Hazlitt Magazine

In Search of Absence in Antarctica

It’s not that I divide my life into the periods before and after I went, exactly. It’s more that the trip accelerated a gradual change that has been happening all my life.

'Migration Necessitates Narration': An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon

The author of My Parents/This Does Not Belong To You on the collaborative nature of non-fiction, evolving family dynamics, and surviving the catastrophic plot twist. 

'My Only Real Loyalty is to the Truth': An Interview with Patrick Radden Keefe

The author of Say Nothing on the Troubles, the difference between narrative non-fiction and history, and reporting until you solve a murder. 

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In Search of Absence in Antarctica

It’s not that I divide my life into the periods before and after I went, exactly. It’s more that the trip accelerated a gradual change that has been happening all my life.

Antarctica is cold, but it’s not the coldest I’ve ever been. The worst cold befell me shortly after I moved across the country, from New York City to Seattle, Washington, nearly a decade ago, just as the year turned over. It wasn’t the northwest winter, which barely earns the right to call itself brisk. That February, I came down with a fever, red-hot and unremitting, some nameless virus announcing itself to my immune system. I threw up. I hallucinated my tattoos dancing off my skin. Only installing myself inches from a gas fireplace under no fewer than four blankets and adhering to a religious regimen of antipyretics could pause the shivering that transformed my body into one long groan. Eventually, the fever broke, and I surfaced to lucidity. But I think it left a psychic mark. That kind of cold is less a sensation than a discrete emotion, a shouting need to feel any way else. Feeling that bad leaves a residue of fear for the feeling’s return. For years after, I dressed warmer than the weather required, accumulated blankets in my home, suspicious of an unheralded, invading chill. Still, in January of 2017, I spent about 30 hours in air transit and nine days on a small cruise ship, the MS Hebridean Sky, in pursuit of seeing what was to be seen at the bottom of the world, where the coldest temperature on Earth was recorded (minus 94.7 degrees Celsius, in 2010). The second coldest I’ve ever been was while trying to run, but in fact stumbling, into the waters of an Antarctic caldera wrapped in the arms of Deception Island, in the South Shetlands. The volcano last erupted in the 1970s, damaging nearby science stations. Long before that, the area was a whaling village. Rust-colored oil tanks dot the island’s edges like a Richard Serra installation, flanked by decrepit houses, piles of shattered wood barrels, traces of primitive graveyards, and the remains of a whaling vessel. In the other direction: whale skeletons, biblical and anatomic, great vertebral chains, left over from a time before whalers discovered bones were oil-rich, too. It’s a grimmer setting than I had pictured for our vaunted “polar plunge.” I had imagined slipping off a little platform on the stern of the ship, the winter version of a Caribbean snorkel, propelled by only a split-second will to jump, gravity picking up the rest of the tab. Instead, we strip down to bathing clothes on a rocky beach—beach is a generous word—and propel ourselves, step by step, into the water, determined to have done with it.     We wade through a layer of sulfurous steam along the coastline, warmed by subterranean hot springs. Then: the slap of frigid water, brutal, the kind of cold that makes you believe you will never be warm again. On this, the single overcast day of our voyage, the cool air offers no relief. I swim a few strokes, hoping to encourage circulation. On shore, wiser, drier travelers wave encouragement. I have to put my head down, I think, get my hair wet, or I won’t feel I’ve really done it, haven’t committed. I have to submerge all the parts of me into this gesture. For a moment, I duck under the surface and the world goes numb and quiet. Everything external fades into irrelevance. Just for a moment. *    *    * Here are some facts. Antarctica remains the only continent on Earth not permanently inhabited by humans. In 1911, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen led the first expedition to reach the South Pole. In 1959, after many more incursions, the establishment of the Antarctic Treaty System preserved the continent as a neutral and peaceful area of scientific discovery. Today 30 countries have research stations there, the only place in this world far from the madding crowd, unowned and unguarded. Here is another fact: the Antarctic is impossible to describe and pictures cannot do it justice. It takes two days’ sail to reach Antarctica. We leave the port town of Ushuaia, traverse the Beagle Channel, named for Darwin’s ship, and then we are in open water. An albatross tails us all the way from Argentina to the peninsula, an enormous, white-winged blur, diving ostentatiously around the ship, a benediction straight out of Coleridge. A Tristan's albatross, not a wandering albatross, says one of the guides, an Australian ornithologist. I am unable to remember which one blessed (then cursed) the ancient mariner. Seasickness eclipses the anticipation of arrival for me. I spend most of the first full day in bed, at first too nauseated, then too blitzed on Dramamine to do anything else. The boat pitches back and forth like a drunk. So much for the state-of-the-art balancers with which the Hebridean Sky has supposedly been retrofitted. Tiny for a cruise ship, the HS can accommodate 120 passengers in 59 cabins. Larger ships are not allowed in Antarctica. IAATO, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, delimits the volume and spread of visitors to the continent, so as not to hasten the anthropogenic destruction already guaranteed by global warming. Somewhere around 40,000 tourists visit each year. I’m not sure there are many more trying to break down the door. It is far away, and it is expensive.  By day two, the Drake Passage has settled, and I venture outside the cabin to take in the edgeless, white capped waters. It is the first time in my life I have been unable to spot land on any horizon. *    *    * It’s not that I divide my life into the periods before and after I went to Antarctica, exactly. It’s more that the trip occurred during and in some ways accelerated a gradual change that has been happening all my life. I was, in a few words, moving inward, away from the world and toward myself. Perhaps this shift is universal, the logical conclusion of self-object differentiation. Maybe it’s the result of a life lived in too many thin-walled apartments. Maybe it’s just what happens after a certain amount of heartbreak. I don’t mean to suggest that something calamitous happened which impelled me to seek out the kind of extremity Antarctica embodies. It didn’t. I went because my mother, an inveterate explorer, asked me if I would like to go with her.  It’s hard to describe going in search of an absence. But, in a way, that’s what I was doing: trying to find that innermost part of me impermeable to loneliness and loss, what T. S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world,” where everything pauses and gives way to a perfect inertia. I didn't expect to find it—but then, it’s the sort of thing that’s found incidentally in the pursuit. I sensed I might find that salutary emptiness within by seeking emptiness without. It is hard to imagine a place more bereft than the polar South. During this time, in this faraway mood, I read a host of books about vast spaces, person-less places, the cold. Places of absence. Strangely, post-Soviet literature seemed right: Snow in May, a lovely collection of short stories by Kseniya Melnik, who immigrated from northeast Russia to Alaska, and whose stories are all set in her hometown of Magadan which used to be the way station for prisoners en route to Stalin’s camps; Vladimir Sorokin’s bizarre and eerie Ice Trilogy; The Slynx, by Tatyana Tolstaya, Lev Tolstoy’s granddaughter, a harsh, satirical novel about a post-apocalyptic landscape clearly meant to comment on the absurdity of human society. In these books, meaning ceases to have meaning. Cause does not lead to effect. Life is arbitrary, surreal, and casually cruel, just as it was after the fall of communism in Russia. If communism demanded sacrifice, at least it made a certain austere sense. It was for the good of the country, the good of its collective people. But after 1992: splintering, hardship, chaos. The organizing principle of a massive state upended, just like that. Only the long, hard winter reminded you where you were. [[{"fid":"6705371","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":{"height":"3000","width":"4000","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] This is also the period when the work of the writer Gretel Ehrlich came into my life. In 1978, California native Ehrlich precipitously moved to rural Wyoming and became a cattle rancher, enduring social and geographic isolation, and a brutal climate. Here she wrote her first and best book of essays, The Solace of Open Spaces, rendering life among the animals, and her turns of mind and heart. Prone to choosing hardship over comfort, Ehrlich went on to spend many seasons in Greenland, of all places, embracing the winter desolation and darkness of the far North. About this time she wrote This Cold Heaven, a hybrid chronicle of her experiences and early history of the land. Erlich’s voluntary privation obsessed me. I felt a kinship with her desire to break away from the balms and gratifications of quotidian existence, to, as Thoreau put it, “front only the essential facts of life.” But she had actually pulled the escape hatch. I knew I never would. I tend to idolize the monastic lifestyle Ehrlich found—the unerring commitment and seriousness of it, the way no time is wasted in frivolities—but I lack the discipline and impulse control. The best I could do was live it in words, a vicarious stoicism. *    *    * Early in the third morning aboard the HS, expedition leader Hailey’s New Zealand lilt, bright as the polar sun, cuts through our cradle-rocked sleep. Go outside, she says, with urgency. I will try to tell you what we saw that morning, and each day for the next week, but I will fail. All I can hope for is an asymptotic kind of evocation. The most common description of Antarctica is that it looks like an alien planet, and that is true. It is true not only because of Antarctica’s distance from the known world, but because of its unfathomable scale. One’s puny human systems of measure and value fall by the wayside. Scales geologic and planetary reign. Its ingredients are familiar and elemental—ice, sea, air, cloud—but they conspire to form an exotic whole, utterly foreign to the incidental visitor. Over the course of the week, we learn the aesthetic pendulum swings of the place. In the days, a blinding brightness overlays shimmering bands of water in every direction. It is summer—you can only visit Antarctica in summer—and a cloudless blue canopy lords over the landscape. The sea is a great silvery glass of ice water, celebratory like a cocktail, poised in the moment before it is slung back and drunk. It splashes unhurried onto calm peninsular shores. The land cuts a sliver between sea and sky, a seam stitching the world together. Its snow drifts sail and swoop across the horizon. Smooth surfaces belie the violent storms that made them. The scene makes for an almost lurid vista, highlighting an excess of cool tones, neon reflections necessitating the use of sunglasses. A painter would be accused of exaggeration. [[{"fid":"6705391","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"}}]] Before leaving and upon returning to the ship, we rinse our boots in a cleaning solution, which feels symbolic. We drive from the HS to shore in small motorized rafts called Zodiacs and walk from the shallows to dry land. There we see penguins for the first time, and countless times after, great, teeming colonies of black and white and gray-brown chicks. We note the absence of moisture in the air, its ubiquity on the ground. A surprise: Antarctic summer feels like a balmy week of Northeast winter, low to mid-thirties Fahrenheit each day, the sun beating down unhindered. Our first expedition off the ship teaches me I have worn too many layers: a thermal skin, insulated snow pants, a stretchy shell, a fleece, and a ski jacket. Five minutes on land sees the coat tied around my waist, leggings stuck to the insides of my knees. At night, the sky is a watercolor wash. Sunset tries to push in but day resists, never giving over to real darkness, instead smudging the blue over the glaciers peach and mauve. Waterfalls of glacial rock glow rose and coral in the perma-dusk. Clouds roll in just to catch the pinkish light. Distant peaks are scoops of sorbet. Everything seems impossibly far apart, held together precariously in any moment by the eye, always about to drift even farther. In Antarctica, the calendar year, quartered into seasons like a twice-sliced pie, looks like the artifact of a strange civilization. The continent follows the logic not of four but of two: of light (October to February) and dark (March to September). Light and dark, mirror to the human psyche, and like the human psyche, slightly favoring dark over light. Not multiplicity but dichotomy. The Midnight Sun prevails yet I feel sleepy all the time. I tumble into bed each night unreasonably wiped, fall into sleep like a meteor hitting the Earth. Maybe it's the constant soft rocking of the ship, like being in utero. At night I lie in bed, back on the HS after a day of trekking the continent, listening to the ship's joints complain of the thrashing waves. It sounds like the water has grown fingers and is trying to punch through the hull. Foam scrabbles at our porthole. At times the HS lifts me bodily from my repose, a gentle reminder of who is in charge here. *    *    * Searching for a salutary alienation in Antarctica has the whiff of the absurd about it, when you consider the kind of mass-scale, coordinated human enterprise it takes to get you there, not to mention that you can pretty much only go with a bunch of other people. A tour company coordinates the logistics, then delivers you an itinerary like a school chaperone, demanding obeisance to parliamentary procedure and time table.     You also can’t go very far in, at least not as a casual visitor. Steep glacial cliffs thwart maritime access to most of the Antarctic, so tours confine themselves to the peninsula, a tail curling off the continent toward South America. Once we arrive on Antarctic soil, there can be no doubt: we are an invasive species, a flock of flailing, red-jacketed warblers whom the natives sanction with benign neglect (having no reason to fear us, penguins amble past at knee-height, indifferent to our comings and goings). Camera shutters open and close like bird beaks. Antarctica is a photographer’s paradise, all shapes and shadows playing across the firmament. Some of my fellow travelers walk the ice with small fortunes of photography equipment in tow. [[{"fid":"6705396","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"}}]] Even the crunching of my own boots grates. Quiet must be stalked like prey. Wishing everyone else away at all times, I adopt strategies on expedition for tuning them out: focus on the three-foot radius around me; lock eyes with a tern perched a little ways away; find a quiet outcropping to rest, preferably over a hill from the main action. I like to sink a foot or two into a soft snow bank, coming to rest with my eyes almost at ground height. Disappearing myself into the land like this, I notice more. Slick penguin feathers pierce the surface of the shallow water near shore. A massive rock reveals the taupe hide of a hulking, smug-faced elephant seal who drowses in the heat of the day. Often, I pass an hour or two in this way. Other tourists mostly respect the wishes of those wanting solitude, so I am left to my own thoughts, and leave others to theirs, regrouping now and then to marvel as a gang at our extraordinary good fortune. I am never bored, only idling at a slightly quieter level of consciousness than usual, which lends a certain plainness and clarity to my thinking, stripped of what Ehrlich called the “ornamental” in us.  At times, the openness of my surroundings leaves me feeling small and lightheaded, like I might hot-air-balloon into the ether. The philosopher Gaston Bachelard equates snug, confined spaces with personal history. For him the fundamental unit of selfhood is the house, the first place we occupy, and therefore possess forever, because it holds our memories, which we return to over and over like a protective shell that reminds us who we are. “If one were to give an account of all the doors one has closed and opened, of all the doors one would like to re-open,” he writes, “one would have to tell the story of one's entire life.” In other words, the story of one’s self. What, then, of a place without any doors or rooms for hundreds of miles? A space like that might vanquish the self, lift the weight of our memories from our shoulders. *    *    * But this land, wide and strange though it be, is far from empty. In fact, entertainments abound for those who would take notice. Observation—sincere, prolonged observation—is a form of meditation, the oldest trick in the book for mastering the whims and vagaries of the ego. Paying close attention means leaving the self behind, inhabiting Emerson’s transparent eyeball. Eliot considers this the ideal practice of the artist, who engages in a “continual surrender” of the self to the tradition which flows through it. We are each, after all, the artist of our own life. Ehrlich puts it another way. “Keenly observed,” she says, “the world is transformed. The landscape is engorged with detail, every movement on it chillingly sharp. The air between people is charged. Days unfold, bathed in their own music. Nights become hallucinatory; dreams, prescient.” A circus of animal life surrounds our staid human party, putting on a nonstop show of labor and play. There are, of course, the penguins: the saffron-beaked gentoo, the bleating Adélie, the chinstrap, so named for the black-colored line under its head. Penguins trill to their mates, clown-honk, squeak, occasionally purr. Overhead, winged critters—albatross, petrels, skuas, cormorants, sheathbills—mock their land-bound rivals. We see Antarctic and Arctic terns. Arctic terns spend summers here and in the Arctic, at opposite times of year, perpetually circumnavigating the globe. They see more daylight than any other creature on Earth. [[{"fid":"6705401","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":{"4":{"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":"4"}}]] Seals loaf on beaches and accompany our Zodiac voyages, swimming circles around the rafts, poking their heads up for a teasing glimpse. There are elephant seals, fur seals, leopard seals, golden-hued crab-eater seals, Weddell seals, whose eponymous discoverer, James Weddell, in 1823 sailed further south than any explorer before him, and of whom Wikipedia helpfully notes, “He is one of the very few human beings to have a sea named after him.” But the creatures that draw us in crowds out of our heated cabins and dining rooms and libraries onto the frosty outer decks are the whales: humpbacks, sei whales, minkes. On the HS, the captain keeps watch from the bridge, alerting passengers to sights of interest as we pass. One evening, he advises whales are nearby, and the crew decides to open a front area of the ship not normally accessible to passengers. We huddle together against the wind, squinting into the horizon, and minutes later an orca erupts from the water mere feet from the prow. A collective gasp goes through our makeshift audience. The white-bellied giant seems to pause, mid-breach, before crashing back into the rough seas. The staff start jumping and hugging, which we take as a sign we’ve seen something special and rare. We imagine, startled into silence, that we can still hear our showy friend under the water. But perhaps it’s just the ever-present birds, diving and squawking, chittering into the wind. *    *    *  Any place is loud if you quiet down enough. Even the ice here declares itself. Bergs can be heard grumbling in the deep, air bubbles burbling to the surface from within. Glaciers calve like a long, low cannon shot, or a warning. Bit by bit, we absorb the complex taxonomy of ice. We learn to speak and read it, coached by the expansive knowledge of our expedition guides. Fast ice is sea ice still attached to land. Glacial ice is like the human psyche: many-layered, difficult to penetrate, at times under great pressure; the pressure is what turns it blue. Every hole in the glacial ice means something. A more circular one is probably a meltwater channel (where water flows through in summer); some are just crevasses that have come to the front of the glacial sheet. Black ice is very old, the result of compressed air. Its perfect clarity reflects water, which makes it invisible to boats, and therefore dangerous. Its surface looks like scales, or the outside of a golf ball, apparently formed by eddies that occur when salt and fresh water mingle. When we run into black ice, we heave a great, gleaming hunk into the floor of the boat to break up for our drinks later. [[{"fid":"6705406","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":{"5":{"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":"5"}}]] Ice is elementary, the atom of the polar south, constantly shifting and reshaping, breaking apart and combining with bonds weak and strong, birthing and sinking and crumbling. The ice declares that we are all also formed from the same stuff made and remade into different shapes. What appears to be stasis reveals itself as continual motion. The stars of the show, of course, are the icebergs. The pressure of snow on the glaciers causes icebergs to break off and land in the water. Some cluster in groups, shimmering like pennies dropped into a fountain. Others hulk on their lonesome, like a cathedral in the desert. Icebergs feature whorls, scratch-like marks, pinholes straight through. Jagged edges facing up means they probably fell that way; smooth edges up means they have probably flipped at some point (the submerged side was worn down by the water). Vertical lines through the ice are caused by air bubbles escaping. Icebergs range in color from starkest white to eggshell blue to icy teal. They look like pillows, coral, tables, piano keys, a dog howling, a wave curling up out of the sea, a row of ill-formed teeth. I could happily cruise around the Antarctic iceberg-spotting for a week. Cloud watching will never hold interest again. Late in the week, we take a Zodiac cruise to Spert Island, across a turquoise bay then through a spectacular narrow channel flanked by sheer rock cliffs made of igneous rock that has been smoothed down by glaciers. Caves at the bottom of the cliffs, just above the water’s surface, invite speculation. How deep do they go? What lives inside them? On the other side of the channel, swells from the Drake Passage make the water violent, threatening to throw us from our craft. Being the kind of person who loves airplane turbulence, I enjoy this brush with real danger. I prefer to be at sea-level, on our knees before the sublime, even if we make a more direct target for wind off the water. That day, the harsh, chill air scrabbles at our noses and cheeks, any piece of exposed skin it can sink its claws into. We don scarves and ski gloves, which make picture-taking an elaborate dance. The mild discomfort feels appropriate to the occasion; I lean into the cold. “Part of the ache we feel is also a softness growing,” writes Ehrlich. *    *    * It’s a curious fact that I seem to experience Antarctica more now than when I was there. The remove of time and space has somehow brought me closer to my days on the ice. I recall pleasant superficialities. The zero-percent humidity polar desert blessed me with a tan and perfect hair. My chronic migraines mysteriously quiesced. Here I sit, in my warm home, with a dull ache for this strange, inhospitable place, whose allure has only been enhanced by distance. Antarctica seems like it has a secret or is a secret, and I am still trying to figure out what it is. I am what the essayist André Aciman calls a “psychological temporizer–who defers, denies, disperses the present, who accesses time (life, if you wish) so obliquely and in such roundabout ways and gives the present so provisional and tenuous a status that the present, insofar as such a thing is conceivable, ceases to exist, or, to be more accurate, does not count.” I did not know what Antarctica would mean to me until long after I left, and knowing this, I gave myself up to whatever I felt in her presence. “To be conscious is not to be in time,” writes Eliot. On one cruise, we pass an old shipwreck sticking up out of the water like a finger-wagging mariner. It leaves me wondering what would happen if I died down there, days’ sail from human civilization. Even on our luxury watercraft, survival in the Antarctic is always just barely, kind of like the rest of life. We happened to be well-prepared. Other species seem to court death. Penguin parents bring back food from the sea and stand a ways from their two chicks. Whichever reaches them first gets to eat. The other, well. On a trek, we stop dead in our tracks to watch a skua savage a wayward fluff-ball not two feet in front of us. Blood and tiny innards are everywhere. But the bird has to eat too, we reason. “There is nothing in nature that can’t be taken as a sign of both mortality and invigoration,” says Ehrlich. [[{"fid":"6705411","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":{"6":{"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":"6"}}]] There’s an argument to be made that death is the most salient feature of the Antarctic, present and past, inside and outside human activity. Visiting is an exercise in devising plans for averting your own demise by exposure (or partaking of someone else’s plans). In 1914, the explorer Ernest Shackleton famously attempted the first land crossing of the continent, and famously led his crew to the brink of death (and three over the edge) by way of inadequate preparation and supplies. Arrogance is no good in this hostile clime unless you are tired of living.  Changes in the Antarctic landscape and temperature suggest, too, that humans as a group are tired of living. As the weather heats up, glaciers are calving in miles-long chunks; species are dying off; emperor penguins are retreating southward into the continent. That Antarctica reads like winter even in summer fools us into believing in a perpetual summer for humankind. The largely invisible pace of change anesthetizes us until it is too late (it is already too late).  In Melnik’s stories, the inhabitants of Magadan curry favor with Communist party leaders, securing their status until the precipitous fall of the USSR, when they lose their jobs. They indulge in witch medicine, oblivious or averse to the modernization of their country. The world has already changed and even those aware of the change fail to realize its extent, its power to alter every aspect of life as they know it. *    *    * Returning to Tierra del Fuego, we smell land before we see it. Greenery appears in our scent before our sight, the earthy, bodily musk of it. Six days of icy desert have sharpened our noses to plant life. The Beagle Channel stinks of vegetal fertility. Behind it lurks a sweet sadness. Above decks, we exchange wistful glances. We are almost home, or almost on the way to the way home. Home we came, and life proceeded as it always does, though not exactly as usual. 2018, the year after Antarctica, was a hard year for me, and all the other people on the planet. I hardly wrote at all. Bad things happened, to me and to the world, and I felt bad about them. Good things happened too, but they felt like exceptions. In the periphery of every cheerful sight, powerful men waved their hands and sang horrors. Out of options, I dove deep into the self-sprung well of solace inside me, bathed in its waters, and in the words of those who sustained my capacity for joy and connection, and who sustain me still. I recalled the pleasures of silence in my own company. I went, in other words, back to the Antarctica in my mind. “True solace is finding none, which is to say, it is everywhere,” writes Ehrlich. The poem “Ash-Wednesday” was my favorite of Eliot’s before my trip to Antarctica. Since the trip, its imagery, its cadences are bound up inextricably with the memories of that endless seascape, its looming ice giants, the clear, glacial air that christened our passage.             Because these wings are no longer wings to fly             But merely vans to beat the air             The air which is now thoroughly small and dry             Smaller and dryer than the will             Teach us to care and not to care             Teach us to sit still.  It would be too pat to say that what amounted to a two-week vacation saved my life. My life didn’t need saving, and anyway, Antarctica isn’t interested in saving anyone, not even herself. She simply doesn’t have anything to do with any of us, and that, in Ehrlich’s words, absolute indifference is a balm.  The Antarctic isn’t still, but it allows for the possibility of stillness. Its aridity is not empty, but new, fresh, no weight, all possibility. A loosening of the tether between the inner and outer worlds. The promise of infinite renewal, seas frozen and dissolved each year. The asked-for mercy of forgetting. A chilly embrace. It has become a far-off friend who welcomes my visitations, a touchpoint for my mental wanderings. Now and then, in gray moments, the elixir of that cold place, Ehrlich’s nervy courage, and Eliot’s prosody make it possible for me to go on. Ehrlich is beauty, Eliot is salvation, and Antarctica is…what? More an idea, these days, than a memory. A lovely hallucination. Anchor to a sphere spinning at baffling speeds, or else its crown, a glistening adornment. All of these and none of these.
‘Migration Necessitates Narration’: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon

The author of My Parents/This Does Not Belong To You on the collaborative nature of non-fiction, evolving family dynamics, and surviving the catastrophic plot twist. 

Before reading Aleksandar Hemon, I had a theory that the best way to write about the Balkans was through fiction. The region’s head-spinning politics and hard edge of suffering were elements too raw for the inflexible mode of non-fiction writing. Hemon’s work is one of the few exceptions. His writing—perhaps because his theories of fiction and non-fiction are more complex, or perhaps simply because he’s a master of the form—manages to wrangle the truth, taming it, making it comprehensible again. Hemon’s most recent book, My Parents/This Does Not Belong To You (Hamish Hamilton), is actually two books in one, presented dos-à-dos, with a series of family photos separating them (or maybe connecting them) in the middle. On one side, the story of his parents' lives and their journey from Bosnia to Canada, and on the other, an impressionistic series of short chapters from Hemon’s childhood.  For anyone who has experienced displacement, Hemon’s writing is remarkable for its ability to describe the unbridgeable gap between homes past and present. Trauma, migration, and memory are approached with an expert’s hand and the garbled, terrifying voice of the past is made clear and lucid.  Hemon, who came to the United States from Yugoslavia in his twenties, and who still speaks with a deep-voiced Slavic lilt, has been compared to Nabokov for his sharp prose and his decision to adopt his second language as the language he writes in. But his work contains shades of Proust, too. He's able to capture the particular fine-grained texture of memory, its vivid moments and fuzzy edges. One of the first memories he describes in an early chapter of This Does Not Belong to You is the feeling of cold water being poured over his face after falling into a deep ditch filled with cow excrement. At a reading in Toronto, the day before our interview, Hemon had small containers of honey available for attendees, produced in his father's backyard apiary in Hamilton. The day after the reading, we met at a cafe in Toronto. Seila Rizvic: What is the process of actually translating a memory into a written work? How does that work? When you're writing My Parents, a more traditional memoir, do you have to be in a different mindset than when you're writing the fragments found in This Does Not Belong to You? Aleksandar Hemon: I mean, I guess it's a memoir, but I don't think of it as a memoir because it's about my parents. But either way, whatever it is, it's about a shared past. There are shared points, shared references. That is, we remember certain things in our family life that my parents also remember, and that my sister also remembers. And there might be people outside of the books who remember. And then it's part of this history of the country and the place. Everyone remembers the war, except everyone has experienced it differently. But it's a referential event. And so, there's this field of shared experience and memory of my family and our life and then the vaster field. Whereas the fragments, some of those things, I'm the only who would remember them. My mom remembers us coming back home after vacation. She says, “Yes, that's exactly how it was.” But no one remembers when I was drowning in shit. Anyway, the point is, there's a certain creative aspect in retrieving memory, you have to complete blanks, and so the imagination kicks in. And that's my territory as a writer. But it also means that often, what you remember is the story of the memory. The memory is behind the screen of narrativization. You don't have direct access to it. The experience is contained in the narrative. However small.   So, the actual process of compiling the parents’ portion would have been more collaborative and actually talking it out with others, whereas the other ones would have been more instinctual?  I think non-fiction in general is kind of inherently collaborative. Because you have to verify reality, whatever it is. From journalism to memoir, because who can remember one's life without remembering other people? The moment you're remembering other people you have a responsibility toward other people and what they remember. My previous work of nonfiction, I had to run a lot of those things by my parents, by my sister, by my friends. "Do you remember this? Well what was that like?" Whereas, This Doesn't Belong To You and fiction, it's more closely in the domain of pure imagination, storytelling that cannot be verified. It liberates you in some ways from the need for verification, because other people are not involved.  Another way to put it is that everyone, including writers, everyone invents the story of their life. Not invents, rather, constructs a story of their life. Many real parts, some missing parts—you add to it. But you are the main character in the story of your life, which is both true and constructed. It's both authentic and artificial. It's both fictional and non-fictional. But the non-fictional part is verified by the others, they check you. However, there are parts—your interiority, or your sort of narrative of yourself—that you want to sustain. “I'm a decent person.” Which might not be true. But if I think that of myself, then I will construct a narrative of my life to support that proposition. Eliminate all the little stories where I was not a decent person. There's a portion where you talk about the idea of truth and memory. You describe “a story I heard in Sarajevo from someone who had heard it from someone else, who, in turn, knew the person who knew the person to whom all this happened. In short, the story is as true as can be, even if I fact-checked none of it, because it accumulated relevant experiences and value while passing through other people.” I liked this description because it describes how, like in a work of fiction, something can be true without being necessarily based in facts or reality. It seems to me that memory can function in a similar way, where, even though a memory may be imperfect in terms of accuracy, the way that it accumulates value in transmission between people still holds an important meaning.  That would be closer to oral literature, right?  So, if you are passing a story from one person to another, it passes through bodies and minds and passes through these narrative machines that each person is. Because we do narrativize our interiority, our lives, our selves. It's incomprehensible without narrativization. One doesn't have a sense of selfhood and continuity in one's life unless it is somehow [narrativized], unless I can conceptualize the story of my life. So, to tell a story from one person to another to another, this is how, well, this is how the Iliad was assembled and all masterpieces of oral literature. But also, it aggregates, each time it passes from one person to another, it is vetted against the experience of the storyteller, and they adjust it—it stands to reason—they adjust it and reshape so as to make it fit into the experience of their life. So as to make it, as it were, enough about them so they can tell the story. I think in some ways this is basically how literature works. What do I have to do with the 19th-century Russian novel? It's an object that expands to me from other people, and I know that there are other people involved, and the field of literature that we share and these things pass. And so that's a kind of truth that is not factual, what is and what isn't. Narrative or narration is an important tool for assembling reality and imagination. That is, we have to imagine something as real before it can be real. I think there's an interesting paradox in storytelling and conversation. If you're telling a story it’s already artificial, right? So, it already blocks, to some extent, the access to the absolute truth, the actuality of it. Which is why memory is always both true and not entirely true. It can become true if it is fact-checked against other people. Were we sitting in Toronto on this day you and I, talking? If we never see each other again we might remember this entirely differently. I'm sure you experienced that. Remembering the same thing differently. "I never said that." "you were never there," "I didn't drink coffee, you drank a latte," you know, and all these things may differ. And if you remember individually, that can only be contained in a narrative that we tell ourselves and others. To make it real we have to compare our notes and come to a consensual set of facts. However, the truth of this conversation could be passed in that artificial narrative and transformed.  It's interesting that you mention fact-checking. As an actual journalistic process, it follows a defined set of rules. When I've worked as a fact checker for magazines, I've actually fact-checked fiction pieces, like short stories, as well. I imagine you've gone through this as well as a writer.  Yes, the New Yorker does that as well. Yes, it's an interesting clash of "fact" and fiction. I get the sense that the fact-checking process, asking questions piecemeal, question by question, makes it very hard for sources to get a sense of the whole article. The piecemeal approach to fact-checking can't get across the same information as reading the final piece in its entirety would. If you declare it as fiction, you agree to a different set of rules. A witness in the Hague, you want them to be as specific as possible and it then has to be checked against a number of other sources. So, there’s a legal value to the truthfulness of it. But the value of the factuality of fiction is very, very low comparatively speaking. It's never nil, but it’s very low. And it also depends on what the facts pertain to. The facts of genocide in Bosnia or the Holocaust—I'm not making this shit up, it's not within the domain of the freedom of the writer. So, I don't have an absolute answer or methodology to resolve this conflict. I think it's inherent in the very establishment of the difference between fact and fiction. In Bosnian, in Slavic languages and a number of other languages for instance, the distinction between fiction and non-fiction in literature is non-existent. Or it's more complex. In translating my previous book of non-fiction into Bosnian with my translator, the only place where I used the words—"fiction," "non-fiction"—was in the acknowledgements. And she asked, “How do we translate it into Bosnian?” It was a huge problem. We were bending backwards and adding a paragraph, which you don't want to do in an acknowledgement. There are general differences between lies and truth, but not fiction and non-fiction as modes of narration in literary text. So, I cut out the acknowledgements, rather than explaining it. But in Anglo-Saxon literature it’s taken to be self-evident, the difference and the concept. And then you run in to all these paradoxes and intentions that no one can quite resolve. For my work, what I care about, the overarching term that covers both fiction and non-fiction and sort of at least relieves the tension, is storytelling or narration.  Narrative as a container for both of those aspects. The closest translation to non-fiction in Bosnian and other southern Slavic languages is "true stories," istinite priče, because that includes that narrative aspect. I think, by way of imagination and narration, we create structures that contain truth, general truth, and create a situation in which truth unfolds in narration. It does not preexist in the narrative project, but it unfolds. Or, if you wish—one discovers it. You were talking a bit about oral history and also the shared experiences between you and your family and that shared memory component. Obviously, most families don't have someone who is a writer who will write a book that will be read by others about their family history. I'm wondering how those family stories change once they're actually written down and made available publicly. Does that change you and your family's relationship to the stories? Yes, it does. I mean, for oral histories you have to have oral activities. People have to sit around and tell each other these stories. My parents' generation, particularly on my father's side, they still do it, they sit around and tell stories: "Do you remember? It was 1941..." The story on my father's side was the narrative of my migration. Where we came from, who's there. One of my cousins also lives in Hamilton, he drew a family tree that reaches four generations. Beyond that, no one knows, because there are no documents, there are no written stories, there is only what has passed through us through all this. Every generation after mine and my cousins, my children's generation or maybe their children's generation, where will they get those stories? I could tell them, but the situation in which the whole family, or much of the family, sits around and tells those stories, is less and less available because of dispersement. If we all lived in the same place and saw each other frequently, because we live close enough, we could just sit around and tell stories, and we'd pass it down the line. But migration necessitates narration, and it also necessitates things being written down. So, it can be transacted. My mother said, with a finger raised, which is an important point, she said, "This is a monument to us." I like that she said it, it's lovely. But monuments don't change. They don't adjust. It's a solid, unchanging thing that stands in time. Which is inescapable, but it's also sad. A monument is what you raise when people are no longer around. It's an object symbolizing the present. Was there any hesitation on the part of your family when you first decided you wanted to write about them and your shared history? No. For one thing, I've been writing about them for a long time, my parents, and they're always complicit. There's also nothing embarrassing or shameful or secret in our family history. It's all complicated, complex, adult life. I remember when I was in my twenties, just before the war, I realized now we could be friends. When I was a child they were all over my ass, you know, to wear warm clothes, and study and all this, and then, somehow, I got out of that, and then we could sit around and talk about things. And then it was broken up because I moved there and they moved here, and we didn’t see each other for two years. But then once we were close enough again it was restored. We'd sit around and argue as adults. And what I also did, which is something that children don't do with their parents, I listened to them. There are times, even as a grown up, where you argue with them. In the interview situation, I would ask them, and then I would listen. I would not try to correct them, I would not try to say, "No, you're wrong about that." "Tito was this" while they think Tito was that, I'd just say, “What do you think,” and they'd tell me what they thought. And it was nothing new, what they revealed to me, but it was a different dynamic. That's sort of more of a journalistic process, of just letting them respond rather than debating. Yeah, and it's also a more generous process. More forgiving. I mean we always loved each other, there was never any scandalous situation where we had to make up. But there's a certain amount of unforgiveness that comes with being close, knowing each other, remembering everything that we said to each other, ten, fifteen years ago, from a week ago. And all these, not quite grudges, but ongoing arguments, "See I told you, remember I told you seven years ago this was going to happen." Listening to them, I mean it's necessary for journalistic interviews. It's not for me to prove that I'm right and they're wrong. You just listen. And that was great, it was liberating. That in itself was worth working on the book. You also discuss "catastrophe," or "katastrofa" as a theme in the book and as a literary term, synonymous with denouement. Catastrophe, you write, “allows for narrative escape. If you were lucky enough to have survived the catastrophic plot twist, you get to tell the story—you must tell the story.”  Is this a factor for you when it comes to why you write? It is. I was never under direct duress, my life was never in danger [during the war], so surviving is kind of conceptual. And then that transformation that comes from overcoming the obstacle, you can think of it as a narrative operation, right? To get from point A to point B, and between point A and point B is a significant obstacle, whatever it is. Getting a passport, citizenship, learning the language, whatever. When I teach creative writing I always encourage my students to think of the transformative possibilities in the storytelling. I want them to have something change. So, this transformative event, you can think of it as a catastrophe. The initial set of conditions is undone and something changes. It's kind of theoretical, but the point is that, whatever it is—you live in Bosnia, war, and then you live in the United States or Canada— and life is different. Language is different, everything is different, door knobs are different. So how do you tell the story of the transformation? Or rather, it's the other way around. If you go through this transformation, you have to tell the story. One feels, I feel, the need to tell the story. And so that means that catastrophe is the engine of transformation. And transformation, you can think of conceptually as migration, and that it's literally migration for people like us. To get from point A and point B and something happens in between. When you get to point B there may be people there who will listen to your story about what happened between point A and point B. Narration is migration squared. Migration necessitates narration.  In one chapter you describe singing “Sarajevo, My Love” on the bus during a school field trip. The lyrics you write in the book are translated from Bosnian to English. You write, “The memory of what happened on that bus is deposited behind the stained-glass pane of a foreign language. I will restore these verses into the original Bosnian, where it will be more present, but you will not be able to read it. This does not belong to you." I'm interested in whether writing in English, about events that took place in Bosnian, changes those memories somehow?  It's an interesting question. You can think of writing literature as documenting as closely to facts, whatever the facts are, as possible. And for that you have to believe that you can reduce or even avoid mediation and transformation that comes from it, that you can tell an absolutely true story. Whereas my position is that literature is a transformative aspect of that. The authentic memory is no longer available, in any language, it's always already transformed by the act of narration. There's an additional transformation in all of it existing in English.  Now one can think of it as the loss of authenticity and the loss of truth, an existential void, because nothing is real and true anymore, but to me, it is the transformative possibility of art and narration and language. That's what's great about literature. To read and to write is to engage in the processes of transformation which removes you from the original event, the original experience, but at the same time, it was never available. One might as well accept that fact. But would you agree that there's something different in telling the same story in English versus in Bosnian? Yeah, absolutely. I like this Robert Frost quote, "Poetry is what is lost in translation." A conservative, excellent, American poet who lived in the same fucking place his entire life. Only knew one language, only knew people who spoke that language. It was Brodsky who said, "Poetry is what is gained in translation." Brodsky was displaced, a Jewish person from Russia, who translated from Greek and English, and was not only a poet but a translator. And the thing is, both of them are right. You lose some, you gain some. But to think that you could exactly translate from one language to another—if one were able to translate a poem from one language to another exactly, it would be the same language! If all the connotations of all the words, and all the implications, and all the contexts, were available in two languages, those languages would be the same languages. It cannot be that. The beautiful, enormous variety of human beings, is in fact contained in those transactions. There's no literature without translation. Every time something is translated, something is lost and something is gained. And so, because the original experience is never available, there's no choice but to enter a transformative process. The question is, are you going to think it's a sort of existential, ontological defeat of selfhood, that you can never have access to the original event? Or do you think about it as a transformative operation that makes human civilization and literature possible? If we had ways to convey our original experiences, there would be no literature, there would be no need for literature. Something that sort of struck me as I was reading, in many of your books actually, is it's possible to see how the story would have been written if it had been written in Bosnian. There's a certain cadence that's familiar to me in the form of Bosnian, oral, storytelling but then, translated into a written English form, it's still noticeable. That's good. I think those are rhythms and cadences that I was acculturated to. People ask me often—you asked the same thing but more intelligently and more complicatedly—am I the same person in Bosnian and in English? Or do I change? And I am, and also I'm not. I am because, even if you only speak one language, you use different registers, different modes, you speak differently to your parents versus your friends. In Bosnian, my range is from speaking like a Sarajevo thug, to speaking like a seemingly intelligent person who uses complex words and incorporates Croatian and Serbian idiom. And so, to be bilingual is to enjoy various aspects of yourself and your personality. Everyone is more than one person and more than one thing. But if you're bilingual or multilingual than you have various languages for those personalities, but all of them are yours. To me, I don't think of myself as different in different languages at all. I have the same sensibility. Of course, who am I to say. But I don't think I become someone else, or less Bosnian, if I speak English to you. And what if you had never learned English? I've thought about this, if I had stayed in Bosnia and possibly never learned English, if I would be different somehow. And, of course, now my Bosnian has withered away somewhat, but I like the person that I'm able to be when I speak English. The analogy that I like to use is that, in a two-dimensional system of representation, three-dimensional objects are reduced to two dimensions. And so, to a monolingual person, a multilingual mind is incomprehensible—it looks like a monolingual mind. People who speak one language, they cannot understand what it's like. Even if you don't speak it fluently, it's in there, it's the culture, your parents' voices, the whole thing, it's all there. The mind is shaped. And there's neurological studies that show that bilingual children's brains function differently in many ways. So that's a great advantage. But people who are monolingual, they ask me, because they cannot understand how that's possible, “Are you the same person?” Yes, I'm the same person, with an extra dimension. But the same mind. The more languages you speak, the more dimensions you have. It activates parts of you that may not be activated otherwise, and it forces you into modes of thinking in which you have to make multiple choices. I always know that there's another way to say the same thing.
‘My Only Real Loyalty is to the Truth’: An Interview with Patrick Radden Keefe

The author of Say Nothing on the Troubles, the difference between narrative non-fiction and history, and reporting until you solve a murder. 

The eight masked men and women who took Jean McConville from her West Belfast housing complex flat in December, 1972, had to contend with her ten children. Jean, panicked, asked the kids to help her—they clung to her, wouldn’t let her go until they were reassured that Jean would return in a few hours, and that eldest son Archie could accompany her. Before Jean was pushed into a Volkswagen van, Archie was told at gunpoint to “Fuck off.” Having little choice, the 16-year-old did just that. Jean McConville was never seen alive again.  New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe found his way to this story through the obituary of Dolours Price, a former I.R.A. terrorist, who claimed that Jean McConville was an informer for the British army, and was executed by the Unknowns, a paramilitary unit of the I.R.A. Price claimed that the order came from Gerry Adams, who was later to become the leader of Sinn Fein, and a crucial force behind the Good Friday Agreement. Adams has not only avoided claiming responsibility for this crime, he’s denied ever being an I.R.A. member.    In Say Nothing (Doubleday), Keefe has expanded his 2015 article exploring the McConville vanishing into a book that explores the Troubles without making a perhaps-inevitably doomed attempt at being definitive. Keefe’s focus on the McConville crime, and on the journey of sisters Dolours and Marian Price through politics, terrorism, prison, hunger strikes, and decades of consequence, makes for a painful, character-centred story with a truly unexpected ending. Many of the survivors of the recent history that Say Nothing describes seem to want leave it unspoken and unremembered, but they dwell in its aftermath, every day.  Naben Ruthnum: The title—Say Nothing—suggests one of your themes: collective denial. How does this story, and the effects not just of the McConville vanishing, but the entire unresolved trauma of the Troubles—how does denial come into it?  Patrick Radden Keefe: Maybe as a journalist and a writer, I have a bias. My bias is for openness and for truth. I tend to think that you can ignore the past, but that’s not going to make it go away.  That was something that kept coming home for me. This sense of really profound irresolution. In the absence of some process—not even for accountability or justice, but just some truth process. Not even necessarily reconciliation, but just a truth process. To talk about what happened. I do think that everyone ends up in this strange purgatory where they’re unable to move on, and they’re trapped in the past. The image I always come back to is that moment where [Jean McConville’s son] Michael McConville, as an adult, gets into a taxi and realizes that it’s being driven by a guy who took his mother away. And he doesn’t say anything. And the guy doesn’t say anything. Neither of them say anything, and the guy drops him off.  There’s a metaphor in there, and it’s a metaphor of paralysis.  Addressing this paralysis—in a sense, just getting anyone to talk to you, especially in the wake of many people involved with this story having been compromised by supposedly locked, archival interviews they conducted with Boston College being given over to the authorities—just having people speak to you about the McConville case must have been difficult. It was different [from the Boston tapes] in the sense that people knew that this was going to be public. Initially I was writing a magazine article, then the book. It was a slow process. Some people never did talk to me. Some people started talking and then changed their minds. And others, slowly, I persuaded them I was responsible and wanted to tell the story as truthfully as I could.  It’s funny. I’d written this 15,000-word magazine article, and with some people, that hurt me, but with others, it helped. I had a calling card, I could say to people, “Look, this is my approach, the book is going to look something like this.” Most people, when they read that, thought, “Okay, he’s serious, he’s thorough, he doesn’t necessarily have a particular ax to grind.” But not everyone. Gerry Adams was not more likely to talk to me after reading that piece. The people who did begin to speak to you and then took it back—how did you treat those interviews, ethically? And practically, if these people had given you information that you could act on? If we’re on the record, I’m very big on ground rules up front. Part of the reason I do that is to avoid any ambiguity on the other side. You and I are talking on the record right now. Tonight, I might suddenly have some crisis about something I said and call you up and try to take it back. But it’s my view that it’s totally your prerogative, whether or not you’re going to do that. You don’t owe that to me. We had a deal. The tricky thing with a story like this, is that some of the people you’re dealing with are pretty sophisticated about the press, and others are not. In my general career, there are people I deal with who have publicists and are old hands at this, and others who are real civilians who, in some instances, have never dealt with a reporter before. What I try to do is always be very clear with everyone about what I’m doing. In some instances, there are people who start talking to you and then kind of dry up, or say they’d prefer not to be in the book. If the deal we had in the beginning is we’re on the record, then I’m disinclined to make changes. The way I think of it is my only real loyalty is to the truth. We can make a deal, a contract, and I have to honour that. But at the point where I start pulling punches, because I like you and think you’re a nice guy? I’m really not doing my job. You talk about that New Yorker article, “Where the Bodies are Buried,” being an ambiguous calling card—how it worked in your favour with some people, with others, no. What about being Boston Irish, and having the name you do? I love the brief section in the book where you discuss coming up in ‘80s Boston but not having a particular stake in the Troubles.    Originally, I wasn’t going to be in the book at all. Then I sort of had to be in it, because of the revelation in the last chapter. But the reason [that section you mentioned] is in there is because my English publisher said to me, “You have to talk about your name. People are going to wonder.” What I wanted to do is to raise it up and then swat it aside. I had thought that it would be more of a thing when I went over there. That unionists would hear my name and think that I came from a Catholic background, think that I had certain loyalties. That didn’t happen at all.  I think there’s a lot of Irish Americans, Irish Canadians too, who feel very connected to the old country. But then you go over there, and... I’m American. Inescapably. I think there was a sense that, when they saw me, I may have this Irish name, but I was clearly an outsider. I was very much an outsider, which actually ended up helping. It neither counted for me nor against me that my name is Patrick Keefe. Weirdly enough, the fact that I immediately registered as American, not a partisan who fit into the grid there, that actually helped. In your “Note On Sources” in the back of the book, you write about how so many of the books about the Troubles are partisan. But your interviewees would get a sense from you that partisanship wasn’t part of your book. Yes. People were more likely to just assume that I would tell the story as I found it.  The identity thing is a weird one. For The New Yorker, I go to Ecuador and write a story in Ecuador, I go to West Africa and write a story in Guinea, I go Amsterdam and write a story on Astrid Holleeder—and honestly, I thought of Northern Ireland the same way. It was no different in my mind. I was a foreign correspondent parachuting in to try to understand the place. You’re really definitive, in the book, that what you’re writing and what we’re reading is narrative non-fiction. It’s not history. But then you immediately follow that statement by explaining that if you see somebody’s thoughts in the narrative of Say Nothing, it’s because that person told you that’s what they were thinking. You’re emphatic about the lack of speculation in the book. What is the real crucial difference between narrative non-fiction and history, when you’re writing narrative non-fiction about the past?   I don’t really have any one answer. Part of what I was trying to do with that passage you’re referring to was to defend the book against a certain kind of reading. It could be read as a history book, but: I was very adamant that I was telling the story that I want to tell. I’ve picked a handful of people, I’m going to follow them, tell you about their life experience. This is not a full-spectrum history of the Troubles. Don’t foist expectations on this book that were not my ambitions in writing it. If I sound defensive, it’s because so much of what gets written, so much of the discourse about the Troubles is so vexed. There’s a tendency, often, for people to really have the knives out when books come out. So, part of it for me was that. Yes, I don’t talk about Loyalists much in this book. If you want to read about Loyalists, there are plenty of good books for that. Please approach this on its own terms. That was the genre question. But that flows right into these questions about narrative non-fiction. In some narrative non-fiction, there’s an imperative to try to make everything as vivid as possible and to try to be as close as possible to your characters. And I think sometimes people get a little too conjectural for my tastes. In terms of talking about what people may have been thinking, this kind of thing. So, I wanted to be clear that, if the genre here is narrative non-fiction, I personally don’t want anything on the page that you can’t go to an endnote and see: “here’s where he got that.” The book was fact-checked by the New Yorker fact-checker. If there were things (and there were a few places where I was a little out over my skis in terms of assuming certain things), he would say—is that really in the source? He would go back to the source note. And I dialed back a bunch of stuff, because it was important to me that everything be grounded in fact. Were you approaching the true crime element of this as a way to unlock the Troubles, or was it the reverse—that you needed to explain the Troubles to make the crime story resonate? There was never any intention—the book started and the magazine piece started with me wanting to write about this story. It wasn’t that I wanted to write about the Troubles and then I found the story as a way in. It was always about the story, and if I could get some part of the Troubles—but it wasn’t the primary impetus. I like writing about crime. I’ve written a fair amount about crime, and it can be useful as a way of looking at communities, and families. It’s almost like little seismic shocks. You have something like a murder, it affects a lot of people in different ways, and you can trace those effects. The idea for the book was: what if you looked at one murder, and you looked at both the victims and the perpetrators, saw the ripples of this one act, but tracked that in time, down the decades.  I’m a little bit uncomfortable with the moniker "true crime." But it’s certainly the case that there are conventions of that genre that are here, and it’s a story about a murder. A lot of the reviews of the book have said, "it’s a whodunit, we find out who did it at the end!" But the truth is, if I hadn’t figured out who did it, people wouldn’t describe it as a whodunit. That was something that was interesting to me—structurally, it works so perfectly that you did, improbably, find out who killed Jean McConville. But it was an accident. I was wondering, in the construction of the book, were you always going to centralize the characters that you did? Or did discovering the killer cause you to go back over the draft, to shift priorities?  This was the weirdest thing: it was never my intention to find out who the killer would be. My big north star writing this book was to approach it like a novel, where there’s half a dozen characters, and if they saw or experienced something, we’d see it in the book. If they didn’t, no. I didn’t want to give you a history of the Troubles where you get obligatory asides. My feeling was that [Jean McConville’s] shooter was probably Anonymous IRA Gunman #3, and that my reader, by that point in the book, wouldn’t care if I wrote, “And then there’s this guy Joe, who we’ve heard nothing about in the last 300 pages, and it was him!!!” The weirdest thing was discovering that it was somebody who was already a character. I had this moment where—now that I know that it’s X—I should really go back and build in some foreshadowing. I started going back in the book, and the strangest thing is that all the foreshadowing was already there. Not being immersed in the history of the Troubles, part of what struck me in reading this, particularly as you’re assiduous about tracking the consequences of these acts, these times, to the current day, is the immense fallout in terms of trauma, of fractured mental health. To isolate just one thing, that the Price sisters emerged from their prison hunger strike with eating disorders. On the eating disorders thing. Some of what I was trying to do—it wasn’t the impetus for the project—but women have often been written out of the Troubles in a way. Part of what was appealing to me was that Say Nothing was the story of two women, Jean McConville and Dolours Price. When we think of the hunger strikes, we think of Bobby Sands and these ten men and Long Kesh. The idea of looking at this earlier hunger strike that we’ve heard less about, and seeing the long-term physiological and psychological damage—it was a rich vein. In terms of the toll? I think there’s a huge amount of trauma. You still feel it there today. Substance abuse has been a big part of that. Alcohol, various types of prescription drug abuse, going right back to the ‘70s, when it was tranquilizers, minor tranquilizers that people were taking in crazy numbers. There are studies that have been done about trauma passing down through generations. The weirdest thing is that even within these families—in part because of this say-nothing culture where stuff doesn’t get aired out—you have kids who’ve grown up after the Troubles who have residual trauma because they’re surrounded by all these people who are so traumatized.  Asking you that, I felt embarrassed about how little I knew about the Troubles, going into this book—I thought I knew quite a bit about the social context, the outlines of the conflict, but quickly learned I didn’t. How did you balance telling the story you were interested in and affording readers the context they needed for it to coalesce?  That is one of the biggest things I wrestled with. I didn’t want to write something that would read like an encyclopedia. There are a lot of those books out there. The trick of context was: how little context can I give you? That was a process. Some of it happened in editing, just sort of paring back and focusing on the story. Some of it was that thing I mentioned earlier—my rule was that if it didn’t happen to these people, then you don’t need to know about it at great length.  To take just one instance, Bloody Sunday, which is the seminal event of the Troubles, about which whole books are written, films have been made? It’s a paragraph in my book. [The reader]’s not even really there, because Dolours Price was in Dundalk [Gaol] when she hears about it. She’s hearing about this thing that’s happening offscreen.  Fortunately, Northern Ireland is a small place, where everyone knows everyone. So, if you’re just going to follow a few people and see history as they saw it, you can see a lot of history.
‘The Great Question Machine’: An Interview with Max Porter

The author of Lanny on ghost stories as love stories, how countries think, and leaving doors open. 

This week, Hazlitt's new publishing imprint, Strange Light, is launching its first two books. (Obviously, we have impeccable taste and these books are really good.) One of these new books is Lanny, a novel from English author Max Porter. Porter is the author of the genre-bending novel Grief Is the Thing With Feathers (winner of the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award, and adapted into a sold-out stage production starring Cillian Murphy), and takes a similarly visceral approach to his new book. Lanny takes place in a small unnamed village outside London, and the first half splits the narration between four wildly different characters: Jolie and Robert, recent transplants from the city and parents of the precocious Lanny; Pete, a revered but reclusive artist hired to give young Lanny art lessons; and Dead Papa Toothwort, a mysterious folkloric creature who listens to the nonstop chorus of voices from the village and takes particular interest in the titular character. Then, Lanny disappears, and the residents of the village are forced to confront what they know about themselves and each other.   Porter had just started his book tour last week when I interviewed him and spoke to me from his hotel room in New York City. He is an energetic and gregarious speaker, different than the impression his prose had left me with. I had called him on his British cell phone number given to me by his publicist. Anna Fitzpatrick: I accidentally wrote down your number wrong and dialed Germany, twice.  Max Porter: Really? Were they nice Germans? It was an answering machine, and I wasn't sure if it was yours. It was me just doing my funny German answering call prank. Just in character for this book tour. But not a character that anyone is familiar with. I go off script. So, congratulations on having one of the inaugural books out with Strange Light. I didn't know what it was about when I started reading and I didn't know it was going to be really scary, so thank you for that. I was house-sitting for a taxidermist and I was alone with all these dead animals. Oh, shit. It's interesting you found it scary. What did you find scary about it? Papa Toothwort?  Yeah, the giant dead plant monster who maybe kidnapped a kid, and then [redacted for spoilers] and [redacted] and also [redacted]. Like, what part of it do you not find scary?  Okay, cool, yeah. I get that. I guess I've forgotten that because so much of the conversation I have around that book can't really include what happens at the end, and can't really include Toothwort, you know. I tend to talk about, when I'm doing events, I talk about family and myth and childhood and England and all this kind of stuff, and then I sometimes forget about part three [of the book]. Even just lying in bed because I couldn't sleep last night because I'm so jet-lagged, I was like, "Oh yeah. He does [redacted] in the [redacted]." [Laughs] Anyway, thanks for reading it. I'm going to have to figure out how to transcribe this interview without giving away the ending.  Oh yeah, it's hard. The main one, the really hard one, when I talk about the book, because I want to talk about the kind of moral framework for the book, as well as some of the formal concerns of mine, it's really hard not to mention the ending, where you find out that Toothwort himself is [redacted]. That's really hard, because I desperately want people to discover that on their own. You simply can't talk about that in advance of reading it. But that explains so much about the book, about why he behaves the way he behaves. It feels like a very subtle reveal. You have to be paying attention to get that. I hope it's less of a reveal than a kind of clicking into place. It's almost like, in musical terms, a repetition of a refrain that you had heard somewhere before but you hadn't quite realized is an important refrain. Just like a coda or something. Well, there are elements of horror and mystery to your novel, but it's not a whodunnit.   Well, we done it. We wielded it. Ah, society done it. Once again. And I hope that's sort of the point. The reveal is not a literary device or anything like that, and it doesn't really have anything to do with me as the author or any of the characters in the book. The reveal is an invitation for you to have done a certain amount of thinking throughout the book. It's to do with the relationship between book and reader, and it should kind of cast its light differently on everyone. That was my thinking about it, that your ending or understanding of him as a character, or even Lanny as a kind of an absence of a character, is very bespoke. It's yours. Hence some of the white space in the book, and some of the absence of things that you would expect to be in a novel. Even you talking about the scariness of it, or the horror, or the unease of it, that's, I hope, very unique to your encounter of it.  [[{"fid":"6705281","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"}}]] Photo Credit: Lucy Dickens Talking about separating your art from the artist, that's kind of a theme in your book. Lanny's mother is a former actress turned crime novelist, and that kind of comes back to her when Lanny goes missing. People start dissecting the content of her book. That happens to some extent with Pete's artwork, where he's being interrogated about some of the adult subject matter of some his paintings in conjunction with the missing kid. Was that something you were trying to work with in this book?  To be honest, I didn't really think about it. I made them artistic people because I'm interested in those people and I felt that was relevant to the themes of the book. But I suppose—yeah, it's nice to have some clarity on that, from your question. I suppose one of the big issues of our time is how to separate the art from the artist and what to do about bad people who make great art. These are pressing questions. But, to me they are questions that come from the artificiality of the role of the artist. I think we put the artist on too much of a pedestal anyway, so the question of whether we should care whether they were bad is sort of like, "Didn't you know they were bad anyway? Why did you think they were special?" Why in the culture industry did we need to elevate them onto pedestals, pretending they were perfect? None of us are perfect, and artists tend to be more flawed. So, it seems laughable to me to discover that these men are all creeps, because of course they were. Didn't you read the work?   So, I'm interested in that, but one of the things I'm worried about now is that art becomes a more rarefied thing and becomes only defined by its cultural worth or its place within the cultural system, but art is deeper than that. Literature is the common language, and in the same way art has a deep and important role in our society more than just pretty things in galleries to be sold. What I wanted to do with Pete particularly was to create someone truer to that, and I wanted to show how society has been unkind to those people, has othered them. I wanted the artist as threat to be explored around Pete. I didn't need to specify too much about the kind of work he made, but it kind of made sense that the kind of work he made was accepted in an avant garde context, but then becomes utterly terrifying to people in a localized, social context, where the apparatus of understanding is less developed. The classic thing of, what sense does someone like Louise Bourgeois make in a psychoanalytic context, or a context of art theory or surrealism or the New York art scene of the 1970s, and what context would that work make in a French farmhouse when someone who isn't in that world is confronted by those themes? That's always been a fascinating theme to me. But more than thinking about if artists are just good people or not, I was thinking about the ways art is viewed as autobiographical, even when it's not. I know that's a response your own work has gotten a lot.   That's why I made Jolie a writer. I was kind of yelping against a particular current in UK literary culture, which has upset me in recent years. Anti-intellectualism and misogyny go hand in hand to block the work of fiction writers, particularly when they're women, to write about lives other than their own, or to write well about their own life in the context of fiction. You have it in your own literary culture I'm sure, but it is dismaying to watch the way we don't allow women to be novelists and clobber them around the head with the kind of biographical fallacy. It happens everywhere, but it upsets me in the UK when there have been books that I’ve greatly admired either as a publisher or a reader, and then see them reviewed as if they're autobiography. I wanted to set her up as a little case study of that, but I realized I didn't need to get bogged down in the type of work she makes, or even the type of person she is. You can do that kind of deftly with that one kind of tabloid thing where it's like, let's look at the woman who writes this work, behind the mask as it were. I see that as the manifestation of the whole critical impasse anyway, that kind of moralistic judgement.   I saw Sally Rooney interviewed at the Toronto Public Library a few weeks ago, and she was saying that she purposely tries to abstain from revealing too much about her personal life, and that she feels like she's disappointing people when she reveals that her books aren't based on true stories, and that she just makes them all up.   Even still, there will be this desperate desire for personal information, an, "Oh yes, someone found out Sally Rooney lives with her partner who is a teacher, he must be Connell." Or Sally Rooney must be writing for him or around him. The desperation to do that is an astonishing thing in 2019, X many years after postmodernism, a hundred years since Virginia Woolf. It's quite extraordinary that fixation, almost fetishization, of the biography, is still so powerful in literary culture. And how boring, of all the things you could talk about with Sally's works, that that is a thing that people want to talk about. It's sort of crushing. It's a way to kill the possibilities of the form as well. The novel should be one of our most radical forms but you'd never guess from a lot of literary engagement. So, my next question is, are you Lanny? Who stole me? [Laughs] Besides society, of course. God, I've never thought about that. I did get stolen! From who! It's not funny. I've never thought about this. These questions are really unlocking me. I got stolen at the Oxford Covered Market when I was about eight or nine years old, yeah. I was just chewing my jumper, not really paying attention, and this guy just led me away. Did you get... put back? Are you okay? I suddenly looked up and started to go, "Oh, uh, er, help..." and my mom came barrelling around the corner, swinging her handbag like an ax and knocked this guy around the head. I don't think he was actually a predator or anything like that, I think he was a kind of confused drunk or something.   Was he made of plants?  Yeah, and he was shapeshifting. Lanny is the title character, but like you said, there's this space in the book. For the first part of it, you have four narrators, including Toothwort himself, but you never hear from Lanny directly. It's one of my preoccupations—I tried it in my first book and I'm going to try it again—but I'm only interested in how accomplished readers are at building characters beyond the writer's determination of them. I remember being really sorely disappointed as a child when a character was overly illustrated, or when exposition was just heaped onto a character in a way that removed the imaginative possibilities for me. Lanny does say a few things, and there is some dialogue, but not very much. I want the book to be a series of mirrors, and Lanny exists as a reflection of other people's idea of him. To Robert he's a kind of reprimand and in some respects a threat or emblem of disapproval, and to Jolie he's a kind of muse, and there's a lot of maternal and almost erotic obsession with the surface of him, and him as a kind of projection and site of trauma for her. Same with Pete and their friendship, which becomes a kind of natural thing but becomes loaded up with societal suspicion. I didn't need to write him, I just needed to create him as accurately as I could in absentia through other people's consideration of him. There were a few times when he did appear a bit more, and I realized the damage I was doing to the book as a warp and weft of ambiguity. There's a textural thing made up of other people. I did great damage to him when I put him in any great detail. There was a bit where he had a long conversation with Pete about sexuality, and I realized I was removing all possible hint and suggestion and interest for the reader to gauge their own sense of Pete as a sexual person. More happens when I took stuff out. I find that really, really, really, really pleasing to do, realizing how much the reader can do if you just give them a bit. Same in the second part. You know you can get to a person, both a character and a role within a community, and their kind of whatever, psychosexual or socioeconomic type. You can do that in just half a line. You just set them up deftly in relation to other things. It's not what they are on their own, it's how they're responding organically to other things in their ecosystem. Same with Lanny. I limit him. I make him smaller for the reader, the more I tell you about him, where I want him big. I want him up in there floating. Also, for me as a writer, he was the one character I didn't do any work on. I didn't imagine him at all. I don't have a vision of him in my head, whereas everyone else I have a hyperrealistic sense of. I know what Robert looks like naked, I know how he eats, I know how he chews, I know how he blows his nose, I know his sexual predilections, everything about those characters. Whereas Lanny just needed to remain for me an absence as well. I don't remember reading if you even gave Lanny an age.  No, I didn't. You don't need to know. I have a sense of how old he is. He can't really be teenage, and some of the things he does and some of the intellectual currents he's surfing on with the adult world means he can't really be much younger than the certain age, but yeah, I never name it. Same as I never really need to name where the place is. There's so much I don't need to tell you, which is the point for me. It's something the characters do to each other, especially in the latter half of the book. They fill in the blanks when they have their suspicions with each other, particularly when it comes to Pete but also between Jolie and her neighbour, Peggy. The point of having the kind of floating village voice which is sound rather than literature, one of the reasons is to train the reader in a way of kind of half listening, half reading, where they're not reading it as if it's normal literature. They're kind of floating over it, picking up traces and scents of things, so later on things prickle or echo or reverberate according to that texture, and so that's what I want you to be doing. I want you suddenly like, "God, had I completely abdicated my responsibilities? Why was I as a reader not alarmed that Pete was spending time with this kid? What kind of person did I think Robert was?" A bit more like a musical experience, I want you to be like, “He taught me how to play this music in part one,” and that “my notes are sounding in some of the stuff that the village is saying.” Even if some of them are kind of unsubtle. Obviously, Mrs. Larton is unsubtle and obviously I'm talking about a particular type of person, the moral judgement of a particularly religious person or the vicious gossip of a more unpleasant person in the village, but I hope they're not caricatures. I hope they reflect realistically and truthfully the way all of our minds work, even the things we don't say that become personally taboo. As if we're all moving around in microclimates of our own taboos, our own questioning of what is an inappropriate thing to think or say. The village is not just a model of individual consciousness, but also off of how our relationships work. Things you'd say to your partner that you wouldn't say to a stranger, and things that a community says to itself that it wouldn't say to its newspaper, and vice versa. It becomes a map of an individual relationship, and so a small place, and then a big place, and then I hope also of like a nation state. This is how countries think. This is how we write history. This is how we contextualize our past and so on and so forth. For that to work as I want it to work in a reader's head, so much of it has to be white space. You compare it to music, but it's a story so suited to the form of a novel. Just from the way you literally place the words on the page, to what you choose to reveal or not. You said you had a similar approach to the last book, but you adapted that to the stage. I'm wondering how your storytelling technique changes in a visual medium like the theatre. The thing about Enda Walsh who made the play is, he's a very, very visual theatre maker, and he's very collaborative. He chose to make Grief an assault on the senses. He wanted to make the book come to life in the most vivid way possible. He realized to do that, he had to focus on the wordiness of it. It's not like that guy's obsession is, you know, Chuck Berry. That guy's obsession is poetry. His trauma manifests itself through literary jokes, literary devices. The play is really, there's words dripping off the back of the stage, there's huge words scraped in the thing, typewriters come alive, bits of paper are all over the thing, the dad is always drawing stuff and always saying, "ah, look at this drawing I've done," or, "I'm writing this note." For me, the visual I had in my head writing it became very literalized on stage as words. I guess that wouldn't happen again. That was completely unique to Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. There is always a death, because with both books I talk about the ambiguity and wanting interpretive doors left open. With Grief Is the Thing with Feathers I wanted no door to be closed. So like, the idea of the crow being a metaphor, or the crow being a manifestation of the dad's obsession with Ted Hughes, or it being a joke, or it being a real crow, or it being the children's fantasy of a crow, I want them to all be possible. I once read a review, and I mean I've gotten horrible reviews and stupid reviews and all sorts of things, but the saddest review I ever got just said, "Okay, I get it, the bird's a metaphor for death." I was like, "Oh no, please don't do that!" [laughs] "You just shut all the doors. What a shame. What a shame for you, and what a shame for the boys, and what a shame for the dad, and what a shame for the bird." Where was this review? It was a famous person I shan't name on Twitter. And, fine, to each their own. Totally fine. I just felt that will be a pity for them, because there's so much colour and noise outside of that interpretation. But anyway, the theatre obviously has to make choices, and he chose to make crow and dad the same person. It's an astonishing thing, it allows for a really truly virtuoso performance. Cillian Murphy is like, I've never seen anything like it. It's a performance I'll never forget as long as I live. But it nevertheless closes down other interpretive avenues on the stage. You have to do that. The stage has power literature can't have, and literature has power that the stage can't have, and one of those powers for me is the openness.   I want to close with a softball. What is the role literature in today's society? [laughs] What is the role of our literature in our society? Or just, art in general. What's the point of art. I was just in Sydney with lots of amazing writers, but one of them was George Saunders, who was reading my books. It's amazing to meet someone you admire as much as I admire him, and him be reading my work, ‘cause it kind of charges the conversation in an unusual way, especially when there's a kind of, you know, mentorship or admiration thing going on. Like, I'm on my knees, admiring George Saunders. Lincoln in the Bardo is a book I thought in some ways parallels yours. There's the missing or dead boy, and the chorus of voices. They're loose parallels, but it was a comparison I held in my mind when reading. I love Lincoln in the Bardo. I'm obviously massively flattered by the comparison. I do remember when I was first reading Lincoln in the Bardo I was thinking, finally, here's the book I want to read. Finally, here's a ghost story that is a love story. That is sort of the meaning of literature to me, how to connect us to each other and to our past. For me, the best books are the ones that teach us to mourn better, to refine and revitalize and interrogate the ways in which we relate to each other, now when we're alive and after we've died and before we've been born. Squash the space time continuum. I'm relatively unapologetically old-fashioned about the idea of the novel as an empathy machine. I do think that is the case, even if that's too cozy a formulation. I read an incredibly intelligent article recently by Namwali Serpell about how that now clichéd idea of the novel is too easy. It lets us off the hook. Because we can say, "Oh, I've read books about that, so I care." And that's not real care. In fact, that might be part of a terrible Western failure to act, because we're busy looking at art that makes us care. I’m probably paraphrasing her terribly.   It's a charged question, right? I see a controversy bubbling this morning on the internet about this boat that's being exhibited at the Venice Biennale, a boat in which a bunch of migrants died. Whether you think that's good work or bad work, the work is asking the question. I guess personally, literature is about a way to worry and a way to think more carefully, and a way to express fear and love, but for all of us generally I think it should be the great question machine. If we stop asking questions as a society we become lazy and we become formulaic and we become obedient. Literature is just the way to dismantle, to ask back all the important things. Anyway, to bring it back to George Saunders. He called it, the idea that it's small entertainment for a bunch of verified people, we cannot allow that to be the case. It must be the lifeblood of our society, for everyone and relevant to everyone and being written by and for everyone. I uncomplicatedly agree with that.
I Know You Are You, and Real

Now, what wouldn’t I give to swim in my sister’s dirt?

One year after my sister is dragged to the Farmhouse I place an ad in the newspaper that says Let’s Go Swimming The woman I later meet at the edge of the lake is perhaps three times my age and so thinI laugh as I imagine her scanty dinnersA bowl of brown riceA single steamed green vegetableThe simmered stem of some ascetic flower She is disgusted by my smoking My matted hair She snatches the cigarette out of my mouth and slaps meacross the face and my tearsWhich have been so long absent Are suddenly there and my vision is bright and clean Beside us The lake steams Apple cores and beer cans float around its rim She strips to boxers and then she takes off my clothes too The trees are so thickly green I don’t worry about my nudity—the Town is a mile away And I know I’ll seem to be part of the greater landscape As in a bad painting When she kneels and starts working on my shoes I close my eyes and place my hand upon her head I want to test the water with a finger or foot but watching her diveMakes me ashamed of my hesitancySo I climb an overhanging tree And sit for a moment in the fragrant creaking alien arms And then I drop into the lake from that height Not knowing if there will be rocks below In the moments before I hit the water I love her more than I’ve ever loved anyone The lake is so silty and fetid It feels like when I was a child And forced to use my sister’s old bathwater After she had been lifted out and towelled dry Now What wouldn’t I give to swim in my sister’s dirt? There is nothing There’s nothing I would not give How could our parents have thought that water fit for another personAfter they had washed her thin oily hair in it After they’d cleaned the dirt from her toes This water is as warm as saliva and the bottom is covered in strange lumpsMy companion is miles ahead already A muddy blurI want to ingratiate myself to her I want to receive the full measure of her attention Without doing anything to provoke it And certainly without revealing That her attention matters to me in any way In other words I am ordinary I want to tell her I know how to suffer With my swallowing and my injecting With my snowbanks and my hangovers With the terror that turns My organs black and sour She insists we follow the river that feeds the lake We swim against a ruthless current until we can go no further Until we are swept back cursing Still she says nothing Still I learn nothing I await what I know will never arrive I await what I wouldn’t recognize if it did (My suffering acquires a mock-spiritual cast) [[{"fid":"6705231","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"}}]]   We reach the bank I want to thank her then break her Gently apart at the joints like a chicken But there on the bank in front of my eyes She dissolves like sugar whisked into water I emerge from the lake less clean than when I enteredOur Town’s nightwatchman circles the water Even though it is nowhere near eveningHe wears huge black goggles and reinforced rubber boots In a very short time, I lost everything. The way forward is hidden from me, as is the way back. And I cannot remain here, of course.He taps his way forward with the aid of a walking stick I lie back in my round iridescent-pink sunglasses I think pink is the most influential colour in the world People motor by in a boat They’re laughing and passing around a baby I feel my usual revulsion at laughter and babies and groups I look into the opal on my finger and if I unfocus my eyes I can see my sister swimming inside the fiery lake at its core Lately I cannot decide What I believe Do I believe in releaseDo I deserve release Will I be released   Listen to this piece from the audiobook edition: [[{"fid":"6705241","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original"}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]]   From I Become a Delight to My Enemies by Sara Peters, a Strange Light book.
The Inventor of Mother’s Day

Anna Marie Jarvis spent years fighting the holiday’s commercialization. But her attempts to keep control of her creation may have hastened its descent into Hallmark territory. 

Bereavement means staring into a personal void. I want my mum, but she doesn't exist. She is absent, but I vividly recall her presence. This leaves me longing for a character who lives in my mind's eye, wishing she would climb back into the real world. I want to receive wisdom that is not available, hear a voice that is inaudible, see a face frozen at an ever-receding point in time. One of my best friends lost her dad when she was young and we agree that grief evolves like an ever-widening spiral. Immediately after death, the spiral is tight and the loss keeps hitting. As time passes, the spiral widens and the hits spread out. You acclimatise to life without them and when they arrive, it’s a shock. This year on my mother’s birthday, I am surprised to learn, nine years since her death from cancer, that I am still susceptible to this terrible ragged yawning feeling that nothing—no tears, no poetry, no love, no sex—can placate. I tried it all and grief still pitched me into an inner world of magical thinking. I don’t want to be ambushed again, so I prepare for the next hit by looking up the date of Mother’s Day in the UK. It falls on the anniversary of her death. I have never bought into Hallmark occasions. I disregard Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, every other “Day,” but Mother’s Day jabs at a nerve. The blasé marketing images of mothers and daughters feel like a personal slight. I don’t get to ignore this holiday. This holiday ignores me.  The malicious twist of timing has me researching the origins of Mother’s Day, and its commercialization. This is how I discover Anna Marie Jarvis, who went further than anyone to try to manifest her dead mother’s spirit in the world.  Anna Marie Jarvis, born 1 May 1864 in Virginia, is popularly credited as the founder of the American Mother's Day.  Jarvis's vision of Mother's Day had been in the works since her mother died, in her presence, in 1905. The two shared an intense bond. Anne Reeves Jarvis, who regretted her lack of formal education, drove her eldest to study at Augusta Female Seminary. They corresponded frequently and intimately by letter after education led to opportunities for AMJ to leave home, first to become a bank teller in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then to be the first female literary and advertising editor at Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance in Philadelphia. When ARJ got sick, AMJ spent the last year of her mother’s life caring for her. She described the moment of her mother's death like this: "light like a heavenly benediction on a blessed soul, that the angels did come and bear away their 'snow wings' this precious mother to her 'immortal home.'” The inaugural Mother’s Day in Jarvis's adopted home of Philadelphia was held at the Wanamaker Store Auditorium, where 15,000 people came to listen to her speak for over an hour about the domestic sanctity of mothers. This high attendance was the culmination of her flair, perhaps solidified during her brief advertising career, for writing persuasive letters to influential people. For years she had been writing to the owner of the store, John Wanamaker, who ended up using his local advertising space to publicise Mother’s Day. Simultaneously, a more intimate ceremony was taking place in what had been ARJ’s local church in Grafton. White carnations were ARJ’s favourite flower, so Jarvis donated 500 white carnations to the congregation. She left instruction by telegram that the purpose of the day was to "revive the dormant love and filial gratitude we owe those who gave us birth." Her focus—then as always—was on a daughter-centric view of motherhood and celebrating the love that flows from the mother to the child in private domestic spaces. Obsessive focus began in earnest in 1912 when Jarvis quit her day job at Fidelity Mutual in order to work full-time on the business of popularising Mother's Day. Death had taken both her parents (dad Granville died in 1902) but had given her inheritances which she used to create the Mother's Day International Association (MDIA). She sent circulars articulating the sentimental function of MD as “a day of family reunions, of home-comings; a day of gladness and of beautiful memories, a day of uplift and inspiration;” went on promotional tours around Western Europe and continued her letter-writing campaigns to, amongst others, President Woodrow Wilson. Jarvis had a lifelong habit of writing to American presidents. Although she didn't have much luck down the line with Franklin D. Roosevelt, in Wilson she had a sympathetic ear and in 1914, he heeded her persistence and issued the first Mother's Day proclamation. Mother's Day was on the national calendar. But the more popular MD became, the longer her list of adversaries—those who wanted to use the day for ends contrary to AMJ’s wishes. She pitted herself against, among others, Eleanor Roosevelt; Frank Hering, an American football player who tried to style himself as the Mother’s Day founder, and John Wanamaker, the friend who helped her get the day off the ground. She reportedly bought a salad in a Wanamaker’s store only to throw it on the floor after realising it was being sold as a “Mother’s Day Salad.” Many of her battles represented an idealistic war against the use of her day as a marketing ploy. The floral industries had been quick to capitalise on the growing appetite for white carnations, steadily jacking up the price of what had been cheap at half a cent in 1908, to 15 cents in 1912, to $1 in the 1920s. Once demand exceeded supply they introduced red carnations, marketing them as symbolic of a living mother, and repurposing the white carnation as symbolic of a dead mother. In Memorializing Motherhood, Katharine Lane Antaloni wrote, "From 1912 until her death in 1948, Jarvis was unwilling to relinquish control and accept the status of her day as a public holiday and, therefore cultural property. Repeatedly she threatened to sue those who designed their own Mother's Day Celebrations (whether merchant, minister, or mayor) without her express permission, especially if she recognised the celebration as a blatant act of commercial gain. At the peak of her battle against the commercialization of Mother's Day, she allegedly had thirty-three pending lawsuits." It was not just profiteering that AMJ objected to, although she maintained a fierce integrity around this subject and refused all conciliatory attempts by the likes of Hallmark to cut her in on their gains. It was also any deviation from her vision of how the day should be observed. When patriotic associations like the American War Mothers, or female welfare charities like the Golden Rule Foundation, tried to use the day to spotlight their causes, she came after them with righteous vehemence. In 1925, she made headlines after she was arrested for disorderly conduct. She had crashed an American War Mothers convention in protest of fund-raising based around sales of white carnations. The judge dismissed the charge, impressed and enamoured by her mother-centric passion. During her lifetime, AMJ put up a valiant and vocal opposition to the forces of commercialization. Yet market forces have a greater life expectancy than any single human. This year, as Mother's Day in the UK draws closer, an email from UK Teeth Whitening poses the rhetorical question: “What better Mother's Day gift than pearly whites?” Someone at TOPSHOP bashes out a list-feature for their newsletter on “The most inspiring mother-daughter duos in movie history.” I go into a cafe in the leafy suburb where my mum used to live and count four laminated A4 sheets and one chalkboard advertising that afternoon teas can be booked for that “special weekend.” Every email subject line and sandwich board to weaponise the word “mother” stabs at me, reminding me of what I do not have. I feel a throbbing kinship with my dear departed and an antipathy to the living bodies who mindlessly slap that word onto anything they’re trying to sell. I understand why Anna Jarvis, in her grief, clung to the sense of sacredness around her bond with her dead mother and turned it into a fight against the world. For the intimately bereaved, connections to the dead can feel more urgent than connections to the living. And yet...  Anna Marie Jarvis, zealous defender of her Mother's Day vision, tireless warrior against warped versions of her ideal, misinterpreted her own mother's legacy by some considerable margin. Her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, was an outward-looking progressive whose concept of Mother's Day had a far wider social remit than the domestic love-bubble blown into the ether by her daughter.  ARJ had organised Mother’s Days Work Clubs as early as the 1850s. These involved bringing physicians to give advice at church gatherings in an attempt to combat public health crises around poor sanitation. She was a gifted public speaker and gave lectures with evocative titles like: Value Of Literature As A Source of Culture And Refinement and Great Value Of Hygiene For Women And Children. She believed in a mother's service to "humanity in every field of life" and was driven to do public good through community activism, attaining the status of local hero during the Civil War for the impartial care she offered to soldiers on both sides. In 1868 she organised a Mother’s Friendship Day designed to reconcile those who had fought as Confederates and those who had fought as Unionists. The day went ahead despite threats of violence. “It was a truly wonderful sight to see the boys in blue and the boys in gray meet, shake hands and say, ‘God bless you, neighbor, let us be friends again,’” recalled eyewitness Hop Woods. Her humanitarian efforts were eventually dialled back by the toll of a difficult marriage and the tragedy of losing between 7 and 9 children (accounts vary) to measles, typhoid and diphtheria. Yet a sense of unfinished business still burned, hence her dying wish that AMJ continue her work. “When Jarvis memorialized her mother, she minimized the complexity of ARJ’s legacy,” wrote Antaloni, "she rarely portrayed the power of motherhood beyond its traditional boundaries and thus never directly acknowledged the aspects of her mother's life that celebrated a public facet of motherhood." How Anna Marie Jarvis, who was so close to her mother and fought for her legacy till death, so fundamentally misinterpreted the nature of her wishes is a question lost to the grave. That she did gives me pangs. I wonder how Mother’s Day would have evolved had AMJ battled for a community-centric celebration instead of the day that she promoted, which, eventually, was uprooted from its origins and now belongs to the culture and makes it impossible for the motherless to be involved. It slices us cleanly out of the purview of the occasion, despite the fact that the founder made her efforts in testament to a kinship that transcends physical absence. Like AMJ, I was present when my mother died. There is no feeling like watching a human lose their soul. When breaths start to get further apart, each exhale is a cliffhanger until the relief of another inhale. The cycle begins again and all is well, for she is alive still. The slowing tempo is not adequate preparation for a full stop; and the death rattle. Suddenly there is no one occupying the familiar body I am looking at. I am not religious but the feeling is mystical. Where did she go? The form is her but not her and never will be her again. Immediately there is a desperate urge that will recur at various intervals for the rest of my life, a desire to reverse this incomprehensible transition. To make like Orpheus and descend into the underworld to try to bring her back. Her death makes no sense so believing that she will live again does not need to either.  Grieving is the process of coming to terms with something that scans logically—everyone dies—but does not scan emotionally. This person is alive! They live inside you. They are not gone! So as not to seem mad, you want to memorialise them, create a tangible monument to their identity. My act was to make a short film, not about my mum per se, but about our ongoing relationship in her after-life. This is not quite the same as starting a Mother’s Day movement, still, it stems from a similar place. The woman who created Mother’s Day didn’t do so for commercial reasons, but out of an all-consuming drive to keep her mother alive in the world.
How Canada Fell in Love with the Stanley Cup

From fans to telegraph operators to a troupe of determined players from the Klondike, here’s how Stanley Cup Fever spread across the country.

Just 20 years old, Weldon Champness Young was already a veteran with the Ottawa Hockey Club when he went to the Russell House hotel for a formal banquet in March of 1892. The evening was hosted by the Ottawa Amateur Athletic Club to celebrate the end of his team’s season. When Weldy and the other guests sat down, they found menu cards that told two tales. One side, as usual, set out the fine fare the hotel would serve that Friday night. The other side showed the names of the Ottawa players and an account of another impressive winter. In ten matches, the squad had won nine times, scoring fifty-three goals and allowing just nineteen. “This was the record,” according to the Daily Journal, “of a genuine amateur team playing for pure love of sport and treating all comers as they wished to be treated themselves.” More than seventy-five people had gathered in the hotel dining room to honour that success, and by the end of the night they’d have even more to cheer about.           Located a short walk from Parliament Hill, the five-story Russell House was the finest hotel in the Canadian capital. Oscar Wilde stayed there in 1882, and many politicians lived there; Wilfrid Laurier called it home for a decade, including during his first year as prime minister. It was also popular with Ottawa’s high society, who enjoyed the luxurious public rooms and excellent food. The 1880s and ‘90s were the hotel’s heyday so it was the obvious choice for a banquet that attracted many prominent gentlemen—including guests from Montreal and Toronto—and featured music from the Governor-General’s Foot Guards band. Around 9:30 or so, women joined the festivities, taking seats in a wing of the dining room, and the hotel staff served coffee and ices for dessert. At 10 o’clock, J. W. McRae, president of the OAAC, began the formal proceedings. A lengthy round of toasts was a regular part of such gatherings and, by tradition, the host always led off with one to the Queen. After McRae had done so, Philip Dansken Ross, the publisher of the Journal and past president of the OAAC, drew cheers for his toast to the Governor-General that included complimentary remarks about the Englishman’s staunch support of sports, especially hockey. In 1888, an aging Queen Victoria had tapped Frederick Arthur Stanley, the 47-year-old son of a former British prime minister, to be her Canadian representative. After serving two decades in Parliament as a Tory MP, Baron Stanley of Preston entered the House of Lords in 1886. Going to Ottawa, not exactly the most glamorous—or warmest—city in the British Empire, sounded like a retirement posting. Initially, he declined the Queen’s vice-regal offer, but Lord Salisbury, his prime minister, talked him into becoming the Dominion of Canada’s sixth Governor-General. When he arrived in Ottawa in June 1888, he was a middle-aged aristocrat with a stout build. He kept a grizzled beard and above his broad forehead, his hair was thinning and starting to grey. The New York Times described him as having “a commanding and soldier-like appearance” and being “decidedly good looking.” He’d never seen a hockey match before coming to Canada, but Stanley came from a sporting family. In 1780, his great-grandfather, the 12th Earl of Derby, created The Derby, the most prestigious of the three races that make up the British Triple Crown. Stanley shared his family’s passion for horse racing as well as its love of hunting, fishing and cricket. He and his wife, Lady Constance, had ten children, eight of whom survived to adulthood. The family quickly embraced winter in the great white north, enjoying snowshoeing, tobogganing and, most of all, hockey. Unable to attend the banquet for the Ottawa Hockey Club, Stanley sent something better. His aide de camp, Lord Kilcoursie, delivered the surprise by reading a letter from His Excellency: “I have for some time past been thinking that it would be a good thing if there were a challenge cup which should be held from year to year by the championship hockey team in the Dominion.” Even better, he’d already asked a former aide, who was now back in England, to order such a trophy. The thrilled guests at the Russell House applauded enthusiastically. When McRae proposed a toast to “the hockey team,” friends and supporters stood on their chairs to drink. Then each player stood to respond. Team captain Herbert Russell went first and made everyone laugh. Young earned a special round of applause for raising a glass to the good fellowship that existed among the clubs of the O.A.A.C. and their members. The last player to speak, Chauncey Kirby, added emphasis to his words by climbing onto the table. Eventually, Kilcoursie was on his feet again with a song he’d composed. Called “The Hockey Men,” it began:                                       There is a game called hockey—                                     There is no finer game,                                     For though some call it “knockey”                                     Yet we love it all the same.                                       ’Tis played in this Dominion,                                     Well played both near and far;                                     There’s only one opinion,                                     How ’tis played in Ottawa.   The verses that followed were about the members of the team and were, if possible, even cornier and more ridiculous than the first two. The stanza about Young, who played cover point, one of two defence positions, went:                                       At cover point—important place—                                     There’s Young, a bulwark strong,                                     No dodging tricks or flying pace                                     Will baffle him for long.   Everyone loved the performance. More songs, toasts and speeches followed until the guests sang “God Save the Queen” and then belted out “Auld Lang Syne” before heading home or moving on to the next party at midnight. The evening had been a great success. The delight at the Governor-General’s promised gift on that evening had come from hockey people: players, league officials and other hangers-on. Still, their excitement over a trophy to recognize the country’s championship team was indicative of the growing ardor for the sport. But not even these insiders could have imagined what the Cup would come to mean to Canada.        *  Stanley had picked just the right moment in hockey’s development to donate a trophy. The modern version of the sport began in 1875 with an indoor match at Montreal’s Victoria Rink. Eight years later, at that city’s first Winter Carnival, three teams—the Victorias, McGill and Quebec City—played a round-robin tournament in what was billed as the “novel game of hockey.” Soon it spread to Ottawa, Kingston and Halifax, where an early version of the sport had long been played. By the end of the 1880s, there were matches in Toronto and the Ontario Hockey Association formed in 1890. More and more Canadians were playing—and watching—the game. But Stanley’s gift wasn’t just good timing. Although the nation had emerged out of a collection of colonies in 1867, Canada was technically just a self-governing dominion and definitely still part of the Empire. In fact, people born in Canada or naturalized immigrants were British subjects (this didn’t change until 1947 with the Canadian Citizenship Act). So colonial thinking lived on. Most English Canadians were ardent Anglophiles and if a member of the British nobility—indeed, the Queen’s own representative in the country—approved of this new game enough to bestow a trophy, people took it seriously: hockey must be something Canadians should enjoy. And so they did. The sport had already made it to the prairies. Local businessmen, including Jack Armytage, launched the Victoria Hockey Club of Winnipeg in 1890 and three years later, the game had “attained an immense hold in the public estimation” in that city. A multi-sport athlete, Armytage was renowned as a trainer and kept himself and his teammates in excellent shape with rigorous drills. In 1895, his Vics toured Ontario, Quebec and Minnesota and won four of five matches. After Winnipeg beat the Montreal Hockey Club 5-1, the teams went to the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association clubhouse for the post-game festivities. While there, Armytage spied the Stanley Cup in a trophy case. He was determined to win it. In February 1896, the Vics hopped on an eastbound train, accompanied by a handful of their hardcore fans. They were going to play Montreal’s own Victorias, the new Cup holders, in a Valentine’s Day match at Victoria Rink. (Sure, two teams named after the Queen meeting each other in a building named after the Queen sounds like a royal parody, but it was just an indication of Canada’s devotion to the monarch.) Adding to the fun, the two teams wore similar colours. Garnet with gold trim and a gold buffalo on the left chest for the westerners and maroon with distinctive yellow Vs on the front of the sweater for the easterners. Few Montrealers gave the challengers much of a chance. Fans liberally placed bets on the assumption that the westerners would get schooled by the hometown squad. The 2,000 or so in attendance included twenty-five Manitobans who “gave an excellent exhibition of Western lung power” in a vain attempt to match the volume of the locals.               The fans back in Winnipeg were no less excited. The phones never seemed to stop ringing at the offices of the Manitoba Free Press as people called the newsroom to get the score. Hundreds of others had congregated in three of the city’s hotels—the Manitoba, the Queen’s and the Clarendon—to await game updates, sent via telegram. Only a few years old, the Manitoba Hotel was the city’s poshest. Built in the French Chateau style by the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway, it set the tone for many future railroad hotels in the country. Numerous towers, turrets and gables adorned the roofline of the large red sandstone and brick building. The highlight of the interior was a large, high-ceilinged rotunda. That’s where John Tait, city manager of the CPR Telegraphs, disappointed the fans by announcing, in his distinct Scottish burr, an early Montreal lead. But he soon read another bulletin from the branch office in the hotel. The goal had been disallowed because the play was offside. Eleven minutes into the match, the fans cheered: Armytage had scored. A second goal followed nine minutes later. The telegrams tracked only major developments, such as goals and injuries, so there were stretches of anxious wondering about what was going on more than 1,800 kilometres to the east. In the second half, there was a long, worry-filled wait when nothing at all appeared to be happening until word came in that Higgy—Winnipeg cover point Fred Higginbotham—had broken his suspenders, leading to a delay until someone could find a new pair for him. Finally, at 9:50, Tait announced, “in stentorian tones, which reverberated through the great rotunda,” the final score: 2-0 for Winnipeg. The response was triumphant cheers and gleeful handshakes all ‘round, followed by the sending of many congratulatory telegrams to Montreal. Over at the Bijou opera house, the announcement of the final score during the performance of Princess Toto elicited “a perfect shriek of delight” from the audience. Meanwhile, back in Montreal, supporters of the western Vics made their way to the Windsor Hotel to collect at least $2,000 in winnings for their well-placed wagers. After the traditional dinner with the host team, the Vics headed home in a private car on the CPR train. They took with them their share of the gate—just $160—and the Stanley Cup. A crush of fans packed the platform and cheered as the train chugged into the CPR depot. It was flying the Union Jack and had hockey sticks and brooms, denoting a clean sweep, stuck in its cow-catcher. As a brass band played “See the Conquering Heroes Come,” the players climbed into the open sleighs waiting for them. The Cup sat in full view in the lead sleigh as the procession—including the band and the fans—made its way along Main Street to the Manitoba Hotel, creating the first Stanley Cup parade. [[{"fid":"6705001","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"}}]] A crowd of several thousand greeted them at the hotel. After the mayor and the president of the hockey club had made speeches from the bunting-draped balcony, Armytage stood up in his sleigh. The team captain said he was too hoarse to give a speech, which made the crowd laugh, and thanked everyone for the warm welcome. Then the players and dignitaries made for the hotel’s smoking room where they filled the trophy to the brim with champagne. Drinking from the Cup would become a ritual that subsequent winners would gleefully follow. Losing had been a bitter blow for the Montrealers. A Free Press story claimed the Victoria Rink’s caretaker “was so worked up over the defeat that he shed enough tears to almost fill the big trophy.” The eastern Vics issued a challenge in mid-November and on Christmas Day, the former champions travelled west for a return match scheduled for December 30. This time, there was far more coverage in newspapers across the country. A large crowd went down to the train station and greeted the challengers with “a ringing cheer.” The next morning, 700 people showed up to watch them practice at the McIntyre Rink. In the hotels and shops, and on the streets, all anyone talked about was the big game. Montreal’s Star marveled at the unprecedented excitement and predicted the police would need to focus on keeping order “to prevent the anxious crowds who cannot obtain tickets from storming the rink.” Along with removing the gas lighting and adding four additional electric arc lights as well as opening large vents in the roof in hopes of solving the problem of mist obscuring the fans’ view, the building’s management increased the capacity from 1,200 to about 2,000 in preparation for the game. Even that wasn’t going to be enough. The price for one of the 250 reserved seats was a steep two dollars. But that didn’t stop scalpers from doing brisk business, getting as much as $25 for a pair. A man who’d come in from Calgary to see the game paid $15 for one and another fan traded two-and-a-half tons of coal for a ticket. Lord Stanley had appointed two respected Ottawa men as trustees of the Cup: P.D. Ross, the newspaper publisher who’d been at the 1892 banquet, and John Sweetland, a doctor and the Sheriff of Carleton County. One of their responsibilities was to appoint referees. Weldy Young often reffed hockey and lacrosse matches and was someone both teams could agree on. So the trustees asked him to travel to Winnipeg to handle the game. He started the match a little after 8:20 and before long it was hard to hear his “dainty little whistle” above the crowd noise. The play was fast and close and exciting. The home team thrilled its fans by storming out to an early lead, firing the first three goals. But Montreal roared back to go ahead in the second half. When Winnipeg scored late to tie it up at five goals apiece, the eruption impressed even the Montreal seven. “I have played many exciting championship games, but I never heard such a wild burst of cheering as went up when the score was made even,” one member of the team said later. “It was like a great and prolonged road of thunder rolling again and again from end to end of the rink.” When Montreal scored again, it put “a damper on the crowd but they could not restrain a cheer for the fine work of the visiting team.” The final was 6-5 and as the Daily Tribune observed, “Winnipeg is in mourning for her lost Valentine, her Stanley Cup.”      Young praised the crowd: “During all my experience in hockey matches both as a player and as an official,” he said, “I never saw such an intelligent, impartial and well conducted audience.” Whether he knew it or not, the audience was far larger than just the crowd in the rink. The CPR and Great North Western telegraph companies had arranged to provide detailed coverage of the game with direct wires to the arena. This had been done for other sports, especially boxing, but not for hockey. The Manitoba Hotel had promised that “every move of the puck will be announced.” Several hundred people made the rotunda reverberate with cheers, and groans, as they followed the play in only slightly delayed real-time through frequent CPR bulletins that were written with the help of a hockey expert stationed beside the telegraph operator:         “Merritt has just stopped a hot one.       Grant has just had a run down the rink and made a shot on Winnipeg’s goal, which was well stopped by Merritt.       The play is very fast—and just 8 minutes more to play.       Merritt has stopped several hot ones.       Montrealers are keeping the puck at Winnipeg goal and raining shot after shot.       Winnipeg on the defensive. Montreal is playing the best game.       The Winnipegs are wakening up.       Another shot on Winnipeg goal was beautifully stopped by Merritt.”       In Montreal, the Victoria Rink was hosting the skating club’s first fancy dress carnival of the season and the Daily Star had set up the twelve-foot square Star Bulletin Booth in the centre of the ice. News of the game went up on eight large bulletin boards that rotated on pivots to allow one side to be visible to skaters while the other side was being updated. A brass gong sounded with each new telegram, which came so quickly that five Star employees struggled to keep up. Although Winnipeg’s reign as Cup champions lasted for less than a year, a team from outside Montreal had finally won the trophy and fulfilled Stanley’s desire to create a national honour. The matches in February and December served notice that westerners were just as good at, and just as passionate about, the game as anyone else. Enthusiasm for the sport was exploding, the rinks were packed and the press had made the Cup a big story. Stanley’s gift mattered now. Best of all, fans in two different cities, in two different provinces—and, indeed, anywhere else in the country where people were interested—were able to experience the same game at the same time because of the telegraph. More than an influential precursor to broadcasting, these play-by-play transmissions brought Canadians together through their shared love of hockey. * Having been one of the first people to hear about the Stanley Cup, Young would find it impossible to shake his desire to win it. He and the Ottawas came close a couple of times but failed. Seven years after attending the banquet that launched an obsession, Young moved to the Klondike, leaving his team and his hometown—but not his hunger for the Cup—behind. During his first couple of years in the sub-arctic, he offered occasional updates on life in Dawson for people Outside, as Yukoners called anywhere beyond the territory’s borders. In a summer 1900 letter, he covered local politics, a mild smallpox outbreak and the doings of several former Ottawa residents. He also made an announcement that must have seemed particularly outlandish given the Northern town hadn’t even existed five years earlier. “And now, by way of warning, let me break the news gently, a challenge from the Dawson Hockey club, for the possession of the Stanley Cup, is now being prepared,” Young wrote in the Citizen. “And let me further inform you ‘outsiders’ that if a team is sent you do not want to hold us too cheaply.” The son of Ottawa’s fire brigade chief, Young grew up in a fire hall. Older brother George had been an original member of the Ottawa Hockey Club and Weldy joined the team in 1889. Nicknamed Chalk, he had plenty of skill and speed. As early as 1893, he began scoring, or setting up goals, after making end-to-end rushes, among the first cover points to do so. [[{"fid":"6705006","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"}}]] Although Young was respected as a referee because he had “a thorough knowledge of the game and a reputation for squareness,” he could be a terror as a player. He wasn’t particularly large—he was a wiry 165 pounds, about average for players of the day—but he was tough, loved to indulge in a physical game and could be hot-headed. Many opponents felt his stick across their ankles and he often found himself at the centre of brawls. During a late February 1898 game, in the days before nets, with the score tied 4-4, the umpire signaled a Quebec goal. Everyone else in Ottawa’s Rideau Rink was sure the shot had been well wide. An incensed Young skated up to the umpire and pointed to a path the puck had made along the slushy ice. That, he said, proved the puck hadn’t gone between the uprights. The umpire, who later claimed that Young had jabbed him with his stick, jumped at the player. Young responded by punching him, which brought a crowd of people, including two or three cops, onto the ice and led to a skirmish between players and fans. Since the police weren’t much help in calming everyone down, it fell to Ottawa’s captain Harvey Pulford, known as the Bytown Slugger, to break it up. Off the ice, Young was an affable and gregarious guy with many friends. One day in 1897, while on his way to a Montreal football match, he asked a boy on the street, “Hey, kid, want to see the game?”             “Sure do.”             “Come on, I’ll take you in,” Young told him. When he asked the lad if he liked hockey, the 13-year-old said yes, though he’d really only recently started playing. “Right. I’ll be here with the Ottawa team next winter,” said Young. “How’d you like to be the stick boy?” Serving as stick boy for Young and his teammates when they played in Montreal ignited Lester Patrick’s love of hockey. He went on to be a star rushing cover point on the Brandon team that lost a 1904 Cup challenge to an Ottawa team that included several players he’d fetched sticks for. By the end of his Hall-of-Fame career as a player, coach and general manager, Patrick had won the trophy six times. “It just goes to show what a thoughtful act will do for a boy,” he later said. “Maybe I’d have got into hockey some other way but that gesture by Young set me on my way.” * After moving to Dawson, Weldy Young played for the Civil Service team, which issued a Cup challenge in 1901. Winnipeg’s Vics were once again champs. The Ottawa Journal reported that while the trustees had asked about suitable dates, they never heard back, suggesting the Yukoners had decided against going that winter. But it’s also possible the trustees had discouraged the team; they often used scheduling problems to squelch unwanted challenges. Perhaps Ross, Sweetland and Winnipeg captain Dan Bain appeared accommodating in public out of courtesy but were privately reluctant to entertain a challenge from a team they considered inferior. The Vancouver Daily News printed what the trustees may have been thinking. Dismissing Young as too old, the paper added, “It will no doubt be an enjoyable trip, and the Dawson boys can loosen themselves of their nuggets, but no Dawson team can lift that cup unless all the Vics drop dead.” Three years later, the plan to send the Civil Service team had given way to the idea of assembling an all-star squad made up of the best players in town. By this point, Young’s former club, led by the sport’s original superstar, “One-Eyed” Frank McGee, had a stranglehold on the trophy. A letter to Ross and Sweetland went out on August 24, 1904: “The Klondyke Hockey Club of Dawson, Y. T., hereby challenge the Ottawa Hockey Club, of Ottawa, to a series of games for the Stanley Cup, emblematic of the hockey championship of Canada, said series of games to be played under and in accordance with the regulations governing the trophy in question.” To help the cause, Young wrote a long, less formal, letter to Ross. He laid it on thick about all the success Ottawa’s sports teams had experienced since he’d left. Cleverly dealing with any concerns Ross might have that Young was past his prime, he wrote that it was “particularly gratifying to see that five of the last winter’s unbeaten champions were teammates of my own as far back as ’98 and to me it exemplifies beyond doubt the truth of the old adage ‘The old dog for the hard roads, etc.,’ and holds out for me, I must admit, no little consolation.” Young was referring to an Irish proverb—“The old dog for the hard road and leave the pup on the path”—about the advantage of experience in the face of a difficult task. Young also sought to put Ross at ease about the other players. “Speaking of the team itself, I can assure you that they are as likely a bunch as ever happened,” he wrote. “True we are badly handicapped by so little competition but unless I miss my guess by a large majority I will produce at the right time as good a forward line as ever went a-hunting for a Stanley Cup.” The postscript dropped the name of Joe Boyle, who would represent the team in the east and had full authority to arrange dates. The swaggering Yukon mining promoter was a regular at the Russell House, where Ottawa’s powerful and connected, including Ross, hung out. By mid-October, the Winnipeg Tribune reported that Ottawa had agreed to a best-of three series with Dawson—giving Young another chance to finally win the Stanley Cup. * Late in the year, just a few days before the Winter Solstice, the Klondike enjoyed precious few hours of daylight and the Dawson townsite, at the bottom of the Yukon River valley, received no direct sun at all. So it was dark and cold—a frigid -23 Celsius—when three players left town on foot at 7 a.m. on December 18. They had planned to let a dog team pull their gear, but so little snow had fallen that wasn’t possible. They walked down the Overland Trail wearing moccasins and parkas and carrying their gear on their backs. Many residents cheered the trio off that Sunday morning and the Yukon World noted that the team was going east to “show some of the old time cracks how the noble game should be played.” Accepting the role of long shots simply wasn’t in the Yukoners’ nature. The next morning, four more players hopped on their bikes and rode out of town under clear skies with a north wind behind them. The cyclists hoped to make it to Whitehorse in a week. Setting out to, as they put it, “win fame and the Stanley Cup,” the hockeyists, as players were often called in those days, figured it would be a straightforward eighteen-day trip to Ottawa. Straightforward by Yukon standards, anyway. Eventually, each of the cyclists had to abandon his broken-down wheels and join the walkers. After travelling more than 500 kilometres in nine days, the team arrived in Whitehorse, tired but on schedule. The next morning a blizzard shut down the narrow-gauge White Pass and Yukon Route railway. When they finally reached Skagway, Alaska, they’d missed their steamer to Vancouver by two hours and had to wait three days to board a Seattle-bound ship that made many of the players severely seasick. Worse, Young wasn’t with them. Although he’d been named captain and had helped select the team, if he left with the others, he’d lose his civil service job. He’d have to finish handling the election returns first and then try to catch up.   [[{"fid":"6705011","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":{"4":{"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":"4"}}]] Even if their star player could make it in time, most hockey people in the east refused to consider Dawson City a serious contender. The team was from a small sub-arctic town and no squad from west of Brandon had yet challenged for—let alone won—the Cup (though none of the Dawson players was originally from anywhere west of Manitoba). The prevailing wisdom was that the game was at its best in Montreal, Ottawa and Winnipeg, while the play in the Ontario Hockey Association, which Ottawa had long ago quit, and the Maritimes was inferior. But there was more to this than hockey snobbery. Even during the Vics versus Vics matches of 1896, the newspapers played up the conflict between the “effete east” and “the Wild and Woolly West.” Hockey wasn’t the root of the country’s endless regional squabbles, but it didn’t escape the wrangling either.     The Ottawa team had insisted the Klondikers not play any exhibition matches en route. This wasn’t to ensure the challengers would arrive unprepared—it was to avoid any lopsided losses that might dampen ticket sales in Ottawa. Despite the cynicism, and the need for the Dawson hockeyists to assure reporters their challenge was no joke, the team’s journey generated a lot of enthusiasm. And there was more to it than an affection for hockey and underdogs. The Klondike Gold Rush was over, but Canadians continued to romanticize the Yukon and the long journey from “the mining centre of the golden North to the Capital of Canada” only added to the story’s charm. All along the route, people cheered the team. And it was no different in the home of the champions, where the Citizen reported, “The matches are creating the greatest interest of any Stanley Cup contests yet played in Ottawa.” At a quarter to five on January 11, 1905, three-and-a-half weeks after leaving Dawson City, the hockeyists stepped off the train and onto the platform of Central Station where a large and appreciative crowd gave them “a right hearty reception.” An executive from the Ottawa Hockey Club led the players away to the Russell House. Despite the cordial welcome, the hosts weren’t about to grant the visitors’ request for a one-week postponement before starting the series. Meanwhile, the challengers denied rumours they’d threatened to default the opening game and focus on the second and third ones rather than play unprepared. The first match would go ahead as scheduled, with Earl Grey, the new Governor-General, “facing the puck” at 8:30 p.m. on Friday the 13th. After nearly a month on the road, and with no time to practice, the exhausted and far-from-game-shape Klondikers, still waiting for Weldy Young, would take on the Stanley Cup champions before a sell-out crowd of 2,200 fans at Dey’s Arena in just over forty-eight hours.  * The Klondikers lost the first game 9-2. Joe Boyle followed an already well-established custom for losing teams and blamed the referee. Then, in the Bijou Hotel bar, Ottawa right winger Alf Smith overheard a Klondiker—Boyle, according to some accounts—trash “One-Eyed” Frank McGee, who’d scored only once: “Who the hell’s McGee? He doesn’t look like much.” Although this may not have been the first example of “bulletin-board material” in hockey, it remains one of the most regrettable. Dawson lost 23-2. “Ottawa simply skated away from them at the whistle,” reported Toronto’s Globe, “and continued to pile up the goals with a merciless monotonous regularity which was farcical in the extreme.” McGee scored fourteen times. The humiliating blowout didn’t mean the two teams were about to dispense with the tradition of celebrating together after the game, though. Eventually, the party became a little too boisterous and, according to legend, Harvey Pulford attempted to dropkick the Cup over the Rideau Canal. It landed on the frozen water and no one thought to recover it until the next day. Young’s teammates were in the Maritimes on a post-series barnstorming tour when he finally caught up with them. These games on the east coast as well as in the United States and Ontario were to fund the players’ return to Dawson City. While the Klondikers had proven no match for Ottawa, they did much better against other teams. They won thirteen games, lost nine and tied one before large and appreciative crowds. The eagerness of the Yukoners to make such an audacious journey, and the public’s response to the whole adventure, revealed just how deeply Canadians had fallen in love with the game. And how quickly. Stanley’s trophy had been a powerful endorsement and technology such as trains and the telegraph had helped spread the sport from Cape Breton to Dawson City, but it was the unlikely mix of grace and ferocity at high speed that really struck people. In the dozen years since the trustees first awarded the Stanley Cup, a niche, largely regional sport with a small fan base had captivated the country. Hockey was now the national pastime.
Dayspring

And the Word became flesh: coarse hair, crooked smile, the taste of salt on his clavicle. I am the disciple whom he loved.

    In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made by him and through him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. And the Word was life, and the life was the light of all. And the light is a light that shines in darkness, and the darkness comprehends it not. And the Word spiraled outward into a cosmos of orbits and counter-orbits, into a billion subjectivities and a trillion perspectives. From the Word came a multiverse of matter and energy interfluxing, a dazzling, bewildering, volatile orrery, a wondrous, widening gyre: a going forth, to multiply. And the Word became flesh: coarse hair, crooked smile, the taste of salt on his clavicle. I am the disciple whom he loved.   [[{"fid":"6705121","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"}}]] When I remember what came before, I see a black sky, a flash, and then hear a sound like the roar of rushing waters. I lay sprawled in the tangle of rope thick and bristled in the stern of my father’s boat. The wood by now is dry, wherever its carcass is beached and whatever now scuttles there, but then it stank of its hundred hauls of ancient fish and its cedar hull that was busily sweating gum that matted the hair on my legs. All day and into night we had caught nothing. And so half-dozing, I stared at a costive sky while my brother, stripped to the waist in the heat (but still wearing his silly hat, all the lanker for the atmosphere’s dense press) minded the net. He whistled a song of my mother’s. I remember her singing it, but not now its words. I remember her singing it, but not quite her voice. I wasn’t there when my brother died. I am thankful for that. They sowed his bones in fields remote, to be seed against a harvest none of us will live to glean. Instead I remember that sticky day before everything, seeing from prone the desperate throb of light stagger in zig-zag, and hearing my brother laugh as the humid summer air at last cracked open and drenched us cold and clean. “Come and see!” and I saw: the whole sea’s skin rippling with the rain’s contusions, and beneath it a net swarming with silver life.   *   tell me a story after that? aren’t you tired? didn’t you, I mean I thought— no, I did. obviously. i touch his hand to the stickiness on his stomach, now growing cool and tacky in his hair oh right. ok. um, In the beginning there was the not that. a real one …ok. ok. so. the night I was born there…there were a lot of animals. it doesn’t matter why ok ok. so there were doves in rafters high, and sheep with curly horn, and um, a cow all white and red and a donkey shaggy and brown around a baby? where were you born in a very funny. so it was cold, because it was winter— wait i open my eyes and pull my head away from the fuzz of his chest when is your birthday? mid spring, when the shepherds are in the field. that’ll be important later. listen; nevermind. it was cold, because it was christmas he pushes my head back to his chest not altogether gently and starts to trace slow curlicues into the back of my hair so i was shivering my baby ass off. so my mom asked the animals to help what the fuck dude i whisper, softly, into the pleasant stink of his armpit listen—so the cow blew his breath all soft and warm her breath what? cows are girls oh. right. ok whatever. moooooooo. cattle lowing, all that good stuff. so I blessed the cow sure but the fucking donkey is all “eyy-onh, eyy-onh.” super cold whinnying. you know, like donkeys do. do donkeys do that? of course they do that. haven’t you met a donkey i mean, i guess. i mostly fished so I go up to the donkey— as a baby? so i go up to the donkey. and I say, “what’s your name?” but he just keeps going eyyy-onh, eyy-onh all cold. so I pull his ears wayyyyy up and say, “your name is DONKEY.” And that’s why donkeys have long ears. It might also be why mules are infertile; I might be confusing the details, and it might be funnier in Portuguese. i roll away from his side and out along the length of his arm, to bring my face to rest inside his open hand, and stare out into the darkness beyond our little light. let me get this straight. donkeys didn’t have long ears until you, as a baby, punished them for breathing on you too coldly? i mean… I am the Way the Truth and the Light. the infinite utterance which speaks all being into being and so am unbound by the laws of cause and effect, chronology and chemistry, space and time, so… why did all the donkeys have to be punished for that one donkey who was only doing what you made him to do? dude, that is kind of my whole deal is that a true story? of course it is. I am the Way, the Truth, and the— did that really happen oh. no. this bedtime story sucks. tell me a better one.   *   I remember the day he came to my brother and me, on the shore as we knelt untying my father’s skiff. Rosy-fingered Dawn was unstitching Night’s design, and then: there he was. In the flesh. Come with me, he said, reaching out a hand that in the years, short years, to come I would kiss until I knew its every callous and curve. Until the Romans broke it, as they break everything, and left it a mangled pulp for us to scrape from their torture post. Until the angels made it incorruptible and a beneficent sign for all to see. Until both left it perfect and golden and alien and unrecognizable to me. How can you follow anything, he said, if you are down upon your knees? Get up and walk. We have work down the road. What could I do but follow straight? We never saw the boat again.   *   One time he got really fucking furious at a fig tree. Just absolutely screamed at it for like forty-five minutes.   *   From silence speaks the light. In the beginning was the Word. The symptom of language then is reality; we speak these stories and these stories speak us over and over until I am not sure if we are anything but history indulging a bad habit. We are the atoms of history: dust that has gathered on sandals. And dust upon sandals, and dust upon the road—who knows the revolutions of dust? My mind is not what it was. Let me try again.   *   Incarnation means nothing more than in the meat, and it was the meat of him I loved—red and raw, the stinking sweating heft of him   *   A father commanded his two sons to work in the vineyard. “Yes father,” said one, but did not go. “No father,” said the other, but he went. Which of these, then, has done his father’s will? I thought, when he asked, that I knew. But I was young then. And now I am old, old as he never was nor ever will be, and I know now that love sometimes makes a promise it cannot keep, and sometimes no toil can fix the clockwork of a heart dropped from the mantle smearing glass across the floor. Sometimes you must say “yes” when you mean “no.” There is a kindness that he never learned in the lie.   *   ok a story once upon a time a nun on an important mission was crossing a river with her donkey laden with supplies. and the beast stumbled, and it sent all her goods, her clothes, her books, tumbling into the stream. and as she tried to recover her ruined things I appeared on a rock, and I said, “that, teresa”—because her name was teresa—“is how I treat all my friends.” “and that, lord,” she said, “is why you have so few of them.”   that story also is not very nice. and it’s kind of the same story as the donkey one yes they all are. the same story   *   He sits in a house cool and dark as the mob presses in. From my post amid the knit of the crowd outside I hear the scratch of his barked laugh tumbling over their bodies like a brook breaking over thirsty stone. A twinge of jealousy dances over my ribs for a second, and is gone. A street away there is a bustle. Men, square and strong, with a beauty that is familiar and a cruelty that is not, are moving through the press, entitled and rough. With them is a woman, older but not old, who watches the crowd part like she is afraid, but not for herself, and not quite of them. From her scarf falls a serpent-coil of hair and I suddenly understand why I know and do not know the features of the young men jostling on her behalf; and I know, not just from the lock of unmistakable tawny brown but from the precise nervous choreography of her sudden gesture to tuck it back behind her ear. I know, with an electric, genetic certainty: this is his mother. She stares at me as she waits outside, while what looks to be the oldest of these men barks into the house, barks with a bark so much like his, with a bravado I will get to know in later years is slightly shrill to mask this man’s nerves. James was my brother’s name, too. In reply from inside the house, I hear the burble of his voice, its words indistinct, and a laugh cascade lazily again through the crowd. He will not see her. In front of me their mother’s eyes are still staring, glassing now, and I feel the heat in my cheeks, the embarrassment he never seems to have the decency to feel, that has left me a raw nerve and forever seeping apologies in his wake. But today, for her, I have none. How could I. How could he. And I know: this is how he will leave me too. A swift, cruel blow that will shatter all my bulk. A surgical strike from above, hurling masonry through the streets like leaves of concrete. I will scream, desperate in the temple precincts, looking for a lost boy I had mistook for kind, who will laugh at my panic: didn’t I know he should be with his father? And the learned and the holy will praise his wit, and his insight, and the bravery with which he left us behind. He will skewer steel through the raw pulsing meat of my heart, to wild acclaim. I watch his brothers swear and push their way back out of the crowd, the sweat darkening their shirts. She glances once, hopefully, over their broad desultory backs shaped so much like his, and I realize I recognize their cruelty after all.     [[{"fid":"6705126","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"}}]] From my house at Patmos I see a serpent blot out a third of the stars, belched hot from ruined Hell to gnaw at the root of a world suspended from a golden chain, and dragging behind him the debris of a universe of death. And as the light from our world hits his scaly skin I wonder how it feels against his scars. He and I both know what it is to outlive our allotted grace. He and I both know what it is to slither over cracking stone in a wilderness grown parched and seasonless. Our God has made monsters of us both. Our God has made us witness to his glory, and dared us to cry out while he ripped the thing we love apart before our eyes. And I watch the Great Serpent who is called Satan make planetfall and drop to crawl through the underbrush and hot dirt, with a brand of hot fire in his tail, side-winding through a world of kindling. And I go back inside. The death of God might have been endurable if he had not then plunged his corpse into the well and poisoned all the earth with wormwood. So let this dead sphere bury its own dead. Tear out the eye that makes you sin. Shake off the dust from off your sandals. Tear down the Temple; build a new one. He always hated nostalgia. It’s what I remember most fondly.   *   wake up please wake up The grass is cool and damp from the night air and the broad flat carpenter pads of his hand are smoothing my hair too roughly. I fell asleep. When did I fall asleep? His nose against my face is slick. A dog, pawing, whimpering. Even in the dark i can see his eyes are wild and wet and his brow soaked and chilled. Through the slit of my white sindon my baffled, dozy erection nudges, which he is cupping desperately and absently. I sleepily try to pull him down to me before I process something is wrong. listen nearby peter’s snores rumble the stone while my brother sleeps face-up, open-mouthed, gulping lazily like a dying trawl. His hand tightens gently and then I hear it: a troop of men, clanking and cursing, are coming up the garden path. what if we ran yes we could run. we would lose peter i would lose my brother but i have lost everything for him before lost mother and father and town the children and wife and dignity i will never have and i cannot care—just dust on the road behind us what would it profit a man to lose his soul just to save some petty world but suddenly there is light everywhere as torches catch the vicious crags of faces. There is a boot in my gut and i am hauled from the turf. “which of these faggots is it?” they throw the sniveling little crabapple traitor into the ash around our cold fire and he scrambles and sobs and clutches at his master’s cheek mewling his apologies and frantic slobbered kisses with a rage i did not know i had i throw him again to the ground and their arms are everywhere on me but the linen is loose their armor is heavy and on him they have not yet even laid a finger and suddenly peter is awake and roaring, brandishing a sword i did not know he had the sense to carry “we run,” i whisper to him while peter holds their attention, sliding from my sleeves, his forehead to mine. “if they kill us they kill us but we run now” in his eyes i see the light that lit the stars the dark that sat brooding upon the waters and i have loved you more than i have loved anything. you can’t forget. Never. Never. the whole of my life before and since I have broken every promise I ever made so that I might more perfectly serve that one. and so i bolt, wriggling from the white robe in the soldier’s hands, slipping from the net like a flash of living mercury. naked and shining under a scudding, lambent moon and laughing, to be so free (at least st ambrose believed it was me)   *   But when I turn breathless on the hilltop, he is not with me. Instead there he stands rooted, right where i left him, stalwart and righteous as a Goya by their torchlight. Still not a hand upon him. Not a man had followed. No one had cared. And i crumble, naked in the grass, and weep til morning light     [[{"fid":"6705131","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"}}]]   when i wake again it is morning and the sun is hot. nearby from a tree hangs the traitor, the cord of his belt around his neck, his expression an ugly scarlet bloat. Upon his brow is a wound i might well have given him. Soon his blotching face will split like sweet rotting fruit and the birds of the tree are inquisitive but not yet brave enough to feast. i take his piss-stained clothes and stumble into town to watch the world end.   *   still i keep my testament and so i am supposed to write. supposed to claw into the rock of history some phrase that will last when I am dead and gone and though all the world cannot conjure the contours of my face it will remember the flinty brilliance that I sparked here in the dark alone and the rock of his majesty against which i struck that light but my heart is so broken. broken is not even right. it is a pulverized thing. a bruised uncabled tissue, its fibers relaxed and purpling with pooling, cooling curdling blood. fruit rotting to succulence when i sleep i remember days that never were. i dream a life i never saw and which i now see he never wanted did you not know i would be in my father’s house? he left, and i do not know what now becomes of me   we are supposed to endure. but the truth of history—the real fact of the record—is that some lives do not matter once they’ve passed out of them we live, but we live in the footnote how is it that they could kill him but i am what died   writing does not heal. the document does not make whole. poesis is not a therapy it is thrusting a filthy digit into the spot where the lance has pierced you and it says: look, here. ascend and transcend all you like; this is the wound that will not close. this is the precise spot you have been marred forever   *   i watch them drive a rivet through a foot that i kissed i know not how oft feet i cooled and washed with my own hair: the delicate, beautiful ball of his ankle, swooping to curve down into ridges dusted with errant tufts of hair, a faint sourness from leather and grit and the thoughtless joy with which he walked and ran and even once danced, scooping me up in his arms in a nighttime waltz in an upper room when all the world was asleep and there was no music but my jackhammering chest and i asked him in a child’s whisper to draw shut a window-curtain lest the neighbours see and which to my secret thrill he did not smashed and ruined and unmade   *   so why do you hate donkeys so much i don’t hate donkeys. he is playing with my fingers, dandling them in the space above our heads, as dust-motes plays in the light i love donkeys. they try, and they fail. donkeys are cute, and they do their best, and they end up hobbled, maimed, broken in a stream every day a stress test, til breakdown. to be a donkey is to know the truth: God always gives us more than we can handle. he presses my finger into the centre of his hand. ok. well, I like the nun. i thought you would.   good night.   and he kisses me on the forehead, and in his arms I dream of the smell of hay and the breath of beasts
‘I’m Not So Interested in Feelings People Go Through on Their Own’: An Interview with Sally Rooney

Talking to the author of Normal People about writing about mental health, whether books can critique the capitalist systems for which they’re turning a profit, and the perils of readings.

Sally Rooney's second novel, Normal People, is already one of the most talked-about of the year. The book centres on the relationship between Connell and Marianne. Two young people from separate social spheres, they start spending time together because Connell's mum cleans Marianne's family's house. Despite their differences—Connell is popular, athletic, working class; Marianne is ostracized, isolated, and from a wealthy family—they develop a secret relationship rooted in shared intellect and a staggering physical connection. As we follow them to university, the change of environment alters them both, but their connection remains, unconventional and constant.  Many adjectives have been draped on Rooney’s shoulders since she has become a phenomenally successful young novelist, so instead of adding to the list, I will say that the experience of sitting across from Rooney and talking about politics, literature, and music instills the same blend of familiarity and insight that I get from reading her books. There's a warmth to her and a sense that she is someone who is uniquely positioned to capture and reflect on the world she’s living in. Haley Cullingham: I wanted to start by talking about intimacy, because the way that you write about it is one of the things that I’ve most taken away from your work. Do you have some literary touchstones that have shaped the way you think about intimacy? Sally Rooney: Whenever people ask me about this, it’s the one question I’m terrible at answering on my feet. I feel like I really should carry around a little list of books, because I always regret when I walk away from the interview, "Oh, I didn’t say this one book that was really seminal for me." But the one that springs to mind I must say is James Salter’s novel A Sport and a Pastime. Do you know that book? It’s a really, really interesting book. And I’m not actually familiar with the rest of Salter’s work, I’ve read some of his short stories, and I’ve read this one book, and I’m sort of working my way through the rest of his work and his novels and stories, but A Sport and a Pastime is, I guess it’s an erotic novel. It’s set in France, it was published in the late 1960s, ’67 or ’68, and it’s a really, really intense exploration of intimacy between these two characters. Nothing really happens in the book other than the development of this really intense sexual relationship. And that book blew me away when I read it. And I think a couple of critics have spotted [it], purely because of the depth of the influence that book had on me I’m sure. But that book was something that made me feel like, "Oh, it’s possible to construct an entire novel about and propelled by sexual desire." Like to have that be the kind of momentum of the narrative. And there have definitely been other contemporary books as well. Intimacy is the one I keep returning to, and desire and intimacy. I think it fascinates me because it’s a feeling that by its nature involves another person. You can be sad on your own, or happy on your own, or angry or whatever, all on your own, but you can’t desire on your own. Your desire needs to have an object. So, the introduction of the object then creates a kind of tricky relationship between the desirer and the desired, whatever that relationship might be. Is it a relationship of dependence, is it a relationship of antipathy? So, it’s just the introduction of that other aspect that makes the feeling interesting for me as a novelist. I’m not so interested in feelings that people go through on their own. So, I think that maybe that’s why desire and love interest me so much.  I watched this video that you did for Louisiana Channel, and you spoke a lot about the idea of how we can’t be independent in a capitalist society. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how that connects to intimacy for you, or if that makes it interesting to explore intimacy?   Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing, I’m aware that I might be to some extent just rationalizing my own impulses, because I’m not interested in writing about solitude, and I’m not interested in writing about characters who sort of navigate the world in an independent way. And then the way that I rationalize that is obviously by saying that I don’t really believe in those things conceptually. So, I don’t know which comes first necessarily, the philosophy or the instinct [laughs].  But I definitely do have a strong reaction against the predominant discourse of independence. For me, I came at that through a feminist angle, so my development of my political consciousness was really organized around gender, and I’m still trying, obviously, to organize my thoughts around gender now, and also to incorporate other frames of thinking. But the way that I started thinking about gender politics was organized around female independence, so the idea that women should be independent from men, but also from one another and from social structures, and that empowerment was about personal agency and decision-making. And I guess I just increasingly became critical of that attitude. I now feel like there is absolutely nothing independent about the way that we live our lives. What we have managed to accomplish is a sense of independence because we no longer have to see the people who are doing all the work that sustains our existences, because they’re very far away from us in many cases. Or because their work is concealed through other social structures. And so, I just feel like an almost repulsive reaction against the idea that we can be independent when actually we’re living off the labour of others and just pretending to ourselves that those people don’t exist because we don’t have to look them in the eyes. So, I want to be conscious of that, and then within that, I guess, to take that critique into our personal lives and to negotiate the idea of independence from others in that situation as well. So, the idea of moving independently through our personal lives kind of horrifies me and again, I know that that’s a personal instinct. That’s like me saying, "the idea doesn’t appeal to me," and then I can retroactively apply whatever ideological justification for it, but it’s just something that I don’t like the idea of. Of course, I’m not saying everyone should do monogamous pair-bonding for their lives and raise nuclear families, I don’t believe that. I do believe that in our personal lives, we end up, whether we like it or not, deeply entwined with other people. And so, I’m interested in how we negotiate those relationships, because they are a fact of how we organize our society, and because they’re fascinating for me. I’m not interested in pursuing the idea that we should have, or could have, independence from other people, either in our intimate lives or in a situation within a network of economic exchange.  You’ve described intimacy as a “loss of self,” and I found that phrasing interesting, because I think there’s an appealing element of that, but also a very devastating and terrifying element of that.   Yeeeeeah. [laughs]  Do you think that loss, good or bad, is something that is unique to being young?   No, I don’t think it is. I think the loss of self, it’s something that, really, the more I explore—I have no academic background in philosophy at all, or philosophy of religions—but the more that I put tendrils out into those areas and do a bit of superficial reading, the more I think the theme of loss of self or ego-death is an extremely common feature of most serious developed philosophies and theologies. It seems like most societies have evolved a concept of the loss of self, or the giving away of self, or selflessness. Certainly, very central in Christian thought, in Buddhist thought as well. So, I think there’s something to it. There’s a reason why we keep returning to this idea philosophically across societies and in different cultural circumstances. And I think one of the ways that we experience it most readily, now, in our current cultural setup, is through intimacy with others. That opens up the possibility that we are giving away our sense of self or putting our own best interests behind the best interests of another person. It’s not something that in an ambitious, capitalist society we do very often. We’re generally encouraged to follow our own best interests all the time. But I think when people have children, that’s one big example of when they tend to put somebody else’s interest before their own. And often I think mutually preoccupied lovers, also, would be more interested in what’s happening for the other person than for themselves. And so, I guess that fascinates me, because it runs counter to the logic of the market or whatever you want to say. But also because it’s something that’s, it seems to me, philosophically substantial. The idea of giving up your self. And obviously as a novelist being attentive to how painful and disorientating that is, as well as the potential for joy and for some kind of profound experience, but also how scary it is. And scary not only because it’s just intrinsically scary, but because it runs so counter to all our assumptions about how life should be lived now, that we should always be looking after ourselves and looking after our own needs and policing our own boundaries. That to do the radical opposite of that feels wrong. And I’m interested in that wrongness. So, yeah, being attentive to both possibilities. And I guess also trying to be fairly value-neutral in the way that I write as a novelist. Trying not to say whether the relationships that I depict are healthy or toxic or whatever. I’m not really interested in those value judgements. I think if I wanted to make those I wouldn’t be writing a novel. The novel, for me, is just about observing how they play out, and saying, "Well, I don’t know. This is how it happened." That fear of surrender felt, to me, like the great tragedy of the Connell-Marianne dynamic. As I was reading, I just wanted to be like, "It’s okay! Just be together, you’ll be fine!" Yeah! But they didn’t think they would be fine. And for Connell particularly. Marianne seems, I think, at various points in the novel, ready to give a lot. Connell was not ready to give very much. In the beginning of the book he was ready to give, like, almost nothing. [laughs] Or what felt to him like a lot within very confined boundaries. And by the end maybe he’s learning to give a little bit more of himself. And I think there are reasons why it’s more difficult for him than for her. And one of them may be gender. Like I think maybe men are socialized to fear loss of self more than women are, because women from such a young age are groomed for motherhood, and they’re sort of ready to think, "There will be a time in my life when I’m taking second, or third, or fourth place to the other people in my life." I don’t know that men are socialized to get ready for that in the same way. So maybe there’s a sense in which, because of their different gender roles…but I’m sure there are individual reasons as well. But definitely I think in that circumstance, Marianne was ready, was almost preternaturally ready, to give a whole lot of herself, and Connell was scared by that, and scared by accepting what she was ready to give him and scared by doing the same thing in return. I wanted to talk a little bit about your activism and the writing you’ve done—what role does that play in your life right now?  I mean, I don’t really think of myself as an activist. I’m certainly someone who has strong convictions. [laughs] And I talk about those very readily because I don’t see any reason not to do that, like, to be straightforward and honest about what I believe. I’m certainly not writing a novel then pretending, "Oh, I have no opinions." I have opinions, and I’m fairly ready to stand by them and defend them. And obviously to be challenged and to accept counterarguments and whatever, I think that’s all part of normal life. But I don’t really think of myself as an activist as such.  In my normal life, completely away from my work, I do normal stuff like going to rallies, that I always did, going to marches and stuff like that. And that hasn’t really changed except that I’m a lot busier now, and not so often at home. But other than that, it’s basically the same. But in terms of using my position as a quasi-public figure, bringing that into my activism or using that as a platform for activism, I haven’t really done that almost at all. I wrote a little bit about the abortion referendum, and I guess I did that because it was a situation where I felt, "Okay, I have a little bit to add on this. There’s something that I can maybe offer here, that I haven’t seen necessarily offered in the rest of the discourse." It’s a little grain of something, but it might be helpful to the general public conversation that we’re having. There are very few issues where I feel like I can help the public conversation. Like really few. A lot of times my opinions I’ve just taken from something I’ve read, and thought, "Wow, that’s so smart." [laughs] And then I’m like, instead of just rewriting that, why don’t I just tell people to read the original piece that gave me the good idea? So I guess I feel like there are people who have lived experiences that are more relevant, who are speaking from a position of more relevance, there are people who are just smarter and more sophisticated political thinkers than I am, who are more engaged in those forms of discourse, and so I don’t think I have a whole lot that I can do, beyond what I do as just an ordinary person, which is show up and do things like that. But that’s not to say that I’ll never…like with the case of the abortion referendum, there may arise specific circumstances in which I feel like, "I’m maybe someone who could be a little bit helpful on this one." But I think the circumstances in which I can be helpful are very limited. So, I try, when I can, to direct people to work that’s being done by other people and say, "This is amazing, you should read it or you should engage with it" or whatever it is. But I don’t feel like I’m necessarily a useful participant in a lot of those conversations.  In the Louisiana Channel video, you talk about the role of literature, and how its role in the economy might compromise its ability to speak truth to power. What role do you see literature playing in shaping political ideas and challenging ways of thinking, whether positively or negatively, and what is its potential? I’m very skeptical of its potential in that way. This has been a debate throughout the twentieth century—socialist writers and critics obviously argued about the extent to which aesthetic forms, like the novel or like plays, forms of writing other than polemic, can intervene helpfully in political discourse and how they should do that, and what is a socialist novel? And what is a socialist play? And you have writers like Brecht or whatever who manage to answer that case for themselves, but not necessarily provide an answer that works in general. I’m just deeply skeptical because of the ease with which the novel is accommodated by the system of profit-driven publishing. If the book is turning a profit for shareholders, then the book cannot meaningfully be critiquing the system by which that profit is turned. It can offer the critique, but clearly the critique is capable of being accommodated, because the very presence of the book in the market tells us that. So, is it important to keep offering the critique anyway? Maybe? I don’t intend to stop doing it, because it would just be dishonest to stop, because it’s what I believe. But I also want to be appropriately skeptical of the value of that. And not pat myself on the back for including a paragraph in the book where I suggest that that’s the system, that that’s going on, and that the book contains the critique. [laughs] Okay, it contains the critique, but it is also contained by the system, you know, so. I’m skeptical of it. But I also think that there have to be parts of life that are not…I don’t think anything is completely separate from politics, I think everything we do is captured by one system or another, we’re never totally free of it. But I also think there have to be parts of our lives that make it worth going on with the struggle. And obviously one big part of that is our intimate lives, and that’s what I write about. I think that our personal relationships with other people give us a reason to keep living. And I think for a lot of people, or let’s say for a small number of people, the novel is another reason to keep going, to keep feeling like the struggle is actually worth engaging in, like there’s something worth protecting about human civilization. And for some people that’s the novel. And for other people that’s like, sports or other forms of the arts. There are loads of other things that are of course part of these broad political systems but that bring us a joy or a pleasure that we can salvage that isn’t totally just transactional in its nature. And I think that the novel is one of those things, maybe. That’s obviously not to say it’s fenced off from political concerns, but that there’s maybe something in it that transcends the transaction of simply paying for a book and owning it as a commodity. I would hope so.  I also wanted to talk to you about literary communities, because there’s that wonderful scene in the book, where Connell attends a literary reading… And he’s like, "What is this?" [laughs] "What is happening?" [laughs] and the artifice and the privilege of it really comes through. I was wondering if you can talk a little bit about the harm that those communities might do, but also if you see any value in them? Well, I think, the thing about that scene is, Connell is really suffering from clinical depression at this point, he’s deeply depressed. And he goes to this reading, and as you say, he’s really alienated by what he sees there, it feels so artificial, it feels like the whole art form has been completely captured by the elitist institution, and that people are engaging in it merely as a way of performing their participation in an elite cultural activity. And that appalls Connell—he’s from a working class background, for one thing, so he feels shut out from it, but he also is just someone who’s critical of those kinds of activities, and so it just doesn’t appeal to him. But the writer he meets is actually kind of nice to him! And, again, I wasn’t trying to give a parable there, but I just thought, that rang true to me. That he went along, he thought the reading was kinda bad, the way the reading was structured was borderline tasteless, and he felt very alienated, but the person who wrote the book did so in a sincere way and actually seemed to be a thinking, feeling person, and like, cared. And wasn’t cynical. And Connell left feeling like, "Okay, yeah, I don’t know." Because the way that he felt about the reading was still true, it was an elitist cultural activity, but on the other hand, people who write books, a lot of the time if not all of the time, are sincerely trying to do something good. They’re sincerely trying to find something true or insightful about the human condition or the conditions of our cultural world. And that’s a meaningful thing to do. And they’re sincerely striving to do something meaningful, and obviously they don’t always accomplish it, sometimes they write a book that’s not that great, and the reading’s bad. But the person behind it is sincere, and the cultural activity is meaningful, and we’re all striving in the same direction. So, I think Connell came away from that confused, that there’s a great extent to which artistic endeavor has been captured by commodification and elitist academia, but there’s also some extent to which it’s still worth engaging with because it brings us joy and because artistic effort is still sincere, and it’s worth going on with. It was obviously coloured by the frame of mind that he was in at the time.  But my experience of literary communities, and this is speaking from a position of enormous privilege because I’ve been really lucky, lucky, lucky all the way through, with my first book and my second book, everything has gone kind of right for me, so speaking from that position, which is a very rarefied one, my experience has been that like, other writers have been enormously welcoming and supportive, and I think there’s a strong sense, the way that I’ve experienced it, and again, not to speak for other people, but that we’re all kind of in it together and that the industry feels very random, and you never know what’s going to happen, which book will be successful and which won’t, but that as writers, we’re all doing the same job, and trying to grapple with the same questions, sometimes feeling like we did okay, sometimes feeling like, no, that didn’t really work, but it was an experiment, whatever. And so I think there’s a value to literary and artistic communities, but we should strive not to be captured by the kinds of commodification that Connell is seeing in that scene. Are there any efforts happening right now to dismantle that literary gatekeeping or overcome it, or counter it, that you see that you’re finding inspiring? I’m a very solitary person by nature, and I don’t go out much [laughs] or attend things, unless I have to, and so I feel like, you know, I keep forgetting that I’m now in a position of privilege, and that I have this platform, and that there are actually things I could actively be doing to try and improve literary communities, and to try to open them up. And instead I’m just sitting at home writing my next book, because that’s just what I’m like by disposition. But maybe I need to challenge myself and actually try to do stuff.  I have spent the last year editing a literary magazine in Dublin called The Stinging Fly. And so, we have an open submissions policy, and a big priority for us is publishing work by writers who’ve never been published before, so in that sense I feel very dedicated to openness, and to drawing people into the community, rather than to look after the community as it already exists, kind of thing. One of the previous editors of that magazine, Thomas Morris, the Welsh writer who was living in Ireland, he befriended me when I was in my teens, and encouraged me to keep writing, and introduced me to other aspiring writer friends, and in that totally ramshackle way, we developed a writers' circle and we still all share work with one another. And so, he’s someone that I look to as a really good example of how to build a literary community. To go about it in a completely open, slightly arbitrary kind of way based on wanting to support people who feel left out, and don’t know other writers, and who feel completely at a loss as to how to involve themselves in this community. I had no idea what the publishing industry even was. How it worked, or where it was, it’s in London, I didn’t know that. [laughs] So all of those things, I had no idea. I grew up in the west of Ireland, my dad fixed phone lines for a living. And my mum, in fairness, worked in the arts, she worked in the local art centre, not in publishing at all. So, I wasn’t someone who could just, like, stride into that world. Of course, I had privileges, I had a college education, I did, but it wasn’t easy for me to navigate that world. And so I really did rely on the kindness of other people, who had read maybe like a couple pages of my work and thought, "Oh, come along to this, I’ll introduce you to some of my friends." And I think maybe there’s an aspect in which Dublin is small enough, and Irish social culture is kind of informal enough that it’s easier to do that there. My experience was, when I was writing Conversations with Friends, if you show up to a book launch in Dublin, the writer who wrote the book is right there, you can just talk to them. It’s small, and everyone, in my instance, again, I won’t speak for other people, was very friendly, and open, so it’s easier to feel in touch with the literary community. I think in cities where there is a publishing industry in which there are lots of people employed and working professionally it may be harder to wander into a book launch and meet the person who wrote the book. So I think, in a way, in Dublin, not that I’m saying we don’t have a long way to go in terms of breaking down barriers, because we do—there are lots of issues left to address in terms of accessibility of the arts in Ireland, loads—but just speaking from my personal path to that, I think there are some ways in which it’s fairly open and welcoming, and we need to work on making it more like that. I’ve seen you talk about a funding model for the arts in Ireland that you think is working well. What's the situation, and what's the benefit to literary magazines?  Well, I should stress, the arts need more funding in Ireland. I was not praising the current government’s funding structure. What I was saying, I think, is that I do think there’s a focus in Ireland on magazines and journals that publish previously unpublished writers alongside writers who have been published before, and get that work out there, and I think those journals and magazines are read in London. I know nothing about American and Canadian publishing, so I can’t comment, but I think in London and in the UK it’s difficult for first-time writers, unless they’ve been through specific MFA programs or whatever, to just submit work to say Granta and get it published off the bat. I think that’s really hard. Whereas in Ireland, of course it’s competitive, and it’s difficult to get published in these magazines, but we will read your work and give it a fair shout. And, speaking from having been an editor there for a year, I really don’t care whose name is attached to it. If it’s good, it’s getting published. Or if it’s good enough, we can’t obviously publish everything that’s good.  There’s a sense in which, I feel like the way the arts community has organized itself, specifically in the literary world, that’s seen as a priority: finding new writers who’ve never been published before, supporting their work, giving them editorial attention, drawing them in and publishing that work and getting it read. So that’s a big priority, and I think that’s something that has really helped a generation of writers, like me, definitely, and also other writers who’ve emerged as a sort of new wave of Irish writing. A lot of them were published in The Stinging Fly, or other similar magazines like The Moth, Tangerine in Belfast is another great magazine. So, I think the fact that that is a priority is good. Also, that there are specific grants available to writers who have had maybe like one or two pieces published but have not published books. You can apply to the arts council and just get a little chunk of money, and it’s not a huge amount, but it’s enough to maybe look after rent for a little bit while you just focus on your writing. I got one of those, and that was huge for me. I was still working on Conversations with Friends, I’d published maybe an essay and a story, like, not a whole lot. But they gave me some money and I could do a bit more writing and it meant a lot at that time. So, I do think we need more of that. I’m not saying we have an adequate amount, of course we’re never going to feel we have an adequate amount, we definitely need more [laughs], but it’s important I think that that’s what the model looks like. That it’s not necessarily about funding the artists who are already successful, who represent Ireland abroad. I think it’s much more important to focus on people who have never been published before, who have no idea how to get published, and to make sure that they know that these things exist, that they can apply for these grants, that these magazines are here, and that we’re open, we take submissions. It’s about focusing on that side of things, and I think that’s what Ireland has been relatively good at so far. Normal People takes place during the Downturn Period. Do you feel that there was an impact of that period on Irish art and culture?   Huge. Yeah, I do. I think it was huge. People talk about this new wave in Irish writing, and it’s funny because it’s difficult, for me anyway, to point to a fallow period in Irish writing, because it seems to me like there’ve always been really interesting books coming out of Ireland. And you have writers like Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Sebastian Barry, they’re obviously still publishing now, they were publishing before, are they part of the new wave? Maybe not necessarily, but they’re among our obviously greatest writers and they’re still publishing great work all the time. So, for me I think what the new wave refers to is writing that emerged during the period you’re talking about. And that’s what differentiates it from what came before, that it’s writing almost specifically in response to the particular economic conditions that emerged after 2008. And I would date it back to, there’s a collection of short stories by the writer Kevin Barry, called There Are Little Kingdoms, that came out I think it was 2010 maybe? It was published by The Stinging Fly Press actually, and that book felt very different from what had preceeded it in Irish writing, and it was, I think it’s not controversial to say, hugely influential on the writers that then emerged afterwards, writers like Lisa McInerney, like Colin Barrett, and then in turn obviously those writers were influencing me, and the other writers who were emerging then, so I do think that that 2008, 2010, 2011, those years were seeing a big shift in how Irish society was organized, that’s an objective fact, and then, also in the cultural responses that were emerging.  Are there any books forthcoming from Stinging Fly Press or any stories coming out in the magazine that you’re especially excited about?  The current issue is being guest edited by Danny Denton, the writer from Cork, so I’m excited to read everything, because I’m here and he’s there doing the hard work. So, I’m really excited to read everything that is in there, but I haven’t read any of it yet. And then, there’s a writer called Nicole Flattery, who’s just published a collection of stories with Stinging Fly Press, and also with I think Bloomsbury in the UK, called Show Them A Good Time. It’s an unbelievably good collection of stories. Nicole is a really astonishingly gifted writer. I love reading everything that she writes. She just writes the best sentences out there, I just think her sentences are unbelievably good. So, I’m really excited about her book. It came out, maybe I think, February? End of February? So that’s the Stinging Fly book I’m most excited about. I wanted to talk about mental health a little bit. I love the way you write about mental health, from the smaller moments, like in Conversations with Friends, where alcoholism is kind of on the edges of it, and then in Normal People obviously, in my reading, I felt mental health was very, very present. Is that a starting point for a character, or is it something that emerges as you write? I think it emerges in the character. I suppose when I first met these characters, I felt like, they were already fully formed and it was my job to find out what was going on with them. Of course, that’s not actually true, and sometimes I have to remind myself, "You made it up! They did not arrive fully formed. You made it all up!" But I can’t accept that. So, for me, it was like, I met, in Connell’s case, this young man, or teenage boy, and I really think now, looking back, when we meet him, he’s already deeply wracked by social anxiety. He doesn’t have that name for it, necessarily, but he feels so uncomfortable in his own self with regards to what’s perceived as normal. And when he manages to come close to that, he’s feeling okay, and feeling comfortable, like he knows how to navigate his life, and when he feels himself pulling away from what’s normal, he gets very unhappy and sick and upset and not feeling good. And he doesn’t necessarily have the vocabulary to think about that, because who does when they’re 18? And then, as he goes through university and feels further and further away from the social world, just feeling deeply alienated from what he sees around him, he sinks in to this terrible depressive episode, I can’t remember what year of college he’s in, third year I think. And that just felt to me like it was the inevitable result of the factors that I’d introduced, I had this character, I knew how he felt in his school life, I knew how he managed to navigate a very fixed and stable social world, and then I wrenched him out of that, and put him in a very unfixed, very mobile social world, where all the pieces seemed to be moving very quickly. And it just felt like the only way that he could respond to that, particularly when Marianne is gone, ‘cause she’s like his one, even though their relationship is in some ways very unstable, she for him is like a stable presence, and then he goes through this bereavement because of the suicide of his friend from school, who he’s completely fallen away from, drifted away from. It felt like the only way that I could work through that remaining true to who I thought Connell was, was to have him respond in that way. And I mean it was never like I sat down and thought, “I should address the topic of depression,” but I felt like I had to stay true to the character that I had, and I was interested ultimately in following him into that exchange that he has with the counsellor. And again, doing what I described, which is remaining fairly value neutral. Like I wasn’t trying to say counselling is good or bad, that’s not something that interests me in the context of a novel. It’s not a judgement that I feel interested in making. It’s like, here’s what he would have done. Here’s what he did. Here’s how it played out. Was it a good or bad experience? I don’t feel like that’s for me to say. But I wanted to be attentive to the detail, and the strangeness of it for him. It’s something that he probably would not have pursued at an earlier point in his life, no matter how bad he felt. It’s something that became open to him because of the specific situation that he was in, and the fact that it’s free for college students in that specific circumstance. I was interested in how I thought that would play out for him. One of my friends, actually, asked me to ask you this: she was curious about what you were reading and listening to as you were writing, because she listened to the Connell and Marianne playlists that you made. Was that purely a character exercise or was that actually what you were listening to? [Laughs] Oh man, I was listening to those! Yeah, yeah. I spent more time making those than I did writing the novel, they were so intricate, and honestly if you listen to them in chronological order, a lot of the plot is in there. [laughs] Go back! ‘Cause they’re good playlists. I flatter myself but they are good. So, I was listening to that, yeah. What else was I listening to? I’m trying to think now. I wrote Conversations and this book kind of close together, so there’s probably some overlap in terms of what I was listening to. I think I was listening to St. Vincent, I’m not sure when that album came out though. And, oh, you remember that Sufjan Stevens album, Carrie & Lowell? Again, I can’t remember when that came out but I think I was listening to that writing this. And then what was I reading? Not a lot. When I was in the process of actually writing, particularly writing early drafts, working really intensely, writing thousands of words a day, I wasn’t reading a lot. And I find that I really have to use my breaks from writing to read as much as I can, try and read like a book or two a week or whatever, because when I get back into it then, I can’t read. I feel like such a fraud for not being able to read when I’m writing, I feel really bad, because it’s like, am I saying I like my own work more than other books? [laughs] That’s so terrible! But I don’t think that’s what it is, I think it’s just I have to shut off that part of my brain. Maybe it’s just that I love reading so much that it just takes up too much of my mental space and I feel too engaged by it. I would like to think that. And so, I need to kind of distance myself from it in order to get the intense work that I need to do done. So yeah, I was certainly reading a lot in the breaks, while I was writing I wasn’t reading much. What are you reading on this trip? I just finished Emmanuel Carrère's book The Kingdom. Oh my god, it’s amazing. Okay, this book blew me away. He’s this French writer, and he has written this book which is partly a memoir of his own fairly short-lived conversion to Christianity, he’s writing it from the perspective of having then lost his faith but still being very engaged in the philosophical underpinnings of the Catholic faith in specific but Christianity generally, and part of the book is like a retelling of the gospel of Luke from the historical perspective of the Luke character, so it’s like, so fascinating. There’s so much history in it, there’s so much theology in it, and then it’s also this very personal look back on a period in his life that he now struggles to understand, like he really believed in the supernatural elements of the faith and now just doesn’t at all. So, it’s a really, really, really fascinating book, and it has reawakened my, in fairness, kind of lifelong interest in the gospels. I’m really fascinated by the character of Jesus, and whenever I go back and read those gospels I’m just compelled by him all over again. I just find him so interesting! So, I’m going back now and reading over the gospels again as well, so that has been my big reading interest while I’ve been on this trip.
I Could Live Without Speaking

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. 

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.