening to a lot of Björk. But if you were to make a playlist for this book, are there any songs that would absolutely have to be on there? Do Leopard and Tracker have a walk-up song?  Oh my God. Maybe I’d just put “Soul Makossa” on repeat. What was I listening to? I was actually listening to a lot of Miles Davis with this, and Herbie Hancock. [[{"fid":"6704976","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original"}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] I wouldn’t have expected Tracker’s walk-up song to be Miles Davis.  Well, you know, “Spanish Key” is really propulsive and Herbie Hancock has Mwandishi which I was listening to. Just a lot of ‘70s jazz fusion, I was listening to a lot of ‘70s funk. So it's weird, it’s set in Africa, but it’s a total blaxploitation soundtrack. [Laughs.] Lots of Isaac Hayes and so on. But also lots of Fela. Especially when I'm writing the parts that are long and almost like stream of consciousness, because a Fela song will go on for 60 minutes. But also I'm really attracted to rhythm, I really latch on to rhythm when I'm writing a story. The poets can’t have all the fun. But I do think prose should have a meter. And prose should definitely have a beat. Do you always listen to music while you’re writing? Does that help you with the meter?  It does. But I don't think about [the meter], not consciously. But I also just can't write in silence. I'm like, kudos to people who do it. My friend goes off to his log cabin that looks like an outhouse, and he goes and just writes. And I'm like, I just couldn't do that. To me silence feels like deafness, I just couldn't do it.
The Disneyland of Death

Described as a theme park necropolis, Forest Lawn Cemetery created a new template for posthumous culture in North America.

I took the bus to Forest Lawn Memorial Park after waking up on a blow-up mattress in my friend’s tiny Koreatown apartment. I had fallen asleep to the sound of a pastor preaching in Spanish at the storefront church across the street, my first Los Angeles lullaby. His voice was distorted by a loudspeaker and had a soothing evangelical lilt. I drank tea, which I wished was coffee. I wrote down the directions via public transit to the cemetery on a piece of paper, in case my phone died. I didn’t want to get lost in the chaotic outskirts. Forest Lawn is a cemetery in Glendale just north of LA. It has been described as a Disneyland of Death and a theme-park necropolis. It has been satirized by Evelyn Waugh, depicted by Aldous Huxley. Stars and moguls from Hollywood’s golden era are buried in its hilltop terraces. It created a new template for death culture in North America, and a business model for other cemeteries to follow. From the bus window, I watched hairy palms rise in lonely spikes along the street. Morning smog gave the city a haunted look. The exotic cut leaves and absurd shag of the palms appeared from the mist like an idea of a place. We passed through Chinatown where a group of old men and women, bent over trundle-buggies, stood waiting in line. When the bus stopped, they slowly filed on, helping one another up the steps, around the corner, into a seat. A woman with silver hair tied in a French-roll sat next to me and asked where I was going. Glendale, I said. She said she had made the trek downtown to get food for the week, but it was difficult to carry anything, let alone the six bags she was struggling with. I asked why she didn’t use a buggy like the others. Her daughter wouldn’t let her, she said, because it made her look old. What do cemeteries say about the living, those left to grieve a future that had once included the dead? What do these placeless places say about the cultures that create them? In the introduction to The Work of the Dead, Thomas Laqueur asks why the dead matter. Why does a culture of care for the dead extend across time, across landscapes, across different systems of belief, even to those who don’t believe? There is evidence of Neanderthal burials in French caves, and Laqueur describes atheists leaving mementos on graves with wonder. It is interesting, he notes, that without a system of ritual, without belief in an afterlife, uncared-for remains are still somehow culturally unbearable. The idea that a body would be left to rot, bones exposed, seems like an act of violence. But why does it matter? “It matters,” he writes, “because the living need the dead far more than the dead need the living. It matters because we cannot bear to live at the borders of our mortality.” * The founding myth of Forest Lawn has Hubert Eaton standing on a hilltop in 1912 looking down at brown fields of devil grass, wild oat sprouting at random between broken tombstones, maybe a tumbleweed blowing past his feet, and there and then he decides to take on a job as manager of the desolate graveyard. In his mind’s eye he can already see the pastoral garden he will build, “Filled with Towering Trees, Sweeping Lawns, Splashing Fountains, Singing Birds.” In the same way that middle class desire dreamed up suburbia, a place where everyone has their own patch of lawn to fortify their bungalows against real wilderness, carpets of sod would be unrolled and laid across the hills, smothering the chaparral in an act of botanical colonialism. That night, so the myth goes, Eaton stayed awake writing the “Builder’s Creed” in a hotel room where he detailed his vision for a new way of dealing with death. This manifesto is carved into a stone tablet and displayed on the grounds. Two alabaster sculptures of children holding hands, a puppy curled beside them, look up at it. Copies are available at the gift shop. “I BELIEVE IN A HAPPY ETERNAL LIFE,” it starts. It isn’t only immortality that serves as a constitutional concept here but unchecked joy. This sentiment is key to understanding the modern American memorial park. Happiness is built into every aspect of the design. When Eaton vows to create a cemetery “As Unlike Other Cemeteries as Sunshine is to Darkness, As Eternal Life is Unlike Death…” he creates a cemetery in denial, a place that banishes any sign of decay, where grief is forbidden, where pain is repressed, where no one dies. Tombstones were removed, because Eaton felt they were too morose, and replaced with brass plaques. No new deciduous trees would be planted, because their leafless branches in winter reminded him of death. The evergreens, alternatively, were symbols of everlasting life, and planted in swaths across the property.  Forest Lawn is 300 acres of emerald green hills enclosed by a wrought iron fence. Walls and fences are a classic feature of historical European cemeteries. They have practical applications, like keeping animals in or out, but symbolically, they define the boundaries between opposing worlds. When you step into a cemetery, leaving everyday life, strip malls and highways, taco stands and nail salons, you enter a different territory, an unstable one, a supernatural one. Somehow the cemetery is a permeable place, shared by the dead and the living, where ghosts might glimmer at night like electric filaments on the hills. Forest Lawn doesn’t feel spooky. It looks like a well manicured park, with fields and fields of brass plaques that disappear into the endless grass depending on your vantage point. It is a place where someone might go for a morning run with a dalmatian at their heels. I walked ten minutes from the bus stop to the gate. The road in leads past a fountain and duck pond, to an empty parking lot. Canadian geese linger near the water. The entire place has a monumental scale meant to impress and dwarf the visitor. When I finally got to the crest of the hill, after walking for 45 minutes through football field after football field, past curbs with the names of burial plots stamped into the concrete, Slumberland, Lullaby Land, Dawn of Tomorrow, Vesperland, I drank some water and found myself on a bench in a courtyard fatuously named the Garden of the Mystery of Life. The bench was in a niche, surrounded by boxwood hedges. Azaleas were in bloom nearby. From that height I could see Babyland, a plot reserved for children, at the bottom of the hill, circled by a heart shaped road. I could see Glendale past the cemetery walls, buildings pale under the stark sun, spilling into the valley below. Looking at aerial photos of fault lines in the desert is a strange and beautiful thing. From above they resemble sutures, or healed scars. As if the ground itself is trying to close over an old wound. Glendale is where the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys meet. Subterranean fault lines crisscross underneath the city. Not too far north, the San Andreas fault readies for the next imminent tectonic shift, estimated to happen anytime between tomorrow and the next decade. The politics of water in the desert are always fierce. LA drained Owens Valley by 1926 in order to quench its thirst. During the last drought, some Californian landscapers started painting their client’s dormant grass green in order not to be shamed. To make a paradise grow in a semi arid state, massive amounts of water are needed. In 1985 the Los Angeles Times reported that Forest Lawn’s then 125 acres of grass, 10,000 trees and 100,000 shrubs required an estimated 195 million gallons of water a year. The city of Glendale negotiated a deal where the cemetery would use recycled water rather than potable water, promising to supply 200 million gallons per year for 20 years, and help in the construction of a pipeline to deliver the water from a treatment plant to the cemetery. It takes a lot of water to create an oasis in a desert. Glendale is in a chaparral ecosystem. It should be a landscape of coastal sage, drought tolerant yucca with pillars of dead flowers, silvery artemisia, Oak savannas, thickets of heathland, wildflowers. The cycle of the chaparral requires regular forest fires. Some plants need heat, smoke, or changes to the chemical composition of the soil to germinate. Some plants, called fire followers, like Phacelia, need the extra light after a canopy is burnt to grow. If you have seen Phacelia it would be hard to argue it isn’t magical. Iridescent blue whiskers poke out from clusters of bell-shaped flowers on a spiral stem. I have only seen photos. But these plants don’t fit into the nostalgic image of an imagined garden, a hegemonic Eden. California does not have the same climate as Cambridge or Milan. What did Eaton know about the ecology of the land he was building on? And where did he get his version of paradise? * I like to visit cemeteries when I travel. In Guadalajara, loved ones’ initials are scratched into the flesh of the cactus that define the boundaries of the grounds. In Salem, every tombstone has hand-carved Puritan poetry under a winged skull. Erosion has almost erased the words, and to read the verse, you trace your fingers across the stone, pretending it’s braille. In some areas of Istanbul marble tombstones spill between buildings, or in courtyards of homes. In Montreal tiny mausoleums in the center of Mount Royal house artifacts of past lives like baseball bats, and daguerreotypes are permanently affixed to granite tombstones, so visitors can look directly into the past. Cemeteries are like love letters to the dead. They say so much about the culture that cares for and creates them. It was difficult for me to understand what created this place, sitting on a bench next to delicately pruned topiary, a replica of Michelangelo’s David looming larger than life from the next courtyard. His marble face eyed the hills as though x-ray vision allowed him to see skeletons under the surface of sod. But that is David before he fought Goliath, tense. A vein bulges in his neck. He readies for the fight, slingshot over his shoulder. During the earthquake in 1971 he fell off his stand and smashed to pieces. He was quickly replaced, that time without a fig leaf, then taken down after a group of concerned citizens complained about the full frontal. Now he guards the graves of Mary Pickford and Humphrey Bogart without shame. The architecture and sculpture scattered across the grounds is a mishmash of classical European histories. There is a Tudor mortuary. Three churches on the grounds are copied from originals in Scotland and Ireland. The Great Mausoleum is based on Campo Santo in Genoa. There is a stained-glass recreation of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, and a cast of Michelangelo’s version of La Pieta. The sculpture where Mary cradles Jesus in her arms after the crucifixion. Something feels absent in these bleached recreations. The patina of age is missing. I can imagine Eaton and his team picking and choosing status symbols to fluff up the place, without any consideration of the original meaning behind the art. They seem gaudy in their perfection, insincere, out of place. This paradise is a transplant from someone else’s past. * Forest Lawn has been an important part of American death culture since it opened, influencing and changing how we mourn. Jessica Mitford dedicates an entire chapter to the cemetery and its management in her book The American Way of Death. Originally published in 1962, reprinted with an update in 1998, Mitford investigates how the funeral industry is embedded in entrepreneurial capitalism, detailing some of its sleazy money-making tactics. She describes how embalming is explained as a hygiene issue to grieving families, expensive and nearly non-negotiable. The World Health Organization does not agree that embalming plays any role in decreasing the spread of disease, though Mitford was led to believe by various funeral directors at the time of her reporting that it was legally required. Similarly, expensive cement vaults were said to be legally necessary so that the ground didn’t cave in, though that was also untrue. Mitford describes Eaton as a sort of megalomaniac, and the loudspeakers that used to dot the property, reminding visitors to visit the gift shop between musical interludes, as another dark money grab. Forest Lawn management set a precedent with sales tactics and strategies to exploit the bereaved. Euphemism becomes key to sales, cloaking meaning. If you avoid calling up context or images and instead use words that are so general, so vague, they mean almost nothing, whatever you are describing remains unreal. An entire language was codified, a language that is still used. Funeral directors are instructed not to say hearse but casket-coach. They don’t say grave, they say interment space. They don’t say dirt, they say earth. They don’t say cemetery, they say memorial park. They don’t say dead body, they say mortal remains. They don’t say died, they say passed on. It is easier to up-sell a casket than a coffin. The entire cemetery relies on this distance from the facts, ushering in a new era of mourning. One where every American family should employ a cosmetician to paint lifeless faces so they might look alive again. Prices are inflated. Unusual costs stack up. And Forest Lawn is a gleaming example of cemetery as business. * As I was walking along a winding road towards the Great Mausoleum, thinking of celebrity, a memory came to me. When Patrick Swayze died in 2009, I visited someone in the intensive care unit at a psych ward. My friend in the hospital described her psychosis to me while we sat in plastic chairs around a wooden table. She said she was seeing faces in her food. As she spoke, she flipped between euphoria and terror. Tears rolled down her face. She told me she had been chosen. In my memory she stood up as she said this, put her open palms down, and looked across the table with such a profound longing, I will never forget it. On my way out, I crossed the path of one skeletal patient walking up and down the hallway, repeating the same rigid gestures of kneeling and opening his mouth to take eucharist. Down on his knees an invisible priest would place the wafer on his tongue. He would get up and start again, locked in a perpetual cycle of atonement. Another patient bounced on the balls of his feet and promised to skin a squirrel next time I visited. It was easy, he said, you just have to catch one. A doctor once described brains in trauma or psychosis to me as crushed rubber balls that need time to return to their original form. The more often they are crushed the more difficult it is for them to get back to the previous shape. I wonder if this is an appropriate metaphor for someone who isn’t a clinician. What I am left with is the simpler understanding that psychosis or mania are traumatic and require healing. After I left the hospital that day, I stopped for tea at a friend’s house in Point Saint Charles. We were talking about this idea of healing when a downstairs neighbour pounded up the stairs and stormed into the room, shouting that Patrick Swayze had died. We put down our tea. The neighbour was crying. What was there to say? We went silent. It wasn’t an ideal moment for us to offer comfort. I thought about the actor, as the neighbour continued screaming, and felt nothing. I couldn’t understand where her pain was coming from. “What the fuck do I care?” I said, “Everyone dies.” Anger inhabited my body. I saw the hospital room in my mind, the colour of the walls. But she cared. “What about the people you actually know?” I said. It wasn’t that I disliked Patrick Swayze. But why was she weeping for him? Why did she care more for him? She had funneled all her emotion onto a stranger, an idea of a person, when people we knew were in the hospital. I couldn’t understand. Mourning the death of the famous is not a new cultural phenomenon. When Victor Hugo died two million people joined his funeral procession. Even more showed up to mourn Ayatollah Khomeini. His is in the running for largest funeral in history. The Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, and Evita Peron, had millions pass by their dead bodies to show respect. When Prince died the internet collectively mourned and celebrated him. “Purple Rain” played all summer in bars and coffee shops. I was in El Salvador when Shafik Handal, the leader of the FMLN party and former guerilla, died in 2006. I was in a small inland village, though nothing is very far from the ocean in El Salvador. The woman I was staying with, Fidelina, carted me and her entire family of nine onto a bus to go view the body in San Salvador. We waited in line for hours to have our turn to look at his open casket. The crowd was a sea of FMLN-red baseball caps and shirts, moving slowly, mournfully. Fidelina wiped her eyes with a handkerchief she kept in her bra. I had never seen a dead body before. I wasn’t sure what to expect after an embalmer and cosmetician had been at work. When our turn came, we were each given a private moment to look at the body, a confirmation, a recognition, 30 seconds. The casket was on stage in an auditorium that reminded me of the wooden stage of my high school. Shafik’s face in my memory was blue, strained, doll-like. He was dressed in military regalia, epaulettes, medals glimmering. I was surprised that I wanted to linger, to be close to him. I barely knew who he was. The feeling of collective grief was powerful. When my 30 seconds were up, I was directed off stage by soldiers flanking the coffin, holding AK47s, and I wanted more time. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. It is difficult not to ask questions about private and public grief when walking around Forest Lawn. Who has a right to mourn whom? What is the relationship between a celebrity and their fans? Or a public who has never met the person they adore? How does capital factor? Do celebrities owe nothing to their audience? What if they have transformed someone’s life? Michael Jackson is interred in a sarcophagus in the Great Mausoleum. The door is locked. You cannot visit him, unless you are a family member or on a list of ten who have their own sets of keys. None of the graves are easy to find. The cemetery management dissuades tomb tourists, or death hags, or pilgrims hunting idols. They frown on the idea that non-family members want to visit a grave, but people are resilient. You can find blogs that give vague directions, but it isn’t easy to find them once you are there. What is the point if only a few can mourn? The only celebrity grave I saw at Forest Lawn was Larry’s, the curly haired third Stooge. A wilted rose and comic book had been left as a token, leaning against his granite plaque.  There are important people buried at Forest Lawn: Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., Clark Gable, Walt Disney, Sam Cooke, Jean Harlow, Clara Bow, Nat King Cole. I try to imagine who would be compelled by these lives, and what a visit in-memoriam might mean to them. Religious impresarios of early Los Angeles spiritualism are also buried in Forest Lawn. Paramahansa Yogananda, the Indian guru who was integral in spreading yoga and meditation to the US, and wrote the cult classic Autobiography of a Yogi, is in the Great Mausoleum. The evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who died in 1944, is buried on the grounds. She had one of the largest congregations in the city. They would watch in rapture as she mixed Hollywood style theatrics with Pentecostal revival. She faked her own kidnapping on Venice Beach so she could hide out with a lover, was credited with countless faith healings, and was known for her abilities to translate for people speaking in tongues. She once rode down the aisle of a church on a motorbike, dressed as a cop, screeched to a stop at the Pulpit and said “Stop, you’re speeding towards hell.” Are her followers entitled to pay homage by leaving flowers or visiting her tomb? Or was she always meant to remain separate, cloistered and elite? Her grave is easier to find than others, but the point still stands. Maybe a piece of the mourner’s identity dies with the dead. Movies, literature, music all factor into how we build our identities. We learn how to love, what to expect from love, what love is. This is a problem when we look at who is writing these stories, what is included and what is omitted. We may spend our lives undoing that damage, but we remain affected by different iterations of our past selves. My friend’s neighbour, in her sadness over Patrick Swayze’s death, may have been grieving not Swayze, but her twelve-year-old self, sitting on the carpeted floor of her parents living room, watching movies on late night TV in flannel pyjamas, safe before her mother died, stuffing handfuls of popcorn drenched in butter into her mouth, mesmerized. The future still possible.  * In Eastern Orthodox graveyards, unbaptised babies are buried at the forest’s edge, not quite in consecrated ground, not quite on the unholy other side, but the limbo between. The Belfast city cemetery has a six-foot underground wall to separate Protestants from Catholics. Paupers’ graves are shared by whoever can’t pay and are left unmarked, whereas graves nearest to a church are reserved for well paying clients or the clergy. This is a factor in understanding the landscape Eaton created. Forest Lawn was segregated for decades. I messaged the cemetery’s livestream, a service offered on their website where a technician responds immediately to any questions, to ask details. What years was the Memorial Park segregated for? I wrote. The technician slowly typed out, that’s a good question, but didn’t know the answer, and referred me to an email address. No one responded to any of my several emails. Officially the Supreme court ruled in 1948 that racially restrictive land deeds violated the 14th amendment in Shelley v Kramer, which would eventually be applied to burial plots.  Despite not getting any concrete dates from the technician, I do know that for decades Forest Lawn refused to bury anyone who was Black, Jewish, Chinese. The idea that a body can infect another body is a dark holdover from living society. Cities of the dead are bound by the same laws of hate and exploitation as cities of the living. This is what I walk through as I trudge naively up hills with my notebook in hand, histories of power. Paradise is defined by who is allowed in and who isn’t. It is a site of exclusion, and the cemetery is its worldly counterpart. The gated courtyards on the hilltops are mostly locked. Several times, when I neared a locked gate, I was approached by security, who were everywhere, and asked if I needed help. Decorum is strictly regulated and carefully policed. There is a code of conduct for mourners that they agree to when they buy a plot. No balloons, spinners, ornamentation, planters, statues, or stones are permitted on the graves. Potted flowers can be no larger than eight inches in diameter. Cut flowers will be removed in three days. No one can lie down on the grass or have a picnic. I did see a family having a meal at a graveside, a Californian ritual. They were sitting in camping chairs, eating sandwiches, and sharing a bottle of soda water among the fields and fields of brass plaques, but I imagine they were told off eventually. Signs near the road warn “flower theft is a crime punishable by imprisonment.” Security guards ride around on golf carts watching you carefully, noting you as you walk, even more so at the crests of the hills, like an economic reflection of LA itself. I thought maybe I could convince someone to let me inside one of the locked courtyards, but they worked in pairs, so I didn’t try. I joked about the weather to make them smile, hoping they didn’t kick me out. When I finally got back to the wrought iron gates, I wasn’t sure where I had been. I felt unmoved, exhausted. Forest Lawn’s marketing claims the gates are the biggest of their kind in the world, 10,000 pounds, 25 feet high, 80 feet wide, larger than the gates at Buckingham Palace, or Topkapi. Laqueur suggests that the dead inhabit two distinct cultural landscapes. The graveyard, where their physical bodies or ashes are interred, and an imagined world, a shadowland without maps or clear geography, heaven, hell, purgatory, the void on the other side of the River Styx, potential and emptiness all at the same time. The graveyard offers a dangerous window into the other side. It is important to know when you have entered and when you have left. One superstition says that when leaving a cemetery, you should touch the iron gate, so any clinging ghosts are stopped from following you. I reach up to feel the metal as I pass. It is cold under my palm.
Toward My Own Definition of Disability

Growing up, I resisted identifying as disabled. Now, I’m seeking to better understand the label and the community behind it.

I. “I write essays about life with a chronic medical problem,” I tell the editor when we meet at a literary event. I don’t go into the details—that I was born with a neurological condition, hydrocephalus, which is treated with a device called a shunt. Periodically the shunt malfunctions and I get headaches and other strange symptoms that only brain surgery can alleviate. During those times, having hydrocephalus is frightening and painful, but when the shunt is working, as it is this evening at the bookstore, I barely think about it—that is, outside the context of my writing. “We publish pieces on disability,” the editor says, handing me his card. I thank him and walk away. I don’t want to leave a bad first impression by saying something contradictory. But I don’t have a disability, I think to myself. Or do I? A few months later, an editor puts out a call for submissions and specifies that essays by writers from marginalized groups, including people with disabilities, will receive priority attention. I send in an essay describing the parallels between my life with hydrocephalus and a memoir by a writer with a hunchback. In The Little Locksmith (1943), Katharine Butler Hathaway describes how she came to learn that despite her physical frailty and short stature, she could live a happy and independent life. I identified with Hathaway’s experiences—of feeling that others see you differently than you see yourself, of noticing that the sexual experiences others are having in the normal course of things aren’t happening to you. Hathaway seemed to be a kindred spirit of a kind I hadn’t encountered before. In the afterword to the Feminist Press edition of The Little Locksmith, the late author Nancy Mairs, who wrote about disability herself, called the book “a nuanced inquiry into the social, psychosexual, and spiritual realities of disability, half a century before disability studies emerged as an academic pursuit.” I knew that Hathaway and I both had “lifelong medical issues,” but I didn’t consider mine to be disabling. Mairs’ afterword suggested that disability was what Hathaway and I had in common, that with all the parallels between my life and Hathaway’s, my “lifelong medical issue” looked, swam, and quacked like disability. At least, that’s how I see it now. In September, 2017, when I submitted the Hathaway essay, I included the word “disability” in the title and the editor replied that she would read my piece promptly because I was a writer from a marginalized group. But am I? Do I deserve this special treatment? I knew that Hathaway’s story, in which I saw parallels to my own, was regarded as one of disability. I could also see how my work would seem disability-ish: I write about how inherent physical and neurological differences complicate my life and make it more difficult for me to do certain things. (Different from whom? More difficult for me than for whom? These are important questions.) But I’d never thought of these differences as disabilities. While they make it more difficult for me to do certain things, they don’t render me unable to do them. By the time the piece was published, in late February of last year, by a different editor somewhere else, I’d taken that word out. But at a writing conference the following month, I attended panel discussions about illness and disability, again felt a sense of identification, and began to wonder if there was an entire group of people like me and like Hathaway and if these people were, in fact, “the disability community,” a term to which the panelists introduced me. A community of potential kindred spirits—and living ones, at that. How could I not explore this? * I know what kept me from exploring it earlier: a sort of internalized ableism. From my earliest days at school, I avoided kids who took special classes and received extra help and turned away relationships that could have sowed the earliest seeds of community. This ableism came not just from the stigma and isolation that seemed to follow those kids, but also from my notion that, when it came to school, I had to be not just smart but perfect. I couldn’t have special needs or acknowledge commonalities with students who did because I wanted to be gifted and talented and thought the two labels were mutually exclusive. I didn’t allow then for the possibility that a person could be talented at one thing and need extra help with another. Prejudice, fear, and a lack of understanding tend to go together. I was ableist. I was afraid of disability. I also didn’t quite know what disability meant. For most of my life, I’ve operated not with an official definition of disability but with an unspoken personal one. Something like: A disability is something that makes the activities of daily life, developed by and for people who are mobile, have all five senses, and are of average intellectual abilities, difficult or impossible without help. Given my prejudices, by that definition, I didn’t consider myself to have a disability. But the minute I’d reject disability, I’d be flooded with memories suggesting that whatever disability was, it did apply to me. The real estate agent who called me, a few hours after an apartment viewing, to ask if I need a first-floor room; he’d noticed that I was “very careful when I walked.” The neighbor who called me the “poster child” for Special Children’s Friends, an organization with which my mother was heavily involved during its early years. The woman who, at the Jazz Age Lawn Party, interrupted my Charleston to tell me to keep my feet closer together; I knew she was wrong to embarrass me that way, yet it still shames me to imagine that what I’d thought of as my fine-for-an-amateur dancing was so noticeably aberrant. These are all memories of times that others shook up my view of myself as fitting in, as being normal and living a normal life. But I also have my own caveats: a long list of “buts” and “thoughs.” I’m physically able, but I have hydrocephalus; but I take medicine to prevent seizures; but I have a benign tumor on my brainstem, which, in addition to having presumably caused the hydrocephalus with which I was born, gives me an asymmetrical face, weak left side, poor balance, and monocular vision, meaning I have no depth perception. I’m intelligent, but I process information slowly, take extra time on tests, get lost even with Google Maps. I work and live on my own, but my parents supplement my income. And back when I was a kid, I didn’t go to the “resource room,” where special classes took place, but I certainly had things in common with the students who did—that is, in addition to a school, a home state, humanity. With one student who went to the resource room, and who also tried to befriend me, I shared something quite specific: a neurologist. Do all of these little signs, all of these exceptions to my claim of being just like my peers—or like the classmates I considered peers—constitute a disability? II. The first place I think to look for a definition of disability is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (the ADA). Modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADA is civil-rights legislation for people with disabilities, making it illegal for employers to discriminate against disabled people and requiring public accommodations, government services (including public transportation), and telecommunications to be accessible. Right at the top, the ADA also defines disability, but does so in what seems to me a very confusing way. The ADA’s definition of disability can be seen as having three prongs (my word, not theirs). A person with a disability, according to the ADA, has an impairment that “substantially limits one or more major life activities” (prong one); “a record of such an impairment,” that is, of a past impairment (prong two); or is “regarded as having such an impairment” (prong three). When I first read that definition, I don’t know what to think. My medical issues don’t cause me problems on a daily basis and my senses are intact—under prong one, I don’t have a disability. But I do have a history of impairments—multiple shunt revisions, seizures, early years when I had a trach, couldn’t talk, was learning sign language—and there have been many instances when others have regarded me as having special needs. So, by the second and third prongs of the definition, I do have a disability—or so it seems. My identity seems to shift as I read along, and with each shift comes the uncomfortable feeling of having been wrong. Is one’s disability really defined by the perceptions of others (prong three), which may be inaccurate? Or by one’s history (prong two), though a past disability may be irrelevant to one’s present capabilities? And though I am fine most of the time, when the shunt fails, I can do little more than lie in bed and wait for surgery. Major life activities—walking, breathing, sleeping, working—are most certainly impaired. In which state does the ADA judge my abilities? The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 says that “an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.” Further, it specifies that the severity of an impairment should be judged “without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures,” including medications and prosthetic devices (with the single exception of eyeglasses and contact lenses). Is the shunt a mitigating measure to be disregarded? Because without the shunt, I’d most certainly be disabled; I might even be dead. To help me answer these questions about the ADA’s definition of disability, I speak to Cindy Tarshish, the manager of ADA Minnesota. Prior to the Amendments Act, if you relied on a mitigating measure, you may not have been considered disabled under the Act; that changed in 2008, Tarshish tells me. So whether the shunt is a mitigating measure seems not to matter, because mitigating measures themselves no longer matter under the Act: it’s the consequences of one’s medical conditions, considered in an active, untreated state, that determine disability according to the ADA. This would suggest that I am a person with a disability as described by the first prong of the ADA’s definition. Yes, I am fine—when I take medication to forestall seizures and anxiety, when I have a working shunt regulating the pressure in my brain. When I’m good, I’m very good, to paraphrase the poem, but when I’m bad, I’m horrid. And the latter is the state in which, under the ADA, one would assess my impairments to decide whether I am disabled. After speaking with Tarshish, prongs two and three make a little more sense. Through the “regarded as” prong, the ADA protects people from discrimination on the basis of a perceived disability, even if that perception is incorrect. Tarshish mentions the story of an able-bodied woman with a facial scar who was denied the job of hostess at Red Lobster on the grounds that her appearance would be “unappetizing”—that woman would have certainly been eligible to sue for disability-based discrimination. The ADA also protects those with a history of disability—cancer survivors, for example—from discrimination on the basis of that history (and the fear that it might repeat itself). It also protects those who are associated with disabled people, such as the parents of a disabled child. These protections against disability-based discrimination don’t, however, mean that all these people are disabled or are entitled to accommodations at work. The ADA does not, in other words, claim that the regard of others can be disabling. Yet the idea compels me, because so much of my thinking that I might have a disability stems from the perceptions of others, and my perceptions of their perceptions. The idea that notions of disability, valid or not, could be the basis of discrimination suggests that disability is a social construct. Offering accommodations out of the blue, as the real estate agent did while I was looking at that apartment, is also a kind of discrimination, which is not to say it’s wrong—but it puts people with apparent differences in a group apart (socially, that is—the ADA doesn’t weigh in here). To the extent that disability is a social construct, I have one. But disability is more than a social construct; it’s, to refer to the ADA, an impairment that significantly limits one or more major life activities. What distinguishes the experience of a person with a disability from that of an able-bodied person is not just discrimination, but also the disability itself. For example, I have a lazy left eye, one of the ways in which my face is asymmetrical, and people notice it. People don’t know which eye to look at when talking to me, my mom says. But the lazy eye is more than a superficial difference that can inspire discrimination: it has neurological roots and functional consequences—monocular vision and a lack of depth perception. So for that and other reasons, I am indeed “careful” when I walk down stairs. Originally, I don’t think I have a disability as the first prong of the ADA defines it, yet even that is subject to my doubt. The ADA Amendments Act changed the definition of disability to specify that major bodily functions, including those of the brain, are major life activities. That I have hydrocephalus means that one of my bodily functions, the regulated flow of cerebrospinal fluid through the brain, is impaired. The shunt works around the problem, rerouting the brain’s fluid—but, as every shunt failure makes clear, the problem remains. If I have a disability under the ADA, then, at least in theory, would I also qualify for disability benefits through Social Security? Though the requirements one must meet to receive benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA) are quite complicated, it doesn’t take long for me to see that the answer is no: the ADA and SSA view disability quite differently. By the ADA’s definition, a disabled person could potentially have both a job and a condition that medications or a device, such as a hearing aid, can completely treat. In contrast, by the SSA’s definition, a disabled person has an impairment that, despite adherence to medical treatments, prevents them from working at all or from earning anything more than a tiny income (in 2018, a person earning more than $1,180 a month from “engaging in substantial gainful activity” would not generally be considered disabled). As Avram L. Sacks, an Illinois-based attorney who focuses on Social Security law and is a member of the Special Needs Alliance Advisory Council, explains to me on the phone, “If an individual is able to function once the condition is being treated, then there’s no disability, because the test is not the name of the condition. The test is not having the condition; the test is whether or not the condition functionally impairs the individual so much that the individual is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity.” If an individual is able to function at that level once the condition is being treated, then there’s no disability. While the ADA disregards mitigating measures, and considers the severity of chronic impairments when they are active, the SSA does the very opposite. For example, I take twice-daily medication for seizures, though the number of seizures I’ve had in my life is probably 10 or fewer. Under the ADA, my seizures would be considered a disability because, when they happen, they impair the functioning of my brain. The SSA, however, generally only considers seizures to be a disability if they occur at least once a month—the details vary depending on seizure type—and “despite adherence” to meds. So although due to my chronic, treatable medical problems, I meet the ADA’s definition of a person with a disability and would be protected from disability-based discrimination at work, among other places, I do not meet the SSA’s definition: I work and earn an income past the defined point of substantial gainful activity, and my medical conditions are chronic and treatable. * But the question of whether I have a disability according to government and legal definitions is mostly theoretical. In reality, whether the ADA and SSA definitions of disability apply to me, personally, is a moot point—I have no employer from whom to request accommodations and thanks to my income and other financial resources I don’t currently need help from the SSA. To get beyond theory, I contact the Hydrocephalus Association and ask if they could connect me with people who have hydrocephalus and also receive Social Security benefits or accommodations under the ADA. The organization connects me with several adults with hydrocephalus who cannot work and who receive or have received Social Security disability benefits. I find few sources with hydrocephalus who have experience with the ADA, and Cindy Tarshish does not have particular knowledge of how the ADA might apply to people with hydrocephalus—though she believes that, as an impairment of a major bodily function, hydrocephalus would probably be considered a disability in itself. I can’t know how a court might view my medical issues if I sued an employer for disability-based discrimination; only experience could tell. It’s thanks to financial and medical luck that I can ponder these legal issues with nothing personal at stake. Were I poorer and without parents to help me, I might well meet financial requirements for Social Security disability benefits. Were I less privileged financially I would also probably have an employer, since freelance journalism is not a great way to earn a living. I might, therefore, have reason to assert my rights under the ADA. I likely wouldn’t be writing this for fear that “outing myself” as disabled would, despite the ADA’s theoretical protections, put me at a disadvantage in the job market. I’m also lucky that my medical issues don’t disable me more. When I was a baby, the doctors were sure I would be severely disabled and told my parents that they should put me in “an institution,” which I put in scare quotes because the phrase to me implies something vague and frightening. I definitely had special needs as a baby. In addition to the shunt, I got a trach because one of my neurological problems was that I didn’t swallow. The trach, which allowed for clearing aspirations from my airway, also meant that I couldn’t talk (air went in and out of the trach instead of in and out my mouth and nose, meaning that it didn’t pass by the voice box). My mom likes to say that she had three kids: me, my trach, and all of the equipment that accompanied the trach. That’s why, when other kids were starting to talk, I was starting to sign (“more crackers, please”). But I didn’t require this level of care forever, or even for very long. At two I got a fenestrated trach, which had holes in the top so that air would reach the larynx when I forced it in that direction by covering the trach opening. Finger over my trach, I became quickly voluble; at three, the trach came out altogether and I was left with my unusual, yet completely functional, voice. I learned to swallow. As for the shunt: I’ve had five shunt failure episodes during my thirty-four years, some requiring multiple surgeries, called shunt revisions. Each shunt failure is an ordeal. But, of course, “it could be worse,” to use a stupid cliché—a different life is not better or worse, it’s just different, with endless dimensions beyond neurology; all I mean is that neurological problems could complicate my life more than they have so far. Some people with hydrocephalus have needed more frequent surgeries than I have. Some people with hydrocephalus—because of the frequent surgeries, because of brain damage, because of whatever neurological problems, such as my tumor, may have caused the hydrocephalus in the first place—cannot work at all. In other words, some people with hydrocephalus cannot perform “substantial gainful activity” and, therefore, need Social Security disability benefits. I speak with one woman who acquired hydrocephalus early in her life and is just a few years older than I am. She has had roughly thirty revisions and receives Social Security disability benefits because she can’t work. She also volunteers at a swim class for disabled kids and describes herself as “happily single.” I speak with a mother whose twenty-year-old son suffered significant brain damage because of his hydrocephalus and has had over 100 shunt revisions; the son has a 50-word vocabulary, an untestably low IQ, uses a wheelchair, and has received Social Security disability benefits since he turned eighteen. He also works out four days a week, rides horses as part of an equestrian program for people with disabilities, and plays with his dog. During my last shunt failure, this past April, I have three shunt-replacement surgeries because the first two shunts quickly fail. I’m in the hospital nearly a month, much of that time spent in the ICU. It’s a pretty bad situation, relative to those I’ve been in before. But the current shunt, the result of surgery number three, seems to be working well. III. Since I’m not currently asking for disability benefits or accommodations, the question, “Do I have a disability?” truly is a matter of identity. Do I identify as disabled? The answer in my mind is still maybe, or sort of, or depends on how you look at it—that is, it’s a matter of how you define disability. But what I do recognize as true is that I am like Hathaway, that I am like some of those students who took special classes and whose similarities with myself I rejected decades ago. Does it matter if I call what links us disability? When it comes to people taking comfort in shared experiences, I don’t think the name for that unifying element matters. But when it comes to taking advantages of opportunities reserved for marginalized groups, whether or not to call oneself disabled is a more serious question. It matters because when a publication offers demographic boxes as part of its submissions system and states that it wants to publish more writers from marginalized demographics, to check the box when you don’t belong to the group is to gain advantage by fraud. I fear that choosing to identify as disabled, with the implication that I could also choose not to, is a privilege like that of a white person choosing to use an Asian pseudonym when submitting a poem. But what separates me and my notion of identifying as disabled from the white person pretending to be a person of color is that I have indisputable medical problems that I can’t change. Though I can choose whether to call those medical problems disabilities, that’s the extent of the choice. Unlike, say, Rachel Dolezal, I’m not trying to join a marginalized group to which I don’t belong. You can’t choose to join a marginalized group, anyway, any more than you can choose to be born with hydrocephalus. Other people marginalize you or they don’t—if they don’t, you’re lucky. Throughout most of my life, I’ve been more akin to the person who is already in the group but doesn’t realize it. And though I can’t choose whether or not to be disabled, I am now, in a very public fashion, choosing to identify myself that way. * The stigma of disability comes from being seen as different from mainstream social norms and ideals; it can isolate one from people who see that difference as a negative. But to self-identify as disabled isn’t to isolate oneself, it’s to join a group: the disability community. When I read personal essays and memoir by people with disabilities, I tend to think not, these people are different, but, oh my gosh, these people are like me! Experiences that isolate a disabled person from able-bodied peers can be the very same ones that bring disabled people together—to some extent, it is the marginalization that creates the marginalized group. It’s what connects me and my experiences to Hathaway and hers. But not just to Hathaway. Also to Keah Brown: “I grew up shielded from the eyes of strangers and blissfully unaware of the reality of the world. In fact, I genuinely did not know that I was disabled until I reached middle school, when a boy mocked the way I walked across the cafeteria. Up until that moment, I had lived like I was able-bodied, and never considered that my walk was different than anyone else’s.” Also to Nicola Griffith: “I have . . . regarded my MS and its consequences as a tedious, time-consuming thing Over There, separate from my real life. My illness, I reasoned, was a personal difficulty that took a lot of bandwidth to mitigate; why give it any more attention than necessary?” Also to Esmé Weijun Wang: “I am her, but I don’t want to be her . . . . It didn’t matter how pulled-together I seemed when, for example, I was crossing campus, ducking and dodging specters that no one else could see. I knew that I looked crazy, and that no amount of snappy dressing could conceal the dodging. Because such movements were a necessary concession to my craziness, I responded by trying even harder to seem normal when I wasn’t being assailed by hallucinations. I went dancing. I ate potato skins in Irish bars and pizza joints. I did all the ordinary things I could think of.”11In the first sentence, Wang writes of her reaction to a woman with schizoaffective disorder who identifies with Wang, though Wang, who has the same condition and is visiting the mental health clinic not for treatment but as an invited speaker, does not want to identify with her. In the sentences that follow, Wang describes the anxiety, caused by the fear of standing out, that pervaded even everyday activities when Wang was a college student who had hallucinations. Both sentences highlight the discomfort with disability that even disabled people sometimes feel and the hypersensitivity—even when doing “normal” things—that comes with having a health condition that can feel like a chronic abnormality. When I read these kinds of stories by people who identify as disabled, in which people talk about things that so often go unspoken like guilty secrets, I feel less alone, connected not just with other disabled people but also with people who share another identity of mine: writer. There’s a hashtag that one can use to find other disabled writers and people who write about disability: #CripLit. The hashtag grew out of a Twitter chat of the same name hosted by writers Nicola Griffith and Alice Wong. When I think of “the disability community,” that term I picked up at the writing conference, I imagine the group of people who use the hashtag #CripLit. In reality, self-identified disabled writers on Twitter are a subset of all people with disabilities, and common characteristics, in themselves, do not a community make. That said, the sheer number of people out there on Twitter who use the hashtag does inspire a sense of solidarity or kinship in me. The more Tweets I read that clamor for writing about disabled people by disabled people (#OwnVoices), the more I find myself wanting to participate in the discussion, to add the hashtag to my Tweets, to say, “Hey, I’m creating work of the sort you’re saying we need more of.” But are my essays #CripLit? That goes back to the question of whether I identify as a #Crip. Now, I think I do. As a kid, I felt that being labeled a person with special needs would have negated my strengths, toppled me from my pedestal, rendered me imperfect. It’s just not true. Needing extra help in one area has no bearing on one’s skill in another. Going to speech therapy in high school, for example—I was offered it, but said “no thanks”—wouldn’t have made me a poorer student, wouldn’t have somehow canceled out my talent for, say, learning French. I have always been imperfect—not because of my medical condition, but because perfection is impossible, subjective. Recognizing my weaknesses has made me less of a snob and slightly less sensitive. Now when I face criticism, rejection, or realize a mistake, it’s not a flaw on a once-immaculate canvas—it’s just another brushstroke. * Despite trying to see myself from above, I’ll never really know how I seem to other people, and that’s humbling. While reporting this piece, I ask a few people if there is anything they notice about me that makes them think I might have a disability. The answers are unanimous, and all mention something that hasn’t occurred to me at all: not my body, or the somewhat raspy sound of my voice, but my speech patterns. “It's not that you speak incorrectly,” says my friend Mo, who, during this same interview, tells me about her life with Tourette syndrome. “But you just have a different cadence . . . more like a pause and rhythm to your speech that's a bit different than what we're used to hearing usually,” Esmé Weijun Wang, who speaks with me on the phone about being a disabled person of color, tells me that it’s hard for her to forget what she knows about my medical issues but that, “If I had not known any of that, maybe your speech pattern would have given me a clue.” Now that it’s been pointed out, I realize I do stop and start and backtrack and qualify. When I go over recordings of interviews I’ve done, I prefer to fast-forward through the parts where I’m the one talking. Yet I didn’t realize my speech was so different from that of someone who seasons sentences with “like,” “I mean,” and “fuck.” I guess it is. There’s this whole other weakness I didn’t know I had. How many more might there be? * I can’t yet say how identifying as disabled has affected my life. I won’t really have done it until this essay is published and, even then, it’s not as if publication is going to flip a switch and make me a new person. “Joining” the disability community is not an instantaneous thing, either. As Wang tells me, “I did not particularly feel trepidation regarding joining the disability community, but I also find the phrase ‘joining the disability community’ or ‘joining’ any community to be sort of strange. When I hear that phrase, it makes me think of, like, signing up in a big book—putting one's name down in a registry, or something much more concrete than what it is in actuality. So if ‘joining’ the disability community means interacting with other disabled people and advocating for oneself and other disabled people, then I suppose that no, I haven’t felt trepidation or hesitation about that.” I do, however, still feel trepidation about what I think of as “coming out” as disabled. I fear that disabled people might see me as trying to exploit a marginalized identity; I fear that drawing attention to my weaknesses might make me the target of ableist discrimination. At the same time, the more I’ve explored my medical issues, in part by writing about them, the more grounded I feel in reality; no longer do the difficult parts of my life feel disconnected from the narrative I tell. No longer do I have a secret that distances me from others. * Last April, I posted Facebook updates throughout my shunt failure. During previous hospitalizations, I’d just disappeared without a word. This was also my first shunt failure with a smart phone. It was comforting to see people’s likes and comments and to know that they knew and cared what was happening to me. That the source of my sickness was a rare medical condition with complications on the side did not seem to affect their reactions, and that was a relief. It simplified everything: either I felt better, and that was good, or I felt worse, and everyone hoped I’d feel better soon. It was also a relief to be open with so many people about my hydrocephalus, to drop the euphemisms, to stop fussing over who knew and who didn’t, to accept that, in the future, anyone who became my Facebook friend would be able to see a photo of what I looked like in the hospital when I had a wire coming out of my head. I looked better. I looked happy. I was, indeed, feeling better. Fact-checker: Rhiannon Russell
Four Bloody Fingers

The figure of the witch looms conspicuously large in Catalan—in the gardens, on the roof, in the heart of the mountain.

A Arbúcies,Dotze dones, tretze bruixes In Arbúcies,Twelve women, thirteen witches—Catalonian saying When you have walked past the olive orchards and through the forests of scabby barked pines, past where the gentle undulations of the countryside still veiled in early morning mist stop and the unapologetic ascent beneath the risen sun begins, past the point at which the neat gravel path starts to give over increasingly to clambers across skullsmooth stone with footholds worn into it like trepanation scars—then you are well on your way along the pilgrimage to the Black Madonna. And if you should stop at one of the level rises along the route, whether for water or breath or merely to look out across the landscape, then you should not be surprised if the cliff-face there is graffitied with the flag of Catalonia, either the four-stripped senyera or its lone-star variant, the dribbling red and yellow bands making it look as though its painters had vanished just as you rounded the corner. But if, on the other hand, you were to turn very wrong indeed, were to lose yourself in the woods or the knotted crossroads of the foothills, then your journey might lead not to the top of the mountain but towards its cold, stilled heart: deep into the caverns where centuries ago the men of the surrounding villages mined saltpetre for gunpowder by day and by night, it is said, the women made love to the Devil. * * * In the town of El Bruc there lived two witches, old women both under five feet, squat and hunched like tree stumps. It was never made clear to me whether they were sisters or lovers or merely companions but they seemed made for each other, as one’s left hand is made to clasp one’s right. The first witch was called Rosa, the other Montserrat, after those peculiar rock formations that stretched tendril-like to the sky just beyond their village. The witches walked around the gardens of the farmhouse where we stayed, pulling up weeds or making passing attempts at trimming the scraggly doggrass. To survey the grounds, with their patchy, clover-pocked lawns, with wildflowers that sprouted from the roof tiles, you would not know that they were tended not once but twice over; but then, I often thought that the place possessed an untamed beauty I would not trade for any neatness. The witches rarely spoke to us; they kept to themselves, observing, observing. Every so often, Montserrat would pause, raise her clasped hands to her mouth, and hold whispered council with the clutch of stones she carried with her always, as the faces of the dead are carried in the innermost chambers of our hearts. I had come to El Bruc to work on a novel: a farmhouse there called Can Serrat had been converted into a residency space decades before by a group of artists, two of whom were present during our stay. One was a mild-mannered sculptor on vacation with her granddaughter; the other recited the Edda in Old Norse to anyone who said they wrote poetry, and slept on the roof terrace like a maiden from Peer Gynt. She was also in the habit of disappearing, cat-like, for long stretches of time; returning from one of these periods away, she would explain that she had spent her days on top of a mountain with the witches. I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that every family in the village supported Catalonian nationhood. All along the cobblestone streets of El Bruc, flags were draped out of windows; yellow bits of plastic were tied around grilles or else hung down from fuse boxes, fluttering in the idle breeze. If an old woman were to walk from one of the houses in our quarter to the grocer or the little vermouth shop on the main street, she might fasten a pro-independence pin to her dress or to her bag before she stepped out the door; and as she walked, she would cross a bridge whose railings were tied with ribbons, each memorializing a Catalan political prisoner currently sitting in a Spanish jail, and the streets she went through would be crisscrossed with yellow streamers, and the walls she passed would be streaked with anti-Spanish sloganeering on posters and in paint. And the buildings themselves, ocher beneath red terracotta roofs, might seem to her like nothing so much as one great band of the senyera—whose design was said to derive from the pattern made by four fingers soaked in blood and drawn across a golden shield—and if she raised her head to look beyond them she would see the great otherworldly peaks of Montserrat, a sight as intimately bound to the village as its sigil, and lying somewhere among those peaks, unseen but surely felt, the holy church of the Black Madonna. * * * The figure of the witch looms conspicuously large in the Catalan popular imagination. Across Catalonia, place names bear witness to the covens once said to gather there: Pla de les bruixes, Coll de les bruixes, Cercle de les bruixes. In Centelles, so the saying went, all the women were witches; in some areas, townspeople fixed palm fronds to their balconies or above their chimneys to prevent sorcery from afflicting their homes. As the hysteria for witch hunts swept through the rest of Europe like a field ablaze, Spain’s inquisitors, otherwise so eager to pull heresy up by the roots and raze Iberia’s centuries-long history of religious coexistence to the ground, tended to regard charges of devil-worship and magic with intense skepticism: trials were rare, with many regarding them as an outgrowth of Protestant lunacy from the north. Yet for royal subjects of strange tongue and suspect race, these normally forbearing inquisitors proved frequently willing to make an exception. After the forces of Isabella and Ferdinand had crushed the last aboriginal resistors in the Canary Islands, reports proliferated of demonic women who would clamber down from the mountains of Tenerife to drink the blood of children and swim naked and cackling in the sea. In Cartagena, slaves were forced to confess to the heinous acts of the witches’ sabbath, their syncretic blending of West African and Catholic religious elements twisted by their accusers into satanic ritual. On mainland Iberia, too, many of the fiercest witch trials occurred in areas on the margins of Castilian control, regions populated by ethnic and linguistic minorities where pre-Christian histories ran deep. In the Basque Country, some 7,000 people were accused of sorcery, the largest witch hunt in history; the episode’s legacy lives on in the modern Spanish word for a witches’ sabbath, aquelarre, which derives ultimately from the Basque word meaning “he-goat,” the form the Devil took to preside over the ceremonies. [[{"fid":"6704866","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] In Catalonia, too, witch trials were far more common than in the Spanish heartland. For those accused who were found guilty, events proceeded in an exactingly choreographed public performance of religious righteousness that became, ultimately, its own black-hearted parody: wearing conical hats and smocks bearing the blood-red slashes of St. George’s cross, the heretics were led to a stage in the plaza like actors in a play and forced to sit on designated “benches of infamy.” After the conclusion of the first section of the Mass, the unrepentant were cleared away in preparation for the holy rites. The penitents remaining would be tapped with sticks by clerics to signal their embrace by the merciful love of the Church’s forgiveness; the green cross of the inquisition, hitherto veiled as though in mourning, would be uncovered in celebration before the thronging crowd. Meanwhile, as though in another world entirely, a world in exile from the very concept of mercy, the damned would wind their way through the narrow alleyways and streets of the town, pausing every now and again to kneel on the cobblestones and pray if they encountered a holy image, and out to the execution grounds, where they were bound to a stake and burned until “relaxed,” the official euphemism for the point at which, whether from smoke inhalation, heat stroke, or catastrophic tissue damage, the victims were finally granted the release of death. * * * It was during my time at Can Serrat that I met Marval; a performance artist, Marval began many of his days at the residency by trekking up the hill to the abandoned tile factory at the edge of town. The path was littered with jags of sea-blue tiles that winked up at you like the thousand eyes of a monster whose slumber you had interrupted with your steps. In the privacy of the factory, Marval would spend hours crafting a piece that melded queer theory with Catalan bruixeria, or witchcraft. Family lore held that the woman of Marval’s family had long practiced something not quite aligned with Catholicism’s narrow path to righteousness: stories of an intergenerational curse, of a great-great-grandmother who had run an herb shop outside of Sabadell and ministered to the sick with sprigs and balms and an uncanny power to heal. His grandmother’s house, shadowy and somber even at the height of the afternoon, was filled with hand-hewn cuckoo clocks that chimed—none quite in sync with the others clocks—by day and by night; the small back garden was dominated by carnivorous plants waiting gape-jawed for their prey. Once, Marval told me, he had come upon a curious ivory box while on a visit as a child: opening it, he found a small doll run through with pins, bound with twine, and inscribed all over with words he could not understand. Affixed to the face was a photograph of his uncle. The witch of Catalonia was therefore a braided thing, the unremarkable reality of folk practices and semi-pagan rights intermingled and augmented by the paranoiac fantasies of the witch hunt days. The Catalan witch was therefore both of and not of this world, a halfling who dwelt both in the imagination and in the realm of the living. * * * When Spain’s Charles II—called “el Hechizado,” or “the bewitched”—died at thirty-eight, the doctors who conducted his postmortem opened up his body to find that it “did not contain a single drop of blood; his heart was the size of a peppercorn; his lungs corroded; his intestines rotten and gangrenous; he had a single testicle, black as coal, and his head was full of water.” Shortly thereafter, Spain’s Grand Inquisitor charged the royal confessor, Froilán Díaz, with secretly hexing the king. The thirteen-year war that roiled across Europe to decide who would succeed Charles left between four hundred thousand to one and a quarter million casualties in its wake; the French dauphin who was eventually installed upon the Spanish throne, Philip V, embarked upon a campaign of centralization aimed at eroding the regional identities of his new kingdom. Catalonia, which had supported the losing side of the war, now incurred Philip’s wrath: the planks of Catalan autonomy were ripped up and replaced with Castilian authority. [[{"fid":"6704876","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] The Spanish painter Francisco Goya, working a century later, would turn to images of the unholy in his own studies of war: creatures with monstrous leathery wings, a resurrection from the dead, a man kneeling in the darkness with the outstretched arms of a seer awaiting a vision from a holy or unholy spirit. And at a time of moral disaster and political crisis when the prevailing institutions of faith are at a point of collapse, were there those for whom the legends of the otherworldly seemed now to hold a certain promise? In the long wasting days of war and the years of the difficult peace that followed, what omens did these women see? Yolks twinned in the egg, cow’s milk yellowed and foul at the teat? Did half-mad horses devour each other in the fields? Did the feverish wind called the xaloc blow in from the desert, carrying dust that dyed the rains red? Did the water fall from the sky like blood, did blood flow down the roofs, down the walls, did blood run through the streets as though from the arcane sacrificial rites of a demon wedding? But how to lift this curse, they thought, how to heal the ailments of a land? And in the night, the dark endless nights of a world lit only by fire, what shadows did these women embrace? When they set out for the caves, what cold hand did they feel at their shoulder? And as the guttering flames threw shadows on the wall, what dread visions revealed themselves of events which have since unfolded, and others which have yet to come to pass? * * * When the armies of the Nationalists had succeeded in defeating the last guerrillas of the leftist Republican forces, Franco and his Falange imposed upon the nation a spirit of ultra-Catholicism and pro-Castilianism that soon manifest itself in a series of laws intended to stamp out minority identities in Spain. Catalan street signs were crowbarred off the walls; in clerk’s offices and courthouses, government functionaries refused forms submitted under non-Castilian names. At birth registries across Catalonia, Joseps hastily became Josés, Lluïsas dropped the double-l and the diaeresis, Mònicas turned the accent the other way round. But what to do with the Montserrats, the little Serrats and Ratetas and Monses whose very name gestured toward the heart of Catalonia itself? In schoolyards, children caught speaking local tongues could expect to be taken by the ear and beaten with a length of witch hazel. Minority languages might be spoken at home in hushed whispers, but in public, in the streets, anywhere the Falange could hear you, it was Castilian and Castilian alone. Even today, the period of Franco’s rule is remembered in Catalonia as a time of unique pain and unprecedented cultural loss. At certain moments, Marval told me, the scrim of his grandmother’s dementia would descend over her eyes and she would forget that Franco was no longer in power—and then she would hear people around her speaking Catalan, and then she would cry for them to stop, to stop for their own sake, to stop before the police heard them; and then her relatives would explain that everything was all right and, with difficulty, she would awake to the present. (An aside: It seems to me that Franco’s language policies share something in common with the notion of the witches spell, that words can act as well as exist, that they shape the world they inhabit, that there is a fundamental danger to them, and that for this reason they should be controlled and contained.) * * * As the Fascists’ repression came down increasingly against Spain’s minority ethnic communities, cultic religious practice served as both haven and battleground. With free expression coming increasingly under state surveillance in the cities, artists and activists began decamping to the peaks of Montserrat that jut out from the plain like the devil’s spine. Monistrol de Montserrat, the mountaintop town that houses the Black Madonna, became a haven for political dissidents. Sunday services echoed through the vaulted church not in Castilian but in Catalan, in direct defiance of the government’s language policies. Later, talking about all of this, Marval told me about a legend that the witches who tended the gardens of Can Serrat had confirmed knowledge of but seemed fearful to discuss with him: that the Black Madonna, revered as the holiest image in Catalonia, was in fact no holy image at all but instead imbued with strange satanic powers, and that the child in her lap was not Christ but his female twin. Like a spiderweb linking branch to branch, the witches’ story seemed to bind together the disparate themes of gender, power, and subversive religiosity that so occupied us both. The potency of alternative spirituality as a medium for political protest has not faded in the post-Francoist era. On a daytrip into Barcelona—the streets of which, like El Bruc in macrocosm, were festooned with yellow ribbons everywhere—with Marval and the other residents, we went to see a show of feminist and queer ephemera held at the library of the Museum of Contemporary Art. In zines, pamphlets, and banners, artists drew on the visual vocabularies of astrological symbols and Malleus Maleficarum-esque woodcuts as a succinct way of simultaneously expressing irreverence, transformation, otherness, and female power. Not far off, the Barcelona Contemporary Culture Center was playing host to a massive exhibition of art inspired by occultism. What would the women who tended the gardens of Can Serrat make of it all, I wondered. Did the pentagrams and the tarot symbols bear even a shadow’s similarity to what they did in their own homes, to how they thought of their own practices? If one were to say to them that for many their way of life was a wellspring of political subversion, would they nod or would they shrug and continue on with their weeding? On the bus ride back to the village, I laid my head against the windowpane and watched the countryside streak past until the peaks of Montserrat came once more into view. * * * And when you have reached the crest of the mountain and entered at last the town of Monistrol de Montserrat, what then? Across the stately plaza and past the shops selling tins of jiggling crema catalunya and damp moons of monastery sheep’s milk cheese—there is the place you are seeking, the church of the Black Madonna towards which streams of pilgrims now converge like the rivers of Paradise to light gumdrop-colored candles and genuflect before the holiest figure in this struggling nation. The façade of the basilica is ornate as the work of a silversmith; you enter through a special door and wait and wait some more in a narrow staircase from whose walls mosaics of female saints glint in the halflight. Yet the Madonna, when at last you see her, tiny and dough-faced as she stared out impassively from the cloister of her dusty vitrine, is perhaps inevitably disappointing; the paint adorning the walls of the church itself, when all is said and done, is not so fine. After emerging from the confines of the staircase, the vaulted nave with its gilded ribs and saturated hues is almost overawing, dwarfing the Madonna whose right hand, poking out of the glass, contains the world. There are people waiting in line behind you, clearing their throats and shifting from foot to foot; you touch the Virgin’s hand because you feel you are supposed to and hasten towards the door. How much more alluring, in the end, are those strange towers of rock which loom above the town, closer now and yet, for all the distance you have climbed, somehow still remote, the otherworldly stones of Montserrat that draw your gaze as they reach upwards like fingers ready to gouge out the eye of the sun. Behind you, the great belly-pitching drop to the valley floor, its green quilt of vineyards and tomato fields dotted with clusters of senyera-colored houses; before you, the difficult prospect of the long journey home.
Walk the Line

On the ground during the historic LA teachers’ strike.

There comes this moment when you’re standing in the piss-pouring rain, huddled under the four inches of overhang you can fit beneath without your feet edging onto school property, when you feel yourself failing. The morning light is gray and asthmatic through the thick rain clouds. The spokes on your drug-store umbrella have bent. Your jeans are wet and clinging to the long johns underneath. Your sneakers are soaked through for the fourth day in a row, because you live in Los Angeles and have never owned a pair of rain boots. You’ve been up since 5:30 a.m., marching and chanting and trying to rally everyone. But this morning, your heart’s not in it. That’s when one of your co-workers turns to you, face peeking out from her parka, and says, “We need a pep talk.” All the other heads nod. And you see that it’s not just you who’s struggling this morning—everyone is tired, aching, beaten-down. As union chapter chair of your school, it’s your job to pep them up, remind them why they’re out here, say something that will reinvigorate and inspire them. But when you open your mouth, nothing comes out. It’s then, on the fourth day of the LA teacher strike that’s being billed as historic, monumental, game-changing, that you feel wholly inadequate for the task at hand. * It started eight months ago. Really, it started 41 years ago, before you were born—when California passed Proposition 13 and slowly started to bleed its public schools of funding, stripping support staff like nurses, counselors, librarians; slashing arts and enrichment programs; and raising class sizes to some of the largest in the country. But for you, it started in May. Your union, United Teachers Los Angeles, had been in contract negotiations with the Los Angeles Unified School District for a year. Your school didn’t have a union representative, so you heard about the UTLA rally through an email blast. You grew up in a union family, your mom a teacher, your dad a firefighter. Stopping downtown for an hour after school seemed the least you could do. When you arrived at Grand Park, a sea of red-clad teachers swarmed in the shadow of City Hall. They were holding hand-made signs, chanting, playing drums, dancing. A palpable energy radiated off the crowd of 12,000. It was strength and unity, yes, but also a collective power bigger than the sum of its parts. I wanted in. * After the presidential election, I was despondent. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what or how. I kept hearing that people had to find their place, their cause, their group—and act. So I tried. I went to local political and community organization meetings that ran the gamut, but nothing quiet jibed. When I became my school’s chapter chair and attended the UTLA leadership conference that July, I felt like I’d finally found my tribe. People of all stripes filled the conference rooms, a rarity in a city as diverse but deeply segregated as Los Angeles (and a quality distinct to LAUSD, where teaching staff more closely resemble their students than most cities). You had old Brown Berets sitting next to wide-eyed 20-somethings fresh out of their credentialing program. You had white ladies translating the Spanish-language presentations to dudes with dreads in “Danger: Educated Black Man” shirts. The diversity wasn’t labored or self-congratulatory; it was fluid, unpretentious and united by the stone-hard conviction that our public schools were worth fighting for. This unity of vision didn’t mean we always agreed, or that subsequent meetings were always enjoyable. When the school year began, I attended area meetings in the cold cafeteria of Roosevelt High School and the reality of union work sank in. People argued, hogged the mic, asked endless rounds of repetitive questions. After a full day of teaching, the meetings could feel downright tedious. Sometimes I’d zone out while I nibbled on Costco pizza and counted the minutes until I could go home. Through the course of these meetings, I learned the context for the current negotiations. The fight was about more than a raise, more than even class sizes and support staff and over-testing and charter co-location. It was about saving the soul of public education. Perhaps that sounds grandiose, but the stakes were that high. Our pro-charter school board had appointed as our new superintendent Austin Beutner, an investment banker with no prior education experience (think DeVos 2.0) who ran with a pro-privatization LA billionaire crew, fronted by Eli Broad. Beutner had brought on as his chief of staff Rebecca Kockler, the woman responsible for dismantling public schools in New Orleans—a city where, as of this school year, there are no remaining public schools. (Kockler has since resigned.) Beutner was toying with restructuring LAUSD using the portfolio model that has decimated other public schools districts. In short, Beutner wanted to break LAUSD and break the union. The plan was ambitious, UTLA leadership told us, but not impossible. School districts in smaller cities—Newark, Detroit, New Orleans—had been driven to near extinction by the same contingent of pro-charter reformers. Now they wanted to try their hand in the nation’s second-largest school district. We couldn’t just be on the defensive, UTLA officers told us. We had to have a plan that was as equally ambitious and visionary. You want to get a room full of teachers fired up? Ask them to imagine schools with full-time nurses and librarians; where counselors and psychologist social workers have time to actually meet with students; where teachers don’t have to waste days of instruction showing movies while they administer one-on-one standardized tests in the back of the classroom; where instead of random stop-and-frisk searches, restorative justice practices guide school discipline. Ask them to imagine fully funded schools where teachers can actually meet their students’ needs. A strange feeling rises when asked to imagine something so far from reality. As teachers, we spend so much time in the trenches that we sometimes forget just how bad things are. Class sizes of forty start to seem normal. Taking home six hours of grading over the weekend does too. There aren’t funds to build a classroom library, so we spend hours creating a DonorsChoose project. We stock our own supplies of granola bars for the kids we know are always hungry. A student starts coming to class high and stops engaging with the work. We try home calls and one-on-ones and restorative conversations, but the student needs more than that. We can hear the cry for help, but there’s no help to be given. When one stops and really thinks about it all, the feeling that comes isn’t one of sadness or hopelessness or even rage. It’s the feeling that comes after that, the feeling of we’ve had enough. Some folks might just throw up their hands and go home, or else change careers. And a lot of teachers do that. The ones who stay, though, are a special breed, possessed of a mix of dedication and grit. You can say a lot of thing about schoolteachers—we’re unpolished, unsophisticated, exhausted—but one thing you can’t do is mess with us. If the system doesn’t break us—if the years of crushing workloads and the heart-breaking inability to meet our students’ needs don’t turn us cynical and hard—nothing will. Certainly not the threat of weeks of no pay. Certainly not hand-wringing over inflated budget deficits. Certainly not an investment banker and his billionaire cronies. Certainly not, it would turn out, the biggest rainstorm of the season. In every area meeting, there’d be at least one moment when that feeling of fight was palpable. Some salty old teacher would go on a tirade about students sitting on stools in classrooms crammed past capacity, and people would nod and mmm-hmm. “Strike,” someone would start chanting. “Strike, strike.” People would stand, pound tables, clap their hands, stomp their feet. “Strike, strike, strike.” The room would be electric. Our voices would vibrate off the walls. We’d sound bigger than a room of educators, bigger than all the bullshit and billionaires. We’d sound like a force, like thunder. This superintendent doesn’t know who he’s messing with, I’d think. * The lead-up to the strike lasted months. There were lunch meetings, after-school meetings, student meetings, before-school leafleting, strike authorization voting, phone banking, email writing, question fielding, planning and organizing and logisticizing. All of this was unpaid, in addition to a regular workday. It was good work, important work, but it was definitely work. Just as I had come to learn that most of teaching isn’t revelatory moments of enlightenment but rather the mundanity of unjamming copy machines and confiscating cell phones, I came to realize that a lot of striking isn’t rallying hearts and souls, but staple-gunning signs to picket sticks, and trying to secure a reliable restroom. In a lot of ways, I’m a strange choice for a chapter chair, but no one else at my school wanted to step up. Located in East LA, we’re a small pilot school, an LAUSD model in which schools receive additional funding and autonomy in exchange for added work hours and responsibilities for teachers. The additional work meant folks were already stretched past capacity; no one was jumping at the chance to go to more afterschool meetings. So we were stuck with me. I’m good at the parts of union work that involve organization. I can write one hell of a bulleted and sub-head-ed email, but I’m not a rile-you-up kind of person. I feel uncomfortable being the center of attention. I don’t possess natural leadership abilities, like anticipating people’s needs and giving inspirational speeches. I’m the same way in the classroom: I can write a good curriculum and blaze through a stack of essays, but I’m not the teacher you go talk about your problems with. As in teaching as in union work as in life, it’s the people part I struggle with. As far as being a chapter chair, I was lucky—my school’s administration was supportive, and all the teachers and counselors were committed to striking. Because we receive extra funding, our school already has the resources other LAUSD schools lack, resources that were key demands of the contract—a full-time nurse and librarian, English Language Arts class sizes as low as 24, and two full-time counselors and a psychologist social worker for a student body of 400. (In contrast, 80 percent of LAUSD schools lack a full-time nurse; class sizes are as large as 48 on some secondary campuses; and the counselor-to-student ratio is 1 to 945.) Because our school has those extra resources, our teachers understand first-hand their importance. “We’re fighting so that all LAUSD students can have what you guys have here,” I told students in our pre-strike lunch meetings. The school year crept on, the strike looming like a rainstorm on the horizon. The backseat of my car overflowed with flyers and signs as the district pulled one tricky maneuver after another, stalling the Fact Finding process and filing last-minute court injunctions. “They’re trying to break our momentum,” UTLA leadership told us. At times, it seemed like it was working. “Can we just get this over with?” my co-workers would ask. We had to follow every step of the bargaining process in order for the strike to be legal, but we were all frustrated. Originally scheduled for early October, the strike was pushed back to January 10, then at the last minute, January 14. That rainstorm on the horizon—it was finally here. Figuratively and literally. * The night before the first strike day, I slept four hours. I kept waking up from nightmares in which no one showed up, or I lost all our supplies, or my phone died. My stomach crunched and my mind raced as I drove to school in the pre-dawn dark, rain coming down in sheets. Amidst all the preparation, I’d forgotten that I was actually in charge of the picket line. I wasn’t just taking notes and sending emails anymore. Puddles pooled on sidewalks and gutters overflowed as my co-workers started arriving. I ran through my checklist: take attendance, distribute signs, make sure all the gates and entrances were covered. I kept trying to text the chapter chairs from the other schools on our shared campus, but no one was replying. We must have been a sorry sight, marching in a slow circle in the pouring rain. We should start chanting, I knew, but I was too awkward and stressed to get a word out. The first few cars honked as the passed, almost pityingly. Finally F raised his voice: “When our schools are under attack, what do we do?” And we answered, “Stand up, fight back!” He kept us chanting, even as our signs soaked through and turned to mush in our hands. Students and teaching assistants (who aren’t part of our union) joined us. The more rain came down, the more cars honked, a little blast of validation each time. We cheered, jumped, raised our fists. After morning picketing, we headed downtown for the first-day march, where teachers from across the 700-square-mile district gathered in front of City Hall. A sea of red umbrellas and ponchos filled the four-block length of the park—red for UTLA, but also #RedForEd, the official color of educator resistance since the wave of wildcat strikes in 2018. The color was a symbol—we were now part of that bigger fight. I’d never seen so many Angelenos in the rain. “We don’t do this here,” I kept saying, wondering if people in other parts of the country would grasp the significance. Teachers beat drums, banged tambourines, blew whistles and horns. Helicopters pulsed in the air above us; news vans surrounded us. We were on the national stage, and we knew it. In every pocket of people, a chant bellowed. A voice would start: Everywhere we go, people want to know. And other voices would answer, Who we are, so we tell them. Every face you saw looked familiar, even if you didn’t know the person. We are the teachers, the mighty, mighty teachers. It was a face that was lit up with conviction and ready to fight. Fighting for justice, and for education. It was a face you knew, it was your face, and you were part of that fight. I had no sense of how large the crowd was. I just knew I felt like an ant in a huge swarming line. Umbrellas bumped and snagged as we moved painstakingly slow, so crowded we had to stop every couple of steps. “Wow, seeing the pictures on the news, impressive!” a friend texted. But all I could see were the shoulders in front of me. When we came to the Second Street tunnel, we put our umbrellas down for the first time that day. I craned my neck around, finally able to see the crowd. We were massive. We filled the tunnel side-to-side, and as far forward and back as I could see. Our voices boomed and echoed against the concrete walls. One person shouted into a megaphone, “UT,” and we all answered, “LA!” We chanted it again and again, the name of our union, but also something else, something bigger and more powerful. Our voices grew stronger with every chant. Suddenly I didn’t feel like an ant anymore. I didn’t even really feel like me. I felt like a part of a movement. When the rally ended, we had a couple hours to rest before afternoon picketing. I stopped at my apartment, changed my wet socks, put on a dry sweater. I laid on my bed and felt the pangs in my legs from walking, rested just enough to be able to return to school for another round picketing. By the end of the day, I’d walked ten miles. My shoes were soaked and my feet ached. My voice was hoarse from chanting. I was more tired than I could remember being. But I’d done it. We’d done it. We had held a picket line for a day. * No one warns you how a strike will take over your life. Seven a.m. picketing, mid-morning rallies, a short rest, then more picketing until 4 p.m. By the time you’re done, your body’s toast. Your brain is fried. Your voice is shot. It’s all you can do to crawl home, peel off your wet layers, and scroll through the union emails and texts that need replies. The scenes that remain from those first days are a blur of drudgery and exaltation: a fellow teacher blasting salsa from a massive speaker and barking into a microphone like a street hawker, “Viva la huelga! We are East LA! We are fighting for our schools, we are fighting for our community!”; doing the have-to-pee dance while waiting to use the Jack-In-The-Box bathroom; eating pan dulce that had gone soggy from the rain; line-dancing in the cross-walks during red lights, while the marching band played under a tarp, instruments wrapped in trash bags; the blast of horns from garbage trucks and public buses and delivery vans and sheriff patrols and damn near every sedan that passed; the thick deep sleep I’d fall into during my afternoon power naps; the throb in my lower back the day my period came; the tide of red flowing from the Little Tokyo metro stop and into the street like a blood trail, all the cars honking around us; the East Area rally turning into a block party where people danced under their umbrellas to “Jump Around” and “Killing In The Name Of” and every other song on the soundtrack of 1990s middle school dances. As chapter chair, I kept my head down and focused on what needed to get done. I organized donations and bought supplies. I sent texts and emails to keep people updated. I picked up supplies at 6 a.m. and delivered them to nearby campuses. The only thing keeping me together was the afternoon break, in which I could go home and dry off for an hour. Luckily, other folks stepped up. F stood in the rain with no umbrella and led chants until his voice went hoarse. Then M would take over. P danced in the crosswalks until all the cars honked. R showed up even though he’d had surgery the week before. On the picket line, you got to see a different side of your co-workers, who for most of the work day stay hidden behind their classroom doors. You got to see who rolled hard, who the ride-or-dies were, and you got to do it together. As the rain hammered on, the community rose up around us. A restaurant brought hot soup one morning. Local unions brought coffee and donuts. Parents brought tamales and papusas, and the teaching assistants who weren’t striking brought breakfast burritos. The neighbors carried over an outdoor heater. The raspados shop across the street gave us free coffee and let us use their bathroom. A neighborhood dude unloaded a truck-bed full of bottled water. Even our students brought us food, of the endearingly teenage variety: boxes of Jack-In-The-Box french fries. You always hear about how people love teachers, but when you actually see them show up and demonstrate that love, especially when you’re soaking wet and bone tired, it’s enough to make you cry. * At the end of every day, I’d lay my wet clothes on my furnace to dry, crawl into my bed, and scroll through the news coverage. Before the strike, even progressive outlets like the LA Times and KCRW focused their coverage on pay. Now their reporters were on the line, talking to teachers. Stories led with interviews and personal anecdotes from classrooms, followed by descriptions of lively picket lines and powerful rallies. Finally, news coverage focused on the reality of our teaching conditions, which were our students’ learning conditions, which is what we were fighting to improve. They said we were making history, but I was too close and too tired to have much perspective on the impact of what we were doing. I’d scroll through images of teachers in red ponchos and aerial shots of huge crowds, and hardly believe that I was a part of it all. It felt like being a dot in an impressionist painting.   “Do you think this is what it was like in the Civil Rights Movement?” someone asked while we were Lyfting back to campus. I wondered the same thing—whether the people making history ever know they’re making history, or if they’re just a bunch of tired, fist-raising bodies in a crowd, with a vague sense of society’s gears changing around them? Other people reflected back to me the enormity of what we were doing. Friends from all over the country messaged and texted. Teachers across the US posted solidarity photos. A public school from New York City “adopted” my school and donated funds for food and transportation. “We’re fighting similar forces out here,” they wrote. Restaurants all over LA were providing free or discounted meals to striking teachers, but I was too tired to take advantage of any of them. After a day on the picket line, I was too shot to do much of anything. All I could do was ladle out some soup, answer emails, and then turn off the light by 9 p.m. * When the alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. Thursday morning, I didn’t want to get out of bed. The night was black outside, and I could hear rain thundering down. But I couldn’t bail—I was in charge. I sighed, tugged on my still-damp layers and laced up my still-soggy sneakers. I didn’t bother to put on make-up or fix my bedhead—there was no point. It was the fourth day of the strike and the worst rain yet. All of our signs were beaten and wrinkled. No one chanted. No one marched. Hardly anyone spoke. We wanted to be back in our classrooms, warm and dry and with our kids—fist bumps at the door, learning objectives on the projector, Pair-Shares and Turn-and-Talks and stacks of Do Nows and Exit Slips piled in trays near the classroom entrance. “We’re tired,” G said. “We need a pep talk.” I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. I was beaten too. “Some of us live too far to go home in the middle of the day,” S added. “We’ve been out here all week, without any place to rest up and get dry.” I looked at their wet, exhausted faces, and realized I’d been so wrapped up in organizing the logistics of the picket line that I’d forgotten about the most important part: the people. I’d been going home every day to nap, and it was the only thing keeping me together. How could I have overlooked the fact that not everyone had that? I hadn’t felt so inadequate since my first year teaching, another high-stakes, high-emotion situation when you struggle to keep your head above water. You do your best, but you feel yourself screwing up all the time, and feel the weight of all the people you’re letting down in the process. What could I do in that moment? Stutter a shit, sorry, and kick myself for my lack of care and thought. But the right words still wouldn’t come. They needed inspiration, and I couldn’t give it to them. Just then, a station wagon plastered in the logo for local radio station 97.9 La Raza pulled up, music blasting from inside. A mustachioed DJ in a windbreaker jumped out. “You guys hungry?” he asked, his arms outstretched. Before we could answer, he opened the hatchback. The entire back of the car was filled with taco fixings. “We support you! 97.9 La Raza supports you!” he exclaimed as we gathered around. The tacos were still warm and the bowls of guacamole plentiful. The DJ took pictures with us. It was the edible pep talk we needed. When the rain let up later that afternoon, I gathered all of us together. What did you say, you want to know. I wish I could tell you, but I was too tired and nervous to have any idea, let alone remember. I might have acknowledged how rough the day had been and how whipped we all were. I might have said that the district was waiting for this moment, to see if we’d break—if we’d roll hard for three days, then get tired and give up. Whether we’d give up on our kids. I like to think I said that this moment was when it counted, when we had to show the district, the community, the country and our kids that we really meant it. “We’ve come this far,” I like to think I said. “We’ve showed up every single day, like fucking soldiers, and we can’t stop now. Everyone is looking to us. We’ve become something bigger than a single school or strike, bigger than an ‘I’ and ‘you.’ We’ve truly become a ‘we,’ and I’ve never felt more a part of something important than right now, right here, with you guys.” Maybe I said that. But probably I stood there red-faced and mumbled something about sticking together and staying strong, then left us all to go home. * The next week, on the sixth day of the strike, we sat in a nearby park eating chile relleno burritos. We’d had so many donations from our adopted school and from individuals that our lunch was paid for. The rain had finally broken, and it was back to a typical 65-degree LA winter day. We were relieved but anxious. UTLA had just announced victory—a tentative agreement with the district. It seemed the fight was almost over. “Let’s wait until we see the agreement,” R said. So we did. We hunched over our phones while we ate, reading aloud the summary and trying to make sense of the 47-page document we were to vote on in a couple of hours. The summary sounded good. LAUSD had finally agreed to drop a contentious article in our contract that allowed for unequivocal raising of class sizes. Within two year’s time, every school would have a full-time nurse and librarian. The counselor to student ratio would be reduced to 1 to 500. “1 to 500?!” M asked. “That’s still too high.” “It’s the state average,” I answered. “The district probably wouldn’t offer better than that.” “We’re the biggest school district in the state,” M replied. “We should leading the way. I mean, what have we been striking for?” The more we dug through the contract, the more thorns appeared. Class size reductions in most content areas would occur at a rate of one student per year for three years, leaving most teachers with only slightly less painful class sizes. Meanwhile, Special Education and TK-third grade didn’t see any reductions. While we’d gained counselors, there was no additional funding for mental health services, such as psychologist social workers. “They’re the single most important thing in keeping students from dropping out,” F said. I looked around at people’s faces. They were disappointed. “We can do better than this,” some said. “This is crumbs,” others said. I tried to remind them who were dealing with—a pro-charter board and a billionaire superintendent who had been hired to decimate our school district. Previous contract offers included raises contingent on additional work hours and health care cuts to new employees, and no offers of our other demands. The fact that we’d gotten this much was huge. “This isn’t what we stood out in the rain for,” F said. The more we talked, the more I understood their perspective. We’d come out more unified and forceful than even the union predicted. We were a movement. UTLA had been stoking the flames of a smoldering fire, the burn for something better that existed in all of us. Now that it had been unleashed, people didn’t want to concede. They didn’t want to settle for the status quo. They wanted that vision of fully funded schools. Or at least class sizes below 30. “I’m voting no,” M said, her face set in stone. “It’s gonna look so bad if we vote it down,” I said. The agreement had already been announced to the media as a victory. Would parents stand behind us if we voted it down? Would teachers start crossing the line? If that happened, the district would likely come back with a worse offer. We felt like our hands were tied. We had to vote in four hours. I wrote down people’s questions as I headed to a last-minute meeting, but when I returned to campus to administer the vote, I only had an answer to one. People were pissed, and as the chapter chair, I was the one receiving the piss. “We’re being forced to vote on a document we’ve barely read,” F said. It felt like the tax reform bill. “This isn’t good enough,” M said as she filled in the bubble for “no.” I wished I could disagree. * The agreement did pass. UTLA announced it that night on Facebook Live. I watched the storm of angry-face reactions float up the screen and felt my heart sink. We’d been so united, and now we were breaking apart. I was relieved the agreement passed, but only because I thought the scenario of it not passing was worse. I wasn’t excited about the agreement, and in all my messaging that evening, I hadn’t talked to a single person who was. But I couldn’t dwell for too long. After all, I had to lesson plan. I had to be back in my classroom in less than twelve hours. * I wish I could say our staff rode back into school the next day in red shirts, on a wave of victory chants, high-fiving students in the hallways and basking in pride over what we’d achieved. As it was, we mostly kept our doors closed. We nodded at each other in the halls, greeted our students, said hello to the office staff. But the disappointment was thick. “What happens when the revolution fails you?” someone asked in a Facebook post. But had we been a revolution? We were a union in contract negotiations. We were going to have to compromise. We weren’t going to change public education in six days. But, watching the footage and reading the coverage, I began to zoom out of my individual perspective. In a single week, we’d shifted the narrative around education. We’d opened the public’s eyes to the real conditions of our schools. We’d taken the focus off teacher pay and onto school resources; we’d connected the issue to funding and taxes at the state level; we’d demonstrated the power of organized labor; we’d inspired teachers in other cities who were experiencing the same conditions. We’d stood in the rain, danced on the picket lines, and filled the streets. UTLA hadn’t done that. We had. The teachers had. Maybe we were something close to a revolution. I think the real victory of the LA teacher strike will be the shift it has inspired. Already, coverage of the Denver, Oakland and Virginia strikes is different. There’s less talk about “greedy teachers,” and more explicitly connecting school conditions to corporate tax breaks and charter growth. Even in Denver, where the main dispute is over pay, coverage is contextualized and includes teacher interviews. LA teachers created momentum for a broader movement to reinvestment in public education. I wish that were enough for my co-workers, and I wish it were enough for our kids. The fact is, most of our students returned on January 23 to the same conditions they’d left on January 11. So what do you do when you’ve envisioned something transformative, then been asked to settle? When you’ve felt a movement growing, only to have it yanked from your fingers? When you’ve marched 49 miles in a week and messed up and let people down and kept showing up anyway? You do what you always do. You get up and keep teaching.
‘It’s the Anti-Meet-Cute’: An Interview with Ian Williams

The author of Reproduction on “grammatical cathedrals,” moods that linger, and how fiction talks.

Ian Williams’s first novel, Reproduction (Random House Canada), is an unconventional love story that begins in Brampton and Toronto in the Seventies when two people meet in a hospital, where “both of their mothers were dying in the background.” Felicia is a recent immigrant from an island nation that she refuses to name. Edgar is also an immigrant to Canada, though he moved from Germany when he was a child. They have a child named Armistice, or “Army,” a humourous and versatile boy whose mind is set on making money from a young age. Williams has written an award-winning book of stories, Not Anyone’s Anything, and You Know Who You Are, his debut book of poetry, but he is likely known for Personals, his second book of poems, which was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2013. In Personals, he mines the language of personal ads to reveal lonely, tender, and perverse voices, many of which fall into patterns that become traps, caught in their own echoes. Shazia Hafiz Ramji: Reproduction feels like a natural follow-up to your last book, Personals, a book of poems which gives voice to those who are looking for love and seeking connection. How did Reproduction begin?  Ian Williams: You’re right to make that connection (har). After Personals, I wasn’t sitting around wondering, "What next? What next?," but its themes are subterraneous nutrients for Reproduction. Just as there is a natural physical maturation from childhood through puberty into adulthood, I think there is a natural thematic progression over our lives. The things that concerned me at eighteen (school, the future) didn’t concern me at twenty-five (job, money) and the concerns of thirty (can I be with this person for the rest of my life? Can I be with anyone?) had evolved by the time I was thirty-six (what are children?), and already I’m thinking of middle age (disappointment, the next novel). Really, I was asking myself, "What are children? What material are they made from? Will I always be someone’s child even if I’m not a child?" Reproduction is a very grown-up answer to the question, "Where do babies come from?" Is the scientific word "reproduction" a grown-up understanding of the accidental or deliberate baby-outcomes of love, sex, hook-ups?   Nicely put. There is something clinical about the structure of the book and I needed that to offset the chaos, unpredictability, and emotional mush of relationships in it. The word “reproduction” is a sturdy undergarment for a voluptuous body. The back-up title was The Sex Talk¸which is the title of the interludes in the book, but I never grew dissatisfied with Reproduction. Second point: The word “reproduction” lends a purposeful and puritanical directive to sex—you know, it becomes a kind of duty rather than a pleasure. And, for sure, the whole enterprise isn’t all pleasure. On one end of the business, there’s the booty-shaking and on the other end there’s the transmission of one’s DNA in an attempt at immortality. But Reproduction is a love story at heart. The opening chapters alternate between the perspectives of "XX" and "XY,” which are also the names for the chromosomes that determine the sex of a foetus. (If XX, then female; if XY, then male.) What was it like to write the perspectives of XX and XY? People assume that because I’m a dude, I write most naturally in the voice of a man. I mean, I can. I do. I have. I will. But I really do like writing women—not writing with any appropriative intent, only artistic curiosity. It makes me listen more carefully to the women in my life, to attend more thoughtfully to the women in the news and media. It also attunes me to a part of myself that gets beat up by another part of myself. I think of part one as a boy-meets-girl story. It’s the anti-meet-cute; it happens in a hospital. There’s phlegm. It’s a highly specific story with specific characters but tagging them as XX and XY universalizes them to the level of biology. Part one is structured as a series of 23 paired chapters, just as we are all made of 23 paired chromosomes. It’s a kind of gestation toward a new character in second part. The second part is my favourite, because it’s set in the mid-Nineties and we enter the world of Armistice, Felicia and Edgar’s child. He learns to make money from a young age by opening a barbershop in a garage his mom doesn’t own! It strikes me that the roles of caregiving are switched right from the start of the book, when Felicia and Edgar are caring for their parents. Even though Army's money-making schemes are funny, I felt such a tenderness towards him as he took on the responsibility of trying to make money from such a young age.  Agreed. The best gift that Felicia and Edgar gave him was their failure. He grew in an environment where he could be himself, hustle, try something else. He starts talking before he’s even born. I really feel a lot of affection for Army. Same with the landlord’s children, Heather and Hendrix. I was in a grocery store recently and I thought, Hendrix would love these fish heads. Why does Reproduction begin in the Seventies?  I don’t really like the word "multigenerational"—usually that word sounds dull to me—but, alas, Reproduction is a multigenerational story and I needed forty years to tell it. I couldn’t go farther back into the past. I guess I was alive, technically, in the Seventies. Barely. But it’s funny how the mood of the decade lingered, so that by the time I was conscious in the Eighties I could still catch a whiff of it. When I look at my parents in albums from the Seventies, I see them at their freest and most beautiful without any thought or desire for me or my brother. Your books so far have alternated between poetry and prose with each publication. Do you write both regularly?  I spent most of 2018 writing poetry and it was probably the happiest year of my life to this point. Probably for other reasons too. I mean, I also played a lot of tennis. The years I spent writing fiction were like a complex, tortuous, involved conversation with someone who kept demanding details. My interactions with poetry are largely pleasant, efficient, sparkling, and fun. Poetry is not really surly or frightening. Fiction talks so much! It’s exhausting.  There is a lot of dialogue in Reproduction. The dialogue doesn't use the conventions we’re familiar with, such as quotation marks or em-dashes. It feels closer to the way lines of poetry are set, where speech flows with the rest of the narrative and breaks in speech are conveyed.   It’s funny—my short story collection uses quotation marks, so, in that way, it extends a conventional courtesy and convenience to the reader. With Reproduction, I didn’t go through the novel and delete all the quotation marks. They were never there at any point, in any draft, and yet the book is readable. Their absence indicates to me the fluidity between our language and our thoughts or between our language and our being. We tend to think of language as something that’s intended for the outside but really language is constantly running inside of us. It’s hard to know exactly where a sentence starts. Even the most rash utterance needs breath to be conveyed. I don’t know. I was collapsing a boundary between the inside and the outside, between the self and the presentation of the self, and rejoining dialogue to the soup of prose. Felicia speaks in English whose grammar and syntax is different from the English taught at school in Canada. Felicia’s not from Canada and she won’t tell you where she’s from. Stop asking her. She’s capable of moving back and forth between public English and intimate English. Edgar at one point says that she writes grammatical cathedrals but speaks in shacks (he didn’t say the last part but he was thinking it, trust me). For sure, there are other Englishes that are as flexible as the North American version, more colourful, inventive, pliable, expanding, open-minded. Felicia has to deal with common questions among immigrants: Why does this accent mark me so significantly to the people of this country? Is my grammar incorrect even if it follows predictable patterns that happen not to be the Queen’s? And beneath the confusion is a sense of inferiority or shame, of the immigrant’s patterns struggling against the majority’s. The battle over language, grammar, and pronunciation is just a microcosm of the aggressions faced by immigrants. One of the tricks of Reproduction, and novels generally, is to have all of this understood without pausing the narrative to say it explicitly. When asked where she's from, Felicia admits that she comes from "the islands," but she doesn't specify where. Yeah, it’s a bit of a running joke throughout the book. A joke that turns into an irritation. She refuses to be pinned to a place to satisfy anybody’s curiosity. My theory is that when people ask about your place of birth they only seek to confirm an assumption they have about you and by consequence to reinforce an assumption they have about who gets to be from Canada. She insists on speaking the way she does, even when Edgar points out her "grammatical cathedrals." She insists on speaking the way she does because it’s natural for her. What do you think novels can do?  I can only try to answer this question. One of the things a novel does because of its length is give us slow, sustained time with ourselves. As unpleasant as that may be, slow time with ourselves is the antidote to cheap stimulation, the entertainment mindset, the anxiety of being alone, the need to check our phones for comfort. Sure, reading a novel can be (ought to be?) entertaining (ideally) but it also offers ancillary benefits. When I look up from a novel, I feel a kind of achievement in saying, "Hey, I was quiet for two hours." It’s like the visible part of me disappears for a while and I get to be with the infrared part of myself, the part I see only under certain conditions, such as silence and solitude. In a slogan, books taste great and they’re good for you. Like granola. Jonathan Franzen seems acutely aware of the need for "slow time." Last fall, he shared "10 Rules for Novelists" at Lit Hub. Rule #8 says: "It's doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction."  Personally, I think the novel died with the fax machine. No, really, is it even possible to downgrade to dial-up anymore? You're working on another novel called Disappointment. Did Reproduction lead to Disappointment?  Haha, yes. They were originally the same project then Reproduction forked one way and all the other stuff went into a Disappointment folder. But since then Disappointment has really grown into itself. Can you tell us about Disappointment? Are there more babies? At the moment, Disappointment involves no babies, no dying, no marriages—just adults, living, alone.
All Saints’ Mountain

I asked about the children we were to study: who were they, why were they to undergo the test, what was the purpose of our program? Though I also knew it wasn’t any of my business.

Translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft. The plane arrived over Zurich when it was supposed to, but for a long time it was obliged to circle the city, since snow had covered the airport, and we had to wait until the slow yet effective machines had managed to clear that snow. Just as it landed, the snow clouds parted, and against the orange blazing sky there were contrails in tangles that transformed the firmament into a gigantic grid—almost as though God were extending an invitation to play a round of tic-tac-toe. The driver who was supposed to pick me up and who was waiting with my last name written out on the lid of a cardboard shoebox was quick to state facts: “I’m supposed to take you to the pension—the road up to the Institute is completely snowed under. We won’t make it to there.” But his dialect was so strange I could barely understand him. I also felt like I had missed something. It was May, after all, the eighth of May. “The world’s turned on its head. Just take a look at that.” He placed my luggage in the car and then pointed to the darkening sky. “I’ve heard they’re poisoning us with it, airplane fumes altering our subconscious.” I nodded. The grated horizon really did trigger unease. We reached our destination late at night, traffic jams everywhere, cars’ wheels spinning in place, all of us moving at a snail’s pace—at best—in the wet snow. Gray slush arose along the roadsides. In town the snowplows were in full force, but farther along, in the mountains, which we began to climb, very carefully, it turned out there was no one clearing the roads. My driver clung to the steering wheel, leaning in; his ample aquiline nose pointed out our direction like the bow of a ship pulling us through a murky sea towards some port. The reason I was here was that I’d signed a contract to come. I was supposed to administer a test to a group of teenagers. It was a test I had come up with myself, and for more than thirty years, it had remained the only one of its kind, enjoying considerable renown among my fellow developmental psychologists. The honorarium they had offered me was very large. When I saw it in the agreement, I was sure they had made a mistake. I was also bound, however, by the strictest secrecy. The company that was conducting the analysis had its headquarters in Zurich, but I hadn’t recognized its name. I can’t say it was only the money that convinced me. There were other reasons, too. I got a shock when I found out that the “pension” my driver had mentioned was in fact a few guest rooms in a dark ancient convent at the mountain’s base. An outpouring of dense light from the soda lanterns just outside it displayed chestnuts suffering on account of the snow, already flowering; now, white and muffled under little frozen pillows, they looked like subjects of some incomprehensible, absurd oppression. The driver led me to a side entrance and carried my suitcase upstairs. There was a key sticking out of the door to my room. “All the official procedures have been dealt with. You just rest. I’ll come back for you tomorrow,” said the driver with the big nose. “You’ll find your breakfast in the fridge. And the sisters will have you down for coffee at ten.” Not until I took my medication did I fall asleep—after I had found myself back inside my treasured time hole, into which I and my body were both happy to fall as though into a fully feather-lined nest. Since my illness had come, I had been training for this mode of non-existence every night. * At nine, I watched the strangest coffee ritual I had ever encountered. I was in an enormous space, in the center of which stood a massive wooden table that bore the traces of many centuries’ use, and around it sat six old women in religious habits. They glanced up at me when I entered the room. There were three of them on either side; their identical habits made their facial features also look alike. A seventh sister, bustling about, bursting with energy, wearing a striped apron over her nun’s clothes, had just set out on the table a sizeable coffee pot and, wiping her hands on her apron, she now came up to me, holding those bony hands out before her. Welcoming me, she was a little on the loud side, though this, too—as I’d soon understand—had its explanation: most of these old ladies were fairly hard of hearing. She introduced me to the rest by my first name and rattled off the nuns’ names, which were odd. The eldest was called Beatrix. There was also Ingeborg, Tamar and Charlotte, as well as Izydora and Cezarina. Tamar’s stillness made you want to watch her. She looked like a statuette of a primeval goddess. She sat atop a wheelchair, her body round, her face pale and beautiful emerging from her body’s habit. I felt as though she were looking through me, as though she glimpsed—beyond me—some expanse. By now, I thought, she would have joined that valiant tribe that inwardly ranges over the alpine meadows of memory; to that tribe’s members, we are but pesky specks on the surface of the eye. Taken aback by the whole, I made a closer inspection of the vast bright space, which was divided into dining room and kitchen, the latter containing powerful multi-burner gas stoves with ovens as well as a bread oven, while its walls were crowded with huge hanging pans and shelves stacked with pots. Sinks unfurled under the window, one after the other, like in the back of an industrial canteen. The counters were covered in sheet metal, and metal, too, were all the fixtures, not one of artificial materials, all linked by bulbous tubes as though straight off Captain Nemo’s ship. The sterile purity that predominated here also immediately brought to mind old-fashioned laboratories, Dr. Frankenstein and his frightening experiments. The only modern additions to the room took the form of the colored recycling bins in the corner. Sister Charlotte explained the colossal kitchen had not in fact been used in years, and that now the sisters cooked for themselves on a small gas stove or ordered the catering services offered by one of the local restaurants. Sister Anna, the woman wearing the apron—the prioress, as it turned out—added that back in the sixties, when she had first arrived, the convent had held some sixty sisters from all over Europe. “Once, bread was baked here. We would make cheeses, thirty-five pounds each. But there’s no sense now in making cheese or baking bread for seven of us…” Sister Charlotte said, sounding like she was just getting started on a much longer story. But Sister Anna interjected: “Eight of us! For eight,” she cried brightly. “And please come and see us once you’re up there.” With her chin, she indicated a direction I could not yet know. “The Institute belongs to us, as well. There’s a shortcut through the pastures, which makes it a half-hour walk.” The coffee pot was being passed from hand to hand now, coffee streaming darkly into cups, releasing steam. Next the nuns’ hands seized upon the cream containers, elderly fingers meticulously peeling back the tinfoil of their covers, pouring the cream into their coffees. Then they were tearing the tinfoil clean off, and then it traveled to their tongues, like an aluminum host. In a single lick, their tongues had restored that host’s unadulterated glisten, its cleanliness. After a while, those scrupulous tongues went into the containers, too, to rid them of whatever remained there, and they did eliminate even the tiniest droplets of cream. The sisters seemed pleased to lick the cream up, and they did so with the practiced expertise of people who had gone through those same motions hundreds of times. Now it fell to them to shell the plastic container, removing the paper band it had been swathed in. The sisters’ fingernails found out the glue with sensitivity, tearing off the bands in triumph. As a result of all these operations, every sister ended up behind a little pile of plastic, paper and aluminum, those three raw materials. “We care very much about the environment. We humans are an exceptional species, but we risk extinction if things keep going as they are,” said Sister Anna, giving me a knowing wink. One of the sisters giggled. “You’re right, sister, it’s one a year, like clockwork.” Consumed by the repetition of their activities, I hadn’t noticed an eighth woman coming into the kitchen, seemingly silently, and sitting down next to me. It wasn’t until she made a very small movement that I turned to her and saw a very young girl wearing exactly the same habit as the older nuns. She had dark skin, its vivid tint standing out against the pale backdrop of the others, as though for this portrait inside this painting she had just been touched up with fresh paints. “That’s our Swati,” announced the prioress with evident pride. The girl smiled impersonally, stood and began to collect the recycling, already separated into the appropriate categories, and to deposit it inside the colored bins. I was grateful to the prioress for receiving me as though I were an old friend. When her cell phone started ringing, she hurried to remove from her pockets all sorts of items: keys, pastilles, a little notebook, a sheet of pills… The phone turned out to be an old Nokia—an antediluvian artefact. “Yes,” she said into the phone in that strange dialect. “Thank you.” And then, to me: “Your driver is here, my child.” I let myself be led through the labyrinths of the old building to the exit, lamenting my undrunk coffee. Outside I was blinded by the May sun; just before I got into the car, I overheard for one moment that concert of everything melting, fat drops splashing down from all sides, drumming against the roof, the stairs, the windowpanes, the leaves of trees. A lively river already rushed beneath our feet, transforming the eccentricity of snow into the banality of water and carrying it down and away, into the lake. I don’t know why it struck me in that moment that all those old ladies in habits were prepared for death, awaiting it with dignity. And here I was flailing in its face. * “You’ll have excellent working conditions here, please have a look,” said Dani, the program’s director, when I arrived at the Institute that day. She spoke English with an Italian accent, although her face suggested Native American, maybe even East Asian, ancestry. “This is your office, so you won’t even need to go outside to get to work.” She smiled. Next to her stood a man in a plaid button-down shirt that strained over his paunch. “This is Victor, our program manager.” She said that not far from here there was a trail for tourists, and that without too much effort—some three hours’ or so—you could reach the top of the monumental mountain, visible from everywhere, which tended to give one the impression one was still in the lowlands, even where we were. The Institute was a modern concrete building in which straight lines reigned supreme. Aluminum bands supported enormous panes, the glass reflecting the irregular shapes of the natural world, which lessened somewhat the severity of the block. Behind this there was another large edifice, that looked to have been built in the early part of the twentieth century. It was almost indistinguishable from a school, especially since I caught a glimpse of a field out in front of it where a group of teenagers was playing soccer. I was overcome by fatigue, no doubt because of the altitude, although also perhaps just because lately I had felt fatigued more or less all the time. I asked to be taken to the room where I was to stay over the next few weeks. In my condition, taking an afternoon rest is always a good idea. My exhaustion tended to arrive around two, when I’d get sleepy and sluggish. I’d have the sense then that the day was breaking down, that it was getting depressed and that it might not be able to pull itself together by the evening. But it would drag itself towards seven, often not dropping until midnight. I didn’t start a family, didn’t make a home, did not ever plant a tree. I dedicated all my time to work, to ceaseless research, submitting my results to the complex statistical procedures I always trusted more than my own instincts. My achievement in life was a psychological test that enables the researcher to detect psychological characteristics in statu nascendi, meaning those characteristics that have not yet fully crystalized, not yet taken hold in the system that is the mature personality of an adult. My Developmental Tendencies Test earned rapid recognition around the world and was almost universally implemented. Thanks to it I became well known, got tenure at my university and lived a peaceful life, always working to perfect the details of the procedure. Time showed that my DTT had very high predictive powers, and that by administering it, you could in most cases foresee what a given person would become, what direction his or her development would take. I never thought I’d dedicate my life to just one thing, doing the same thing over and over again. I used to think I was a restless soul, often taken by fervent passing fancies. If I’d been able to take my own test as a child, I wonder whether it would have shown I would become industrious, the tireless rhapsode of a single idea, refiner of a single chased design. * That evening, the three of us went into town for dinner at a restaurant where great slates of glass overlooked the lake directly, ensuring guests a soothing view of that black water, sparkling with the lights of the town. This quivering abyss drew my gaze relentlessly, away from my companions as they spoke. We had pears with honey and gorgonzola, then truffle risotto—the most expensive dishes on offer. The white wine was also among the best on the menu. Victor spoke the most, and his low-pitched voice drowned out—thankfully—the music, mechanical and cold, coming insistently from somewhere. He complained that these days we lacked people with charisma, that in our age people were so ordinary that they didn’t have the strength to change the world for good. His plaid-clad belly polished the table’s edge. Dani spoke to me with polite respect, in a confiding tone I liked. She leaned over the table to me, the fringe of her scarf dipping dangerously close to her plate, threatening submersion in melted gorgonzola. Of course I asked them questions about the children we were to study. Who were they, and why were they to undergo the test? What was the purpose of “our program”? Though I also knew it wasn’t any of my business, really. We did converse, but I was focused above all on the taste of the tiny slivers of truffle, no bigger than a match head. The children were brought here for a three-month period, which they would spend in a so-called alpine school. There, as they learned and played, their abilities would be monitored and studied. All were adopted, they said, and the purpose of the program was to analyze the flow of social capital into the development of the individual (he said) and/or the impact of the whole range of environmental variables on future professional success (she said). My task was simple: I was to conduct my test in its widest-ranging version. They wanted precise profiles and future projections. The research was for private enterprise. The sponsors had all the permits and permissions they could possibly acquire; the program had been going on for years but was still being kept under wraps, for now. I nodded, pretending I was listening and taking all this in, though the entire time all I was doing was relishing the truffles. I had the feeling that since I had been ill, my sense of taste had layered, or splintered, meaning that every element of food would be interpolated on its own: mushrooms, bites of wheat pasta, olive oil, parmesan, tender bits of garlic… I had the feeling, in other words, that there were no longer dishes, just loose confederations of ingredients. “We’re so grateful that a megastar like you was willing to come here in person,” said Dani, and our glasses met in a toast. We talked politely and at leisure, enjoying dinner, until the wine had loosened our tongues a little bit more. I told them how any hint of predicting the future inspires fascination in people, but also strong, irrational resistance. It also leads to a claustrophobic unease, which is likely the same fear of fate with which humanity has been struggling since the time of Oedipus. In our hearts of hearts, we never want to know the future. I told them, too, that good psychometrics are like brilliantly constructed traps. Once the psyche has fallen into them, the more it flails, the more it struggles, the more it betrays about itself, the more evidence it leaves behind. Today we know that a person is born as a kind of ticking time bomb of different potentials, and that the process of growing up is not at all one of enrichment and learning—it is instead the elimination of one possibility after the next. In the end, out of a wild, lush plant, we become something more along the lines of a bonsai—stunted, cut down to size, just a stiff miniature of all our possible selves. My test differs from the others in that it shows not what we gain in maturation, but rather what we lose. Our gamut of possibilities gets slimmer and slimmer—but it is also this that makes it relatively easy to predict what we’ll become. My whole academic career was inextricably connected with ridicule, deprecation, accusations of parapsychology and even of falsifying results. Without a doubt it’s because of this that I became such a suspicious person, quick to get defensive. First I would attack and provoke, and then, troubled by what I’d done, I would retreat. What angered me the most was the accusation of irrationality. Scientific discoveries often seem irrational in the beginning, because it’s rationality that delimits knowing; in order to cross the border into the unknown, we must frequently set aside rationality, throw ourselves into the darkest depths of the untested, precisely so that bit by bit we can make it into something rational—so that we can comprehend it. When I was still traveling the world giving talks about my test, I would start each one by saying, “Yes—although I know this will upset you—a person’s life can be predicted. The tools to do it exist.” Invariably these words would meet with a tense silence. * When we entered the common room, the children were playing some game that consisted of acting out scenes. Already from the hallway we had heard bursts of laughter. Then it was hard for them to acquire the seriousness they needed to greet me. I would have been around the same age as their grandmothers, which instantly generated between us something like a warm reserve. They weren’t attempting any liberties. One brave little girl, petite and very resolute, asked me several questions. Where was I from? What language did my mother speak? Was this my first time in Switzerland? How bad is the pollution in the place where I live? Do I have a cat or a dog? And what kind of test would it be? Would it be boring? I’m Polish, I began, answering each question in order. My mom spoke Polish. I’ve been to Switzerland several times and have many friends at the university here in Berne. The pollution is significant, though still significantly less than in the place I moved from. Especially in the winter, when our northern hemisphere increases the production of smog many times over. In the country, where I live, you don’t have to wear masks over your face. The test will be quite pleasant. You’ll have to fill out a couple of quizzes on a computer about very ordinary matters—for example, what you like and what you don’t, and so on. You’ll also look over some strange three-dimensional blocks and tell me what they mean. Parts of the test will be conducted with the aid of an innovative new machine, which won’t hurt—at most it may tickle a little. You will certainly not be bored. For several nights you’ll sleep in a special cap that will monitor your sleep. Some of the questions may seem very personal, but we promise complete confidentiality. So I will always be asking for your utmost frankness. Some of the test will be tasks you’ll get to do, which will seem to you like games. I can assure you that our time together will be enjoyable. Yes, I did have a dog, but a few years ago he passed away, and since then I have not wished to have pets. “Didn’t you want to clone him?” asked a clever little girl who, as it would turn out, was called Miri. I didn’t know what to say. I had not considered it. “They say they do it all the time in China,” said a tall boy with an elongated olive face. The dog question engendered a brief, chaotic discussion, but then the introductory niceties were evidently seen to have been performed, and the children returned to their play. They let us join in—it was, I understood, a version of our game of Ambassador, in which the players must communicate some piece of information through body language alone, without a word. We played without splitting up into teams, all playing on behalf of ourselves alone. I wasn’t able to guess anything correctly. The children did snippets of games of some sort, films I didn’t know. They were from another planet, and they thought fast, in shortcuts that led to worlds that were, to me, altogether unknown. I observed them with the pleasure with which one looks at something that is smooth, young, springy, nice, connected directly to life’s sources. The wonderful timidity of that which did not yet have established boundaries. Nothing in them had been destroyed yet, nor anything ossified, nor anything encysted—they were just organisms, gleefully striving, clambering up and up and up in the thrill of the awareness of a summit. Now, when I reach back into the memory of that scene, I can see clearly that the ones who stayed in my mind were Thierry and Miri. Thierry, tall, darker-complexioned, with heavy eyelids, as though always bored, not even fully conscious. And Miri—petite, concentrated inwards like a spring. I did also examine the twins. When one enters a room where there is more than a single set of identical twins, one immediately has a strange sense of unreality. Here, too, I had it. The first set: boys sitting far away from one another—their names were Julian and Max, both stocky, with dark eyes and dark curly hair and big hands. Then, two tall blond girls, Amelia and Julia: identically attired, focused and polite, sitting close together—so close their shoulders touched. I watched them in fascination, involuntarily searching for details that might differentiate them from one another. Others, like Vito and Otto, did everything they could in order to lessen the resemblance: one with a buzz cut, the other with long hair, one dressed in a dark shirt and dark pants, the other in shorts and a rainbow-colored t-shirt. It took me a moment to realize they were twins, and then I caught myself staring at them in amazement. They smiled at me, probably accustomed by now to looks like the one I had given them. Next to Miri sat Hanna, a tall seventeen-year-old with the figure of a model and an androgynous charm. She barely took part in the game, smiling only slightly, as though her mind were somewhere else. Tall, slim Adrian—nervous, hyperactive, tending to take charge—would leap to guessing first, spoiling the others’ fun. And Eva, who in a somewhat maternal tone would quiet him, trying to restore some order to the room. They were the types of children that made up any summer camp. * The next day I started the first part of my inquiry, which was dedicated to psychoneurological parameters—a largely mechanical segment. Simple memory and perception tests. Blocks arranged in the appropriate order, reading strange drawings, one eye, the other eye. As I had promised, they had a good time. In the evening, as I put the data through my computer, Victor came to see me. “I just wanted to remind you of the secrecy clause you signed,” he said. “Save files only to our internal storage systems. Don’t use any of your own.” This irritated me. It struck me as disrespectful. Later, when I was smoking my daily joint on the terrace, an uneasy Victor popped into my room once again. “It’s legal, I have a prescription for it,” I clarified. I handed him the joint, and he inhaled deeply, expertly. He kept the smoke in his mouth, narrowing his eyes as though preparing himself for a completely different sense of sharpness, a vision in which everything would be defined by wonderfully soft contours. “Did you hire me just because I don’t have much longer to live? Was that the point? That’s the best guarantee of secrecy, right? The silence of the grave.” He emitted a little bit of smoke, swallowed the rest. For a moment he stared at the floor like I had caught him in a lie he’d only just come up with. He changed the subject. He told me that predicting a person’s future on the basis of some test was an affront, in his opinion, to sound reason. But he was a loyal employee at the Institute, and he represented the test’s commissioner, and so he would not publicly express such reservations. “What’s the test for?” I asked. “Even if I knew, I couldn’t tell you. That’s not going to change. I suggest you make your peace with it. You just do your thing, and get some fresh Swiss air. It might do you good.” I sensed this was his way of acknowledging he had known about my illness. Afterwards he said nothing, just focused on smoking. “How do I get to the convent from here?” I asked him after a while. Without a word, he took out a notepad and drew me a sketch of the shortcut. * It was true: the way down to the convent was an excellent shortcut, some twenty minutes walking quickly, zigzagging between pastures. You had to pass through a couple of cattle gates and, several times, squeeze in alongside the fences’ electrical cables. It took me a moment to say hello to the horses, who, stunned by the spring sun, stood motionless in the melting snow, as though contemplating that climatic contradiction and trying to find in their big slow brains some sort of synthesis. [[{"fid":"6704756","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Sister Anna let me in wearing a white apron—she and Swati had been cleaning. There were boxes of documents lying on the pews in the hallway. The sisters were dusting them off and then transferring them to a cart so that they could be taken downstairs. The prioress seemed eager to abandon this task and to take me on a ride in the brand new elevator. We went up and down several times, covering a distance of one floor between the residential part of the convent and the chapel. I found the two illuminated buttons—up and down—soothing: there are never as many options as we think there are, and an awareness of that fact should bring relief. Next Sister Anna showed me the cloister, and, spreading out her hands, the old course of the latticework that once stood as the border between the two worlds. “We would sit here, and visitors would sit over there. The priest would even take our confessions through that grating, and we’d talk with guests through it—can you believe that? As late as the sixties. We felt as though we were animals in God’s zoo. Each year a photographer would come to take our picture—through the screen.” She showed me the photographs, displayed in thin little frames that hung tightly packed together, one after the next, all featuring a group of women wearing habits, posing. Some sat, while others stood behind them. In the center was the mother superior, who always, by some miracle, looked a little bigger, a little more solid, than the rest. The latticework cut across some of their bodies, though it seemed the photographer always tried to prevent it from passing over their faces. The farther back in time I went, going down the hall, the more nuns there were in the pictures, the more distinct their habits and veils became. They took over the space in such a way that by the end the women’s faces were like grains of rice scattered over a graphite-colored tablecloth. I examined up close those faces that no longer existed and envied them the fact that every single one of these women had had one particular day in her life when God had spoken to her, had told her that he wanted her all to himself. I had never been religious and had never felt—even remotely—the metaphysical presence of God. The convent was founded in 1611, when two Capuchin nuns from the north had arrived in this mountain valley that was near a small village. They had secured safe conduct from the pope, and they had adherents among the wealthy. Over the course of two years, they managed to raise the money, and in the spring of 1613, construction began. First there was a small building with cells for the sisters and an administrative section, though this latter expanded at a dizzying pace. A hundred years later, the whole area—the valley and the forests around it—belonged to the nuns. A small town grew up around the convent, partially dependent upon the convent’s economy. A fine location on the lake, along the road, meant that trade flourished and local residents got rich. The rules allowed some of the nuns, called external sisters, to maintain even intensive contact with the world; the rest, the internal sisters, did not leave the cloister and only very rarely appeared behind the latticework like the unpredictable, mystical force behind that eternal game of tic-tac-toe. Huddled under their cornettes, those cloistered sisters stayed in a state of never-ending prayer, their lips continually moving, their bodies clinging slavishly to the wooden floor of the chapel, sprawled out in the shape of the cross. They were defenseless against the stream of grace that ensured that alpine place uninterrupted good fortune in commerce and the nuns perpetual growth of the convent’s holdings. Perhaps it was upon these devout interns that God’s eye rested, inside that triangular crack in the heavens that would later wind up on the one-dollar bill. The externs conducted the convent’s business, their fingers stained from the ink in which they dipped their pens as they entered into their books the latest deliveries of eggs, meat or linen, or as they broke down payments made to the construction workers building the new shelter for the elderly and indigent or to the cobblers who made the orphans shoes. Sister Anna told me about all this as one narrates a family—attached and affectionate, forgiving her ancestresses their sins of small-mindedness, their exaggerated interest in making deals. The convent expanded like a fantastically prosperous commercial enterprise and came into the possession of the entire terrain below it, all the way to the lake. The fall of that religious family didn’t occur until the twentieth century, after the war. The town was bulging at the seams, increasingly in need of more land for villas and public buildings, and people were losing their faith. Since 1968, the convent had seen no new nuns, with the obvious exception of Swati. When Sister Anna had become prioress in 1990, there had been thirty-seven of them. As a result of sales intended to shore up the diminishing finances of the convent, its huge holdings dwindled, and as of today, they consisted exclusively of the one building where the sisters lived. The rest of their land had been leased to several farmers, with cows grazing it now. Their garden was tended by the owner of a health food store; in return for vegetables and milk, the sisters permitted the use of the convent’s name on the products he sold. It turned out, too, that they recognized only too late the possibilities arising from the mercantile blessing that was convent recipes. That pie had long since been divided between the Benedictines, the Cistercians, the Fatebenefratelli and others, who, sensing potential competition from the nuns, banded together in masculine solidarity and made sure the sisters had no share there. They also failed to transform the convent into a profitable co-op. The separate building next to the church was surrendered to an elementary school, while the littler building by the garden now contained a hostel overseen by the town. It was thanks to the monies paid to them in rent that the sisters were able, the previous year, to install the glass elevator to the second floor, since it was harder and harder for them to get up and down the narrow stone stairs. Now, several times a day, they could be seen crowding into that glass box, covering the yards that separated first from second floor. As she recounted all this, the prioress also showed me around the convent, omitting no nook. I followed her, inhaling the fragrance of her habit—it smelled of the inside of a wardrobe that for many years had hosted lavender sachets. In the pleasant sense of security she gave, I was ready to be convinced to just stay here for the time I had left, instead of sticking electrodes to children’s skulls. It felt as though the air around Sister Anna was vibrating, like she might be ringed by some warm halo. If only she could catch it and distribute it into jars—they’d no doubt make a fortune that way. She led me briskly down squeaky-clean hallways redolent of floor polish, crowded with doors and mezzanines and alcoves holding shiny saintly statuettes. I got lost fast in that labyrinth. I made sure to remember the galleries of ancestral portraits, the prioresses who looked so much alike they might as well have been clones, and the inscription over the entrance to the inner chapel, hewn in thick Schwabacher: “Wie geschrieben stehet: Der erste Mensch Adam ist gemacht mit einer Seele die dem Leib ein thierlich leben gibt: und der letzte Adam mit deinem Geist der da lebendig macht.”111 Corinthians 15:45, in the Bible’s New International Version: “So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.” The floor creaked beneath our feet as our fingers slid over the smoothed spins of handrails and handles become, over time, the inverses of palms. Suddenly we were on the second floor, in something like a large loft space. The wooden floor was worn to the bone, though then I wondered if it had ever been painted. This was where their laundry dried; amidst the racks draped in sheets and covers, I caught sight of Sister Beatrix and Sister Ingeborg. They were sitting with needles in their hands, reattaching buttons lost in the wash. Their arthritically gnarled fingers struggled nobly with the buttons’ holes. “Salve, girls,” she said to them. “What do you say, is she ready to meet Oxi?” At this the old nuns livened up considerably. Frail Sister Anna even squealed like a little girl. Sister Anna went up to a little white curtain that looked innocuous enough, and in one practiced swoop had shoved it over and revealed the thing inside. “Ta-da!” she cried. A moderately sized recess was revealed, and in it, a figure, its shape unmistakably human, though shrunken and somehow inhuman at the same time. Scared, I took a step backwards. Sister Anna laughed, pleased with the effect she had achieved. She was clearly used to reactions like mine, and clearly amused by them, as well. “Meet Oxi,” she said, gazing at me watchfully but wearing an expression of triumph on her face. “My God,” I said heavily, in Polish. The expression on my face must have been a strange one: all the other sisters now burst into laughter, too. I saw the body of a human being—more precisely, a human being’s dead body, a skeleton, or maybe a mummy, sat straight up and elegantly decorated. Following my momentary terror, I began to perceive it more precisely, while behind me the sisters kept on chuckling. The entirety of the skeleton was covered in hand-knit, braided adornments. Sticking out of the eye sockets were great semi-precious stones; resting atop the bare skull, a decorative cap, beaded yarn crocheted. Around his neck there was an embroidered stock tie of thin batiste, which must have been snow white once, now sullied, like a tuft of filthy autumn fog. Here and there his desiccated skin showed through from underneath the fabric of the clothes he wore, though these were mostly covered by a mercifully long and exceptionally ornate eighteenth-century jacket, with ashen-silver patterns that looked like the scribblings of frost on a window pane. Lace cuffs stuck out from sleeves, almost concealing the curved and clawing hands in their arm warmers of disintegrating yarn. Arm warmers! Twisted legs encased in white stockings jammed into wrinkled slippers with metal buckles, also adorned with semi-precious stones. * We always strove to follow the recommendation that researchers not become emotionally involved in their relationships with the subjects of their research. That principle suited me just fine. I would only see the children during testing. The young people followed their instructions scrupulously. They were well-behaved kids. It was only during the projective part of the test, where they had to use their imaginations, that several of them had trouble understanding what to do. Then the brainwave tracking session began, and because we were also keeping track of them while the children were sleeping, each of their rooms had to be equipped with the appropriate device, which would in each instance also need to be set up. For over a week I went nowhere, only glimpsing summer’s efflorescence from my terrace as I breathed in the herb that brought me such relief. On a fairly regular basis, Victor started joining me, which meant that my medicinal supplies were running out at an ever-higher rate. Victor told me during one of our many talks that the convent was facing closure “for biological reasons,” and he told me the story of Swati. In her wonderful, childlike naiveté, Sister Anna had read somewhere that the presence of the sacred had not diminished in India, whence the winds of history and the smoke over Auschwitz had not yet carried it away. We were sitting on the balcony of my room, resting after moving around all our devices. Victor gazed at the glowing tip of the joint and suddenly felt guilty: “I can’t keep smoking up your stash, I really can’t. This is part of your treatment. It’s pure pleasure for me.” I shrugged. “Why India? Where did she get that idea?” “Well, if you must know, I’m the one who put it in her head,” he said after a moment. “I told her that if there was any real spirituality left anywhere in the world, then it must be in India. That God had relocated there.” “Do you really believe that?” I said without thinking. The smoke that came out of my mouth formed a beautiful sphere. “Of course not. I just wanted to give her something nice to think about, to calm her down. What I didn’t take into account is that she would always rather act than think. And just like that, all by herself, at the age of seventy-whatever, Sister Anna set out for India, on a recruitment trip for the convent.” I could well imagine it—Sister Anna in her gray summer habit standing before a Delhi mosque, amidst the rickshaws’ uproar, amongst the stray dogs, the holy cows, in the dust, in the mud. It wasn’t a vision that cracked me up, exactly—marijuana had long since ceased to make me laugh—but Victor was guffawing. “She went from convent to convent, hundreds of miles, trying to find novitiates to bring back with her to Europe. And all she could poach was Swati. Can you imagine? She went hunting for nuns, in India!” * The next day I got their files on my desk. They were neat, economical and professional. They contained all the data about the children we were testing, which I had requested from Victor. Right away they struck me as strange. Instead of names, the files were labeled with symbols written on Post-Its: “Tr 1.2.2” or “JHC 1.1.2/JHC 1.1.1,” and on in the same vein. I looked over them, astonished—I was sure they had not been intended for my eyes, that Victor had brought me these files by mistake. I couldn’t understand the meaning of the code. Apart from the tables of biological parameters, there were genome tables and charts that I also couldn’t even begin to comprehend. I tried to glean from those analyses the identities of the kids under my care, but the graphs and tables made no sense to me at all—they must have been descriptive of some other, more abstract plane of truth. That must be it, I thought, Victor must have just gotten mixed up, giving me not the documents I was expecting, but rather something else. As I carried the files to his office, however, a sudden impulse brought me back, and I recorded those strange designations in the margins of an old newspaper. Then I thought I might as well take note of dates of birth. Victor’s office was empty when I set the files down on his desk. The wind in the open window rustled the slats of the blind, and it sounded like a chorus of cicadas. The following morning, I received on the internal server the information I had been requesting for so long—the interviews on environmental variables and the biographical data. Each file was now under last and first name only. Thierry B. Birthdate: 12/2/2000. Legal guardians: Swiss. Location: small town. He was a school teacher, she was a librarian. Allergies. A detailed layout of his brain studies, with mild epilepsy detected. Blood type. Basic psychological tests. A journal kept by his adoptive parents: methodical but fairly uninteresting. Dyslexia. A detailed layout of his braces. Writing samples. Photos. Schoolwork. A normal kid, being subjected to constant, thorough medical exams. Nothing about his biological parents. Miri C., 3/21/2001: same. Precise charts of her weight and height. Some sort of skin ailment—pictures, diagnoses, et cetera. Adoptive parents: middle-class, he a small business owner, she a painter. Childhood drawings. Numerous references to some other documents, meticulously numbered, classified. The twins Jules and Max, birthdate 9/9/2001. Birthplace: Bavaria. Adoptive parents: businesspeople, owners of some textile factories, upper middle class. Mention made of certain perinatal complications, hence the low Apgar score in both. Jules had a superb musical ear, was attending music school. Max had been in a traffic accident when he was seven—hit by a car, complicated leg fractures, average musical abilities. Before I could think about what I was doing, my hand had reached out for the previous day’s notes around the edges of the newspaper. I found the twins’ birthdate under the codes Fr 1.1.2 and Fr 1.1.1., and from there it was easy enough. Adrian T., born 5/29/2000, code—based on that date—Jn 1.2.1. From Lausanne. Adoptive parents: officials. The boy had had problems with the law. Background and environment interview. Police report. The incident had involved breaking into a swimming pool, some property destruction. Several siblings. Eva H., code Tr 1.1.1. Adoptive parents divorced when she was nine years old. She was brought up by her mother, a teacher. Great student, on the basketball team. Interested in film. Writes poetry. Musical abilities. Treated for juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. I scanned, amazed by the level of detail in the reports, X-rays of ordinary adolescent lives from so many angles it almost seemed as though these people were being groomed to become spies, or geniuses—or the ones who would start the revolution. * Sister Anna gave me lease to photograph Oxi—every little element of him immortalized in his ongoing process of decay. I had the pictures developed at the drugstore in the little town, and I put some of them up over my desk. Now all I had to do was glance up in order to admire the artistry of many generations of nuns who had, with the buoyancy of children, colonized every square centimeter of the corpse, striving to conceal the threat of death. A button. Some lace. Drawn thread work. Decorative stitching, appliqué, tiny pom-pom, cuff, little collar, some ruffles at the neck, a sequin, a bead. Desperate proofs of life. [[{"fid":"6704761","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] I was told at the pharmacy I would need to wait a few days to get more of my medicine, so I quietly figured out a way to find a local dealer, from whom I purchased several portions. They were strong, powerful—I had to mix them with tobacco. Since the chemo, the pains had all but disappeared, but there remained my fear of them, twisted up somewhere inside me like metal springs that might at any moment burst forth and rip apart my body, leaving it in shreds. When I was smoking, they metamorphosed into paper snakes, and the world got full of signs, and things distantly removed from one another seemed to be sending one another information, particular signals, linking meanings together, tying up relationships. Everything gave everything a knowing wink. It was a very satiating state for the world to be in—you could take your fill of that world. I went through two rounds of chemotherapy, and I couldn’t sleep. I could not regain control over my own body—the only strength I had left was the strength of my fear. The doctor said: from three months to three years. I knew it would do me good to concentrate on something, and that’s why I came here; not only because of the money, although in my situation, that kind of money might turn out to be the thing that could extend my life. Conducting my tests didn’t require I be in especially great shape. I could do it almost automatically. Now, every morning, while the children took their classes, I would get up early and head down to the convent. On one such day, towards the end of May, I saw, sitting alone at the edge of the soccer field, Miri. She told me she had gotten her period, and that she’d been dismissed from PE. I noticed she was wearing blue—light blue jeans, a light blue shirt and light blue sneakers. She was the color of the sky. I didn’t know what to say. I simply took a step towards her. “You seem sad,” she said, a touch of combat in her tone. “All the time, even when you’re smiling.” She had caught me in the act, as in solitude I had been dismantling my face’s usual expression of self-confidence. I looked at her small, light, almost avian body, which slipped nimbly off the fence, almost giving the impression of weightlessness. She said she wished she could go home now. That she missed her parents and her dog. There she had her own room, and here she had to share a room with Eva. She had always yearned for siblings, but now she saw she found other people to be a nuisance. “You’re looking for something when you test us. We’re also trying to figure out why it is we’re here. I’m smart enough, I can put two and two together. I suspect it has something to do with the fact we are adopted. Maybe we’re carrying some type of gene. What is it you see when you look at us? You really see something so strange about us? What could I have in common with the others? Nothing.” She walked with me a while, and we started talking about school. She was going to music school, she played the violin. She also told me something interesting: she liked days of mourning—and these were coming more and more often now, with environmental disasters and attacks—because then the media would play only mournful music. Often everything irritated her, and she felt the world was too big, so those gloomy days were a kind of respite. People ought to dedicate a little bit of thought to themselves. She loved Handel, particularly his “Largo,” which Lisa Gerard had once sung. And Mahler, most of all what he wrote when his children died. I smiled without thinking. Such a melancholy girl. “Isn’t that why you’re drawn to me?” She walked with me until we reached the place where the horses grazed. Along the way she ripped off dandelion heads and scattered the still-soft seeds, premature, into the air. “You wear a wig, right?” she said suddenly, not looking at me. “You’re sick. You’re dying.” Her words hit me square in the chest. I could feel my eyes filling with tears, so I turned and started walking faster, by myself now, down to the convent. * My late mornings in the convent, when the children had their classes, tended to soothe me. I would feel good in the company of these women, who were both conciliatory and reconciled to life. Over coffee, the sisters’ inefficient fingers separating out their miniature waste restored order. So it would be, too, with me: soon fingers would strip me down to my primary components, and all that had comprised me would now be put back in its own place—a kind of final recycling. Of the cream for the coffee, following this ritual of absolution, there would be parts that no longer had anything to do with one another, becoming separate, falling under different categories now. Gone were taste and consistence. Gone where? Where was that thing that just a moment ago they had still made up together, harmonious? We would sit in the kitchen, where Sister Anna—often vanishing into digressions, only to emerge again elsewhere—would respond to my somewhat prying inquiries. I never knew where the braided locks of her memory would lead us. In those moments, she would remind me of my mother, who talked in the same way—meandering, weaving together many strands; this was a wonderful malady of old women, covering the world in one vast quilt of stories within stories. The silent presence of some of the other sisters, always occupied with some small task, caused me to take these nuns as guarantors of truth, time’s accountants. All of Oxi’s information was recorded in the convent’s chronicles. At my request, Sister Anna finally agreed to seek out the corresponding volume. Now she splayed it atop the table in the kitchen where we drank coffee. She found the exact date: February 28, 1629. That day, the sisters and all their denizens crowded down the southern road into town, awaiting the return of the envoys from Rome. Just before dark, a modest retinue of men on horses appeared from beyond the mountain, behind the retinue a wooden wagon fitted out with colorful, if somewhat soiled and soaked material, beneath which, attached with leather straps, lay a coffin. What was left of wreaths trailed behind the wagon in the snow; the men were frozen and exhausted. The crowd, led by the Bürgermeister and a bishop invited expressly for this purpose, symbolically presented the saint with a key to the city. Boys in white surplices sang an endlessly practiced welcome song and—since this all took place in a disgusting winter month, and there were no flowers to properly honor and receive such an extraordinary gift—spruce branches were thrown under the wagon’s wheels. That same evening a solemn mass took place. Then came the announcement: Saint Auxentius would be put on display after mass on the following Sunday—in other words, in three days’ time. Until then, the sisters’ task would be to tidy and ready the relics, to put them in order after their long, hard trip. The sisters were eager to peer inside the coffin. But the sight that greeted them was one of horror. Instinctively, they recoiled. What had they expected? In what sorts of wonderments had their imagination attired this martyr whom they had never even heard of before? What could they have expected to see, these poor Capuchins, freezing in their cells without heating, in arm warmers tugged down to cover parts of their chapped hands, in thick wool stockings underneath their habits? A muffled sigh of disappointment escaped up to the chapel’s ceiling. Saint Auxentius was just an ordinary corpse, albeit quite dried out by now, sort of neat, and slick somehow, although his bared teeth and empty eye sockets were certainly sources of terror, or, at the very least, revulsion. Sister Anna said three days turned out not to be enough. Since that time the subsequent sisters had tended to the body of the deceased for over three hundred years. They’d tamed its terror with affectionate nicknames, little jokes and decorations. She herself had crocheted him cuffs when she was young still, since the ones he’d had had all but disintegrated with age. That was the last time the saint’s outfit had been altered. Swati, in spite of her vow of obedience, refused to refresh the mummy’s wardrobe, and Sister Anna had been unable to fault her for this. Once I was back in my room, I got online and stayed on for a while. I learned that when in the sixteenth century Rome had begun to be intensively expanded, digging the foundations of new homes had often revealed Roman catacombs, and in them, human remains. It turned out, of course, that like any old city, Rome had been built upon graves; now the workers’ pickaxes broke through the tops of tombs, letting daylight seep into them for the first time in many hundreds of years. People also began breaking into the catacombs, their inflamed imaginations shrouding them in mysterious tales. Though who but Christian martyrs could it be, buried there? Evenly distributed along the shelves, the dead were reminiscent of some valuable good, bottles of the finest wine, maturing over years in order to attain its particular qualities. The dead were no longer bothered by time’s acts of entropy, the destructive part of it that turned human faces into skulls and human bodies into skeletons. Quite the opposite: once bodies had shriveled and rotted, they moved on to a higher order, getting more delicate, no longer causing the disgust of a corpse in the midst of its disintegration, but rather, as mummies, inspiring admiration and respect. The newly discovered necropolises posed a problem. There were efforts to rebury the remains that had been removed from them, but their numbers were too great—all lovely, well-preserved mummified bodies and elegant skeletons, complete, arranged in graceful poses. The eyes soon grew accustomed to their sight, and then—as was usual in humans—started to differentiate and distinguish the most special among them, the most beautiful, the most harmonious, the best preserved, and from the revelation of their particular beauty it wasn’t much of a leap to their acquiring, on account of the same, exceptional value. In one letter, the stern and gloomy Pope Gregory XIII deliberated over this unexpected abundance of the dead: “We feel as though this whole army has arisen from the ground in these challenging times, and we, instead of repaying it this service, shove it back down into the darkness of the grave. In today’s times, terrible for the true faith, as apostasy closes on us from every side, and of no use are fire and sword against the hideous heresy of Lutheranism, the dead, too, could go to battle…” These words in mind, one of the papal officials (which of them exactly is not known; there is talk of a Father Verdiani, much-trusted by the pope, and with a pretty good nose for profit) found employment for thousands of the dead. Soon a special office was established; gathered in it were highly promising, highly capable and highly imaginative clerics. Also brought in were special task forces of nuns, silent, hunched over, who patiently cleaned off the corpses of all that had settled upon them over the centuries. All this work was kept under the strictest confidence. And then the saints were ready to make their public debuts, carefully arranged in modest coffins, cleansed of dust and spider webs, of weeds and clumps of earth, neatly covered in swathes of clean fabric. Each came with a registry book that contained its name and origins, a thoroughly transcribed biography and the circumstances of the martyrdom, as well as attributes and the range of the martyr’s posthumous acts to indicate what type of intercession one might request of it, what types of prayers to send its way. Every saint had his own attributes, his own domain, just like the protagonists of video games today. This one provided courage, that one luck. This one interceded on behalf of drunkards, that one combatted rodents… Orders from all across Europe poured in. Every supplication sent to the pope and every appeal to his supreme sacred power quickly tied into a request for a holy relic to be sent, in exchange for some reasonable offering. To the plundered churches, which were trying to get back off the ground after their rape by the Protestants, such a relic lent immediate prestige, brought the crowds in under the sanctuary’s roof and enabled them to immerse themselves in the glow of long-lost holy martyrdom, reminding them that this early world is nothing in comparison with the Kingdom of the Lord. And that memento mori. The process of rehoming holy Roman martyrs was one that lasted many years. The office-workers, those capable, imaginative clerics, went out into the world and became nuncios and cardinals, while the hunched-over nuns died off with quiet sighs. Popes changed, all falling into the past like the pages of a calendar: Sixtus, Urban, Gregory, Innocent, Clement, Leo, Paul and Gregory again, all the way up until Pope Urban VIII. In 1629 the office for rehoming saints still existed, and in an effort to improve their work, the scribes had made up cheat sheets in the form of tables and inventories. Their purpose was not to repeat too often the same torture methods, causes of death, circumstances, last names or attributes. [[{"fid":"6704766","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] The next day, Sister Anna told me that she had once been amazed to hear the story of a saint from a church at some several hundred miles’ remove from the convent here. All of a sudden she felt awful: that other saint, whose name was Rius, had a life story and a martyrdom strikingly similar to their own Auxentius’. Evidently the authors of the registry books had run out of ideas. She said, too, that she had once come across a certain work, written later, in the twentieth century, that had discussed the phenomenon of Holy Roman martyrs in a scholarly way, and from reading it she had learned that over the course of all those decades certain trends—if the term could be permitted—had come and gone, some coming back into fashion again and again. For example, towards the end of the sixteenth century, there were a lot of saints impaled in just a few years, and each time the description of the torment was so vivid and juicy, the literary talent of the anonymous office-worker so great, that any reader would experience pangs of horror as they read. At the same time, the female saints tended to mostly suffer the same fate of having their breasts cut off, these then turning into their attributes. In general, they held them out before their bodies on a tray. In the second decade of the seventeenth century, decapitations were popular. Severed heads would miraculously seek out headless bodies, and miraculously they’d unite. “You’re a psychologist, after all,” she said to me, “so you must understand them perfectly, these inventors of martyrdoms. Even in coming up with the worst kinds of horrors, there must be a little bit of pleasure to be found for the writer, right?” I said I thought the mere awareness of the existence of this whole realm of the world that was worse than the lot that had fallen to us could be healing. “That itself ought to inspire out greatest, inexpressible gratitude towards our Creator,” she replied. With time, the names became increasingly eccentric—of course the reserves of the more popular, more common names had long since been exhausted. Now there were women saints like Ossiana, Magdentia, Hamartia, Angustia or Violanta, and among the men there were Abhorentius, Milruppo and Quintilian, as well as Saint Auxentius, who, early on in the spring of 1629, made his way to the convent. * “Do you know what they’re doing up there?” I asked Sister Anna the next time I went down to the convent, pointing to the Institute, visible through the window as a high-up speck. They had heard they were doing some important research. But that was it. We were folding bedding, using a technique well known around the world, wherever there were duvet covers, pillowcases and sheets—we stood opposite one another and stretched out at a diagonal those great rectangles of linen and cotton so that they’d regain their shapes after washing. Rapidly, in tandem, we established a whole ritual: diagonal at first, then creases at the sides and smoothing them out with short, fast tugs, followed by folding them in half and then diagonally again, in order to finally take a couple of steps towards each other and thus put the bedding into an elegant package. And then again. “We have a hunch about what’s going on, but that’s not the same as knowing,” she said. She always spoke of herself in the plural. After all these years, her identity was monastic, collective. “Be easy, child,” she added, and it sounded almost tender. “The church always wants what’s best.” Oxi gazed at us with his eyes that were semi-precious stones sticking out of his sockets, padded with completely faded silk meant to resemble eyelids. His crimson eyebrows, made of gems, were raised in a cool surprise that was verging on suspicion. * By night, the internet led me down other, even more garish paths, whether I wanted it to or not. The posthumous histories of the saints, or rather, that of their earthly remains—the adoration of fingers, bones, locks of hair, hearts ripped out of bodies, severed heads. The quartered Adalbert of Prague, distributed in relic form amongst churches and monasteries and convents. The blood of Saint Januarius, which regularly underwent enigmatic chemical transformations, altering its state and properties. And also thefts of holy bodies, parceling out corpses as relics, miraculously multiplying hearts, hands, even the foreskins of a tiny Jesus—sacrum preputium. Archived pages of an auction site were offering pieces of the bodies of saints. The first one that really jumped out at me was a reliquary with the remains of John of Capistrano, which were available on Allegro for the price of 680 zlotys. Finally, I found our hero from the attic drying room. Saint Auxentius the martyr had been a lion coach whose lions had been fed Christians under Nero. One night one of the lions spoke to him in a human voice. And the voice was that of Jesus Christ himself. It wasn’t written what the lion said in the voice of Christ, but by morning Auxentius had converted to the Christian faith, released the lions into a forest outside of town, though he himself was captured. The former executioner was now the one condemned to death. The lions were all caught again, and Auxentius, along with other Christians, was thrown to them to be devoured. But the lions wouldn’t lay their paws upon their former master, so in the end he died by dagger, at the hands of an assassin of Nero’s, while the lions were slain with swords. After his death, Auxentius’ body was spirited away by Christians and buried in secret in the catacombs. * “I just stood in front of the hotel, afraid to take another step,” said Sister Anna. We were sitting in the big empty kitchen. The other nuns had already gone out of the room, and gone, too, were the meticulously separated remains of their morning coffee. She’d perched on the windowsill and looked remarkably young. “It was steamy and hot—about what you’d expect for India. My light traveling habit stuck to my body. I felt like I was paralyzed, because what I saw was terrifying me.” For a moment she was silent, searching for the words. “The enormity of that poverty, that desperate struggle to survive, that cruelty. Dogs, cows, people, the rickshaw drivers with their fierce dark faces, the crippled beggars. It all seemed to be endowed with life by force, against the will of those creatures who were condemned to life, as though that variety of life were a downfall, a punishment.” She turned to the window, and then she said, without looking at me: “I think I committed the greatest sin there, and I’m not sure whether or not it’s been forgiven, although I’ve done penance for it, of course. The priest who heard my confession evidently didn’t understand what it was I’d told him.” She looked out the window. “The sacred that had been promised me was not present there. I found nothing that might justify all of that pain. What I beheld was a mechanical world, a biological world, like an anthill organized into established orders that were dumb and inert. I discovered something terrible there. May God forgive me.” Only now did she look at me, and it was as though she were seeking affirmation. “I went back to the hotel and just sat there the whole day. I couldn’t even pray. The next day, in keeping with the plan, some sisters from a convent outside of town came in to get me, and then they took me to their place. We drove through a dried-out orange space filled with trash and shriveled, dried-up trees. We kept silent, and I think the sisters understood what I was going through. Perhaps they had been through it, as well. Somewhere along the road I noticed some little hills going along the horizon, each fifteen yards or so from the next. The sisters told me it was a cemetery for holy cows, but I didn’t get what they meant. I asked them to repeat it. They said that there the untouchables brought the corpses of holy cows so that they wouldn’t pollute the city. They would simply leave them in the scorching sun and let nature do its thing. I asked if we could stop, and I went up in amazement to these mounds that I expected to be remains, skin and bones dried by the sun. From up close, however, you saw something else entirely: twisted, half-digested plastic bags, brand names still legible, shoelaces, rubber bands, screw-tops, containers. No organic digestive fluid could take on advanced human chemistry. The cows ate trash, and unable to digest it, they carried it around in their stomachs. That’s all that’s left of the cows, I was told. The body disappears, eaten by insects and scavengers. What’s left is what’s eternal. Trash.” * I went to say goodbye to the sisters a few days before my departure. I still needed to sort through some papers, pack up the equipment and make my final calculations. The last image I made sure to retain from the convent was the sight of the old women pressed into the glass box of the elevator heading up for mass—Bosch’s lady denizens of paradise making the journey into the beyond, the ends of time. Returning to the Institute, walking in the balks as I made my way uphill, I got an idea, clear and simple, a matter-of-fact response to the questions that had been plaguing me since my arrival, the questions no one had been willing to answer, which all boiled down to: what was this testing I was participating in like an obedient, well-paid soldier? And my thought was at once simple and insane, which made me believe it might actually be correct. I remembered the innocent question Miri had asked that first day, when I had gone to meet them: “Didn’t you want to clone him? They say they do it all the time in China.” I spread out the children’s folders in front of me and lit my joint. I looked at their birthdates, provided with hour and place, as though part of the test involved giving them their horoscope. Who knows, maybe that was part of the plan as well. I added, in pencil, those mysterious codes to each date, each last name. All the testing itself had already been done, and I’d already sketched out their profiles. I was just waiting on the final data, which I usually received in graphic form as a dozen or so prognostic lines, more or less similar to one another. The computer would calculate all the characteristics and then crystalize them around the axes it created for them. The basic graph was thus a kind of tree with branches of differing widths. The fattest, most fully realized branches were the most probable ones. In my time I had seen trees that looked like sprawling baobabs with hundreds of twig-possibilities. I had also seen those that were dominated by a single thick branch. But it was always children—fine, bright, human children—transformed into vegetable forms. I flipped through the files, sorting out the data groups, when suddenly I was seized by pain—the pain I knew well by now, that reminded of itself from time to time, like a kind of guard overseeing things, keeping them in order. Then, on the verge of pain, just before the arrival of the relief I anticipated, the files and symbols, dates and labels used to designate the tested teenagers, and the inscription in the convent over the door, and Dani’s smile, the black bit of truffle, and Miri’s eyes filled with concern when she asked me about my dead dog—all of it started to roll in my mind like a ball of sticky snow, and everything it picked up on its way made it get even bigger, even more tightly packed. The matter was becoming clear. I just wasn’t sure what the numbers after the letters meant, maybe the number of the trial or some versions of the experiment. Miri was Cl 1.2.1, Jules Fr 1.1.1 and Max Fr 1.1.2. Hannah was Chl 1.1.1, Amelia and Julia Hd 1.2.2 and Hd 1.2.1, Eva Tr 1.1.1, Vito and Otto JHC 1.1.2/JHC 1.1.1, Adrian Jn 1.2.1. Thierry JC 1.1.1. So it was simple. Saint Clare of Assisi, a body with no traces of decay, exhibited since the late nineteenth century in a glass cabinet in the Basilica of Saint Clare. A wide range of relics, well-preserved light hair. Saint Francis, a skeleton in good shape, in the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. Saint Hedwig of Silesia, another skeleton in fine shape, relics distributed by the Krakow diocese, a bone from the ring finger in a church in western Poland. A piece of a bone of Saint Hildegarde. Bits of the body of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, known as the Little Flower, who never quit making pilgrimages all over the world. And three more I didn’t recognize, but all three could be deduced quite quickly, with just a few clicks. I felt as though, in the game of tic-tac-toe, I was completing my drawing of a small, beautiful circle inside the crucial box. * I was packed and ready in the morning, and I had called the same cab that had brought me here over a month before. Awaiting it in front of the school, I saw Miri sitting on the fence. She smiled, and I went up to her. I didn’t say anything because I was too moved to. I just looked at her concerned, innocent child’s face, at her blush. “Clare?” I finally said, almost inaudibly. She didn’t seem surprised at all when after a moment’s hesitation I took her hand and laid it on my forehead. It took her a few seconds to fully understand, and then she also touched my eyes and ears, and then she put both of her hands upon my heart, exactly where I needed them the most. Jennifer Croft is the recipient of Cullman, Fulbright, PEN, MacDowell and NEA grants and fellowships, as well as the inaugural Michael Henry Heim Prize for Translation, the 2018 Found in Translation Award, the 2018 Man Booker International Prize and a Tin House Scholarship for her novel Homesick, originally written in Spanish, forthcoming in English from Unnamed Press in September and in Spanish from Entropía in 2020. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literary Studies from Northwestern University and an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa.
The Year in Gritty: Birth of a New God

We don’t have to be monsters, but we can have a monster as our god. A god of justice, a god of righteous vengeance, a god of fire and fury, a god of Saturnalian fun.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Gritty is the dumb and ugly hockey mascot revealed by the Philadelphia Flyers on September 24 of this cursed year. Nothing was expected of it (of him?), beyond some local news coverage, some local outrage on Sports Twitter. But the world took notice, because Gritty is the visual and physical embodiment of the epic troll: weird on purpose, both frightening and idiotic, at turns lovable and violent, so “on brand” as to be stubbornly memorable even when you’d rather forget. At seven feet tall and with a head made of wild orange hair dotted with googly eyes, Gritty is an epic troll. The Era picks its heroes and icons, and the people tasked with typing these “The Year In …” think pieces are left to come up with excuses for our society’s failings, the rapid de-evolution of Western Civilization, the lowness of our culture. And it doesn’t matter. Gritty will win because Gritty already won. That feeling you had when you first saw Gritty? That’s what it felt like when people first saw Elvis Presley on TV, or Darth Vader in a movie theater, or Joan of Arc leading the charge on Orléans in 1429, or when a sin-jowled Nixon punched his stubby V-sign fingers into the air before a helicopter hauled him away from the White House. Dread, love, fear, wonder, disgust. Whatever the emotion, it comes with the mark of things forever changed. Does Gritty look and act like the meth-lab offspring of Doug Ford and Donald Trump? Yes, this is undeniably true. Is Gritty vulgar and foul-tempered? Watch the monster in ecstasy as he fondles his huge belly, or driven into a rage by a Mites On Ice child player during intermission. (Gritty picked up that kid and threw him in the penalty box, the same penalty box that Gritty destroyed in a separate fury on October 23.) With each wantonly fireable offense—viciously bodychecking the goalies, shooting Flyers’ promotions staff in the back with the T-shirt gun, beating up Rangers fans after dumping popcorn in their hair, threatening to murder the Pittsburgh Penguins’ mascot—Gritty’s fame and influence grows. It is here where the Ford Nation/Deplorables parallels are impossible to deny. Yet Gritty’s vile behavior is evidence not of privilege or fake populism, but of True Grit. It doesn’t matter that he’s the mascot for a $750-million NHL franchise. Gritty immediately transcended his late-capitalism brand origins. As the socialist quarterly Jacobin announced just days after the mascot’s debut: “Gritty is a worker.” The inevitable Philadelphia protests timed for Trump’s visit on October 2 witnessed the birth of Gritty as an anti-billionaire working-class street brawler. If Trump finally allowed the racists and nationalists to start saying the quiet parts loud, Gritty gave the New Left permission to wear guillotine T-shirts they’d previously only “liked” on @dasharez0ne's Twitter feed, and the gall to demand and fight for a Green New Deal, to free the American left from asking permission anymore. Not for health care, not for good-paying jobs, not for free college, not for justice. Of course Gritty can take down the soft boys of the Alt-Right, but his ultimate goal (beyond eating Zamboni snow) is a joyfully chaotic destruction of Late Capitalism and its long-protected vulture class. Of course the mascot belongs to Philadelphia, the monster’s personality being the beloved stereotype of the chip-on-the-shoulder loud-mouth drunken Flyers’ fan (or player) living off Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey and cheese steaks and pills stolen from grandma. Brian Allen, a commercial artist and Penn State alumnus with a retro comic-book style, was contracted to come up with the mascot and presented 20 sketches. Flyers’ management “picked a big dumpy monster I had drawn as the starting point,” Allen said. Of course it was the starting point. Gritty was born of a Jungian vision. The artist is the weapon of the muse. And, as designed and intended, the instant revulsion shown for this “ghastly empty-eyed muppet” on global social media made him instantly and forever embraced by his hometown, a city where the trash is never picked up, a city that bombed itself, a city that calls itself the birthplace of liberty. Within weeks of his birth, or unearthing, there was an official proclamation from the Philadelphia City Council: “WHEREAS, Gritty may be a hideous monster, but he is our hideous monster.” The tattoo parlors were already doing a brisk business in garish Gritty designs. The jack o’lanterns hurled by Philadelphia’s street urchins this past Halloween were mostly carved with variations of Gritty’s death grin. But the city now shares their deranged hockey monster with the world, with the rise of the new global left. The faux-populist horrors of recent years have seen occasional calls for the leftist and socialist opposition to adopt Trumpian behavior, to elevate cretins and scumbags to positions of leadership. Human disasters such as Michael Avenatti—who insanely believed his legal representation of one of Trump’s adult-actress mistresses made him eligible for the Democratic presidential nomination—are evidence of why out-Trumping Trump or out-Fording the Fords never works when your cause is the Good Cause, the moral one, the one that will prevail if we as a species will continue our civilization here on this landfill-covered melting planet. Gritty gives us an out: We don’t have to be monsters, but we can have a monster as our god. A god of justice, a god of righteous vengeance, a god of fire and fury, a god of Saturnalian fun. This is why Gritty stirs something deep within the souls of people long divorced from the old religions, which have weakened and splintered into identity camps of mealy-mouthed do-gooders or dumb extremists, a realm where nobody actually believes any of it. Gritty asks for nothing but Total Faith, faith that this spirit of chaos and working-class strength and wild ceremony can be channeled into action, everywhere. You can’t say you want to see Trump on the block without having bad-faith fascists getting you banned on Twitter, but you can get a tattoo with Gritty throwing Trump in the penalty box (which contains a guillotine). You can put a laughing, manic, fist-waving Gritty on your protest signs and then use those signs (in self-defense!) to smash the neo-Nazis on the street and the Koch brothers at the ballot box. Like the Viking berserkers of old giving themselves over to the Mystic Bear Warrior before fearlessly going to battle, for all of those today fighting the Oppressor, the spirit of Gritty is there. [[{"fid":"6704711","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] *** Thank you, as always, for reading. Hazlitt will return in January.