I understand why people balk at labels. But I think of them—tomboy, butch, genderqueer, MOC—as functional and hopeful. That function is communication.
In grade four, our class was located in a portable about a hundred metres beyond the school’s back door. A small wooden porch flanked by two railings and a set of stairs lead up to the portable; it also provided a multi-level platform useful for playing WWF Wrestlemania. One other girl sometimes played with us, but mostly it was just me and a whole bunch of boys. The goal was to hurl ourselves at each other hard enough to pin—to push and jostle and launch off the porch onto an unsuspecting crowd of wrestlers. The boys weren’t my friends, but they let me play with them. (Sports is all about numbers.) I had long hair but it was unkempt, and we were in the era of ‘90s Jaromir Jagr—his glorious, curly mullet unfurling from his hockey helmet in much the same way my dark waves bunched at my shoulders. That year, I turned nine and was finally allowed to play hockey. The first time I knocked over a fellow girl—not on my team—I stopped skating and helped her back to her feet as my father hollered from the stands. Afterwards, my father and my coaches told me to “use my size,” the way it was useful on the porch behind the portable. That year, in school, we played a math game called Around the World, based on times tables, in which the goal was to circle the classroom, defeating your classmates one by one. That year, drunk on wrestling and hockey and math—a subject I understood to be best suited to real (read: male) nerds—I requested that my classmates call me “Andy.” They did not comply. I grew up in a time and place—a small town called Dundas, Ontario, b. 1984—when gender roles were binary. I grew up in a place where my favourite tomboy classmate later ridiculed my unshaven legs. I grew up in a place where, walking to work or the library, people yelled gendered, homophobic slurs out of their cars at me. I grew up with a mother I thoroughly confused and disappointed, just by virtue of being myself. It’s hard to say what kind of a person I’d be if these conditions had been different. Given these conditions, though, I took refuge in “tomboy.” * The word “tomboy” first emerged in the mid-16th century to describe rude, forward boys. A couple decades later, it began to apply to women—more specifically, bold and immodest, impudent and unchaste women. Soon after that, the term found the home we’re familiar with, referring to girls who behaved like “spirited or boisterous” boys. (Men got to keep “tom cat”—super creepy if you’ve ever googled “cat sex” after hearing alleyway yowling in the middle of the night.) By the time I hit elementary school, tomboy’s denotation had remained similar, but its connotation had shifted: wanting to be like a spirited and boisterous boy wasn’t such a bad thing. Second-wave feminism had crested, powersuits had come and gone, and we all understood that embodying certain aspects of masculinity provided a shortcut—albeit tenuous—to power in adulthood, and freedom in childhood. As Jack Halberstam writes in his 1998 book Female Masculinity, tomboyism tended, at that time, to be “associated with a ‘natural’ desire for the greater freedom and mobility enjoyed by boys.” Of course, there were boundaries: eschewing girls’ clothing altogether, or, say, asking your classmates to opt for a more masculine version of your name. “Tomboy,” as an adult term, is most often applied to straight women who are somewhat masculine or boyish, or maybe “androgynous”—most often applied by the mainstream to masculine people with model-like proportions, proportions that are clothing-flexible because they are narrow and boxy. The first sentence of Lizzie Garrett Mettler’s introduction to Tomboy Style: Beyond the Boundaries of Fashion, goes like so: “When I arrived on campus for my first day at Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts, I was thirteen and as plumb a tomboy as any.” A couple of paragraphs later, when Mettler describes breaking her collarbone playing field hockey, she writes that her new Brooks best friend, Kingsley Woolworth, “decorated [her] sling with Lilly Pulitzer fabric sourced from a pair of my mother's cigarette pants.” Mettler's tomboyhood fashion icons, featured in the full-colour book, are universally thin, generally white, and cover the usual gamut from Coco Chanel to Patti Smith, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy and Diane Keaton, with more contemporary additions like Tilda Swinton and Janelle Monae. My favourite photo is probably the one of Eartha Kitt, in mid-swing, playing baseball. Most of the other photos and icons—not to take anything away from these women, who are all great women—don't include people like me. I don't and can't see myself in these rich icons: their small breasts, their bony shoulders, the ease with which a pair of trousers glides past their hips and thighs. Taken together, with Mettler's narrative, “tomboy” is a way of being a woman that fits quite neatly into what we expect of “woman”: a conventional BMI, tousled hair, a camera-friendly approach. Bodies with hips cocked, odalisque'd across the hood of a ‘50s car. Style from brands and stories that are very parochially New York, or what you'd call continental, European. Style that reaches out to rich woman who want to marry rich men to let them know that everything will be okay: here is a way forward that will still appeal to the men and women in your social niche. * Last year, I was eating lunch at a cafe in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Behind me, a mom and daughter spoke Polish and waited for their order. They were of a set: both blonde and blue-eyed, similar facial structure, similar feminine clothing styles, similar body types. When I was very young and could be forced into puffy-sleeved dresses, could be convinced or strong-armed into curls and tights, my mother foresaw a future where we were of a set. My hair wasn't blonde like hers, my eyes weren't blue, my ears stuck out farther from my head than they were supposed to, but none of these things were immutable. At eight or nine I began to grow. My body shot up and broadened. My legs lengthened, my belly got round, I became chubby, grew breasts. Next to my peers, who still looked like children, I felt monstrous. My mom urged the hairdresser to "soften" my face with feathered bangs. We fought about clothes. I wanted to dress like the boy from two doors down who wore low-riding shorts and untucked T-shirts; wearing my pants like that, my mom said, would draw attention to my belly. We bought aspirational-sized clothing. We put me on a diet. I starved and binged. I forgot to close my legs when I was made to wear a skirt. Instead of being of a set with my mom, I resented her as much as my inability to give her what she wanted from me. “Tomboy” provided me with my first out. Tomboy offered a way to pursue masculinity from what felt like a failed female body. I gave up mimicking girlhood, accepted a ruptured relationship with my mother, and slowly began to build a relationship with my body and my selfhood that wasn’t based in self-negation. The world I grew up in—the world we live in now—still places an inordinate amount of pressure on female bodies as consumable; opting out of femininity, even privately, freed me to see myself as a whole person, and it also freed me to interrogate the legitimacy of the boundaries I was breaching with my monstrosity. Tomboyhood offered me a kind of self-acceptance I never got to experience as a girl. But conventional gender-code breaking—allowed, within boundaries, for girls—ends, too often, with adulthood. As Jack Halberstam writes, “If adolescence for boys represents a rite of passage… for girls, adolescence is a lesson in restraint, punishment, and repression.” In popular culture (The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, for example), tomboyism is often folded into narratives about resisting adulthood; there’s a tacit understanding that with time, a tomboy will grow out of her (his, their) affinity for masculine presentation, masculine-coded pastimes, masculine-coded work. And so tomboy gets roped in, like everything else, to safety and convention—swanning into simple, elegant, usually white, womanhood. A conventionally attractive woman devouring a burger in a men’s magazine profile; an unadorned silk dress. My masculinity never turned men’s mag icon. I have never been an uncomplicated body in a silky dress; instead, I began to identify with the world of female masculinity best understood and embraced by queer theory; I pursued masculine-coded work, becoming a bike mechanic; I grew up and, though I dated men, came to identify as queer. For over a year, I have had a BuzzFeed video bookmarked on my computer: “What Is Female Masculinity?” I watch it about once a month. The video starts with identifications: “I don’t really identify with anything but if anything I guess it would be butch”; “MOC, which is, like, masculine of centre”; “Genderqueer butch mahoo”; two “gender-neutral”s; “LHB: Long-haired butch.” Everybody has similar but diverging things to say about masculinity, female masculinity, aesthetics, and the benefits and disadvantages of being masculine and female in a world that prizes many aspects of masculinity. Near the end, one of the participants says, “A lot of times, butch women are blessed with the burden of boobs. That’s a very funny cross to bear on top of everything else.” I have large breasts—boobs—and like many people who experience gender dysphoria, I do everything in my power to keep this detail from the general public (I own a compression vest, surreptitiously wear sports bras under collared shirts, curve my wide shoulders forward in an attempt to hide myself). Often, I’m proud of myself and I accept my body. But sometimes, I feel alone, quite alone. I can’t sum up the power of watching someone express my secret shame as a warmly funny in-joke. I understand why people balk at labels—why further subdivide the world? But I think of them—tomboy, butch, genderqueer, MOC—as functional and hopeful. That function is communication. If I can’t describe who I am in this world—I am who I am, whether or not I can describe it—then I can’t seek out others like me. * Early in 2015, a feminist mom, Meredith Hale, wrote “Don’t Call My Daughter a Tomboy” for the Huffington Post. Hale’s daughter comes home from school one day and announces that she feels like she is like a boy, and, in fact, a tomboy, because she likes sports. Hale writes, in part, that she had “been guilty of using the label ‘tomboy’”—but only before she “knew better.” Late last year, feminist Catherine Connors wrote a piece for Her Bad Mother (later reprinted by Bust) called “Don't Call Her a Tomboy.” Connors’s daughter, who dirtbikes, self-identifies as a tomboy. “I wouldn’t call you a tomboy, sweetie. I think that you’re you,” Connors tells her kid. “And you like a lot of different things, and they’re not just ‘boy things’ or ‘girl things,’ they’re things that you like.” Similarly, Hale wants her daughter to grow up embracing her femininity at the same time as she feels free to pursue whatever sports and pastimes draw her attention. Eventually, Connors comes to the conclusion that these ongoing conversations are not really about tomboys, after all—they are about feminism. That girls and boys can contain multitudes. That gender stereotypes must be challenged. That parents must contest the ways in which society—with its pink aisles and camo prints—boxes in boys and girls. Has our conception of gender changed so much that the in-between space that was so useful for me as a child—that is useful for me as an adult—is no longer necessary? After mulling over these pieces—and, more broadly, the differences between mainstream feminism and queer feminism—for more than a year, I wish there was room to embrace both tomboy and the fight to move beyond gender stereotyping. I wonder: how would I have felt if I received these messages from my mother? What if, instead, we outlined for kids like these that girls and boys can do and like and be who they want—but if they’re not a girl, or not a boy, that’s okay, too? I have done a lot of work to disentangle myself from misogyny—to embrace my own femininity, to move past the ways in which I had rejected femininity broadly because it had been foisted upon me. I can’t help but feel that mainstream feminism has not done the same amount of work to understand genderqueerness, to understand complex trans identities. Why, otherwise, would you call to kill a term that still holds some usefulness for me, and others like me? If the world has told us for much of our lives that we are not quite women, and, moreover, “girl” and “woman” never quite fit, is it our responsibility to forcibly expand girlhood and womanhood until it grudgingly accepts us? Can I not just be woman-adjacent in peace? Identity exists at the crux point of internal and external pressures—who we feel we are, and how others see us. Far from being discrete, one feeds into the other. I have no way of knowing how I’d feel if I hadn’t spent my youth feeling shamed into, and failing at, femininity. I wouldn’t be a feminine woman, but maybe I’d feel more comfortable stretching “woman” till it fit. As it stands, I’m not a woman, and I’m not a man; I’m not a tomboy anymore, either, though kernels of tomboyhood remain useful for me. From time to time, lifting a cargo bike into a repair stand, I tell myself to use my size; from time to time, I opt for a dress I can walk or bike in, because shoehorning a curvy body into masculine clothes takes work. In adolescence, tomboyhood offered a positive way to describe myself instead of repeating I’m not, I’m not, I’m not. It emphasized doing rather than being; it offered the option of finding power, and community, in monstrosity.
Remembering the New Yorker’s Lillian Ross, who chronicled the second half of the twentieth century with her trademark brand of reporting, one year after her death.
In May of 1950, a thirty-one-year-old New Yorker staff writer named Lillian Ross became the talk of the town when the magazine published her sharply-observed, massively detailed profile of Ernest Hemingway. Around the same time, she began following the noted screenwriter and director John Huston as he was making his much-anticipated movie, The Red Badge of Courage, based on Stephen Crane's Civil War novel. Two years later, "No. 1512," Ross's remarkable anatomy of the Hollywood studio system and the fate of Huston's film, appeared as a four-part serial in The New Yorker and in book form, as Picture: A Story About Hollywood, a few months later (available again in April 2019 from NYRB Classics). Hailed at the time as one of the first examples of nonfiction written like fiction—it wasn’t, of course; fictional devices have been used by writers of nonfiction since at least the nineteenth century—Ross is on record as having consulted with New Yorker editor (and later her long-time lover) William Shawn early in her reporting, telling him: “I don’t know whether this sort of thing has ever been done before, but I don’t see why I shouldn’t try to do a fact piece in novel form, or maybe a novel in fact form.” By the time Ross died on September 20, 2017, at ninety-nine, her reputation among the foremost literary journalists was secure. But what’s often overlooked is that, with Picture, she pioneered the fly-on-the-wall, warts-and-all, inside-Hollywood form of journalism which later spawned a whole genre of books, such as John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio (1969); Steven Bach’s Final Cut: Art, Money and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate (1986); Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco (the 1991 book about Brian De Palma’s disastrous adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities); and James B. Stewart’s DisneyWar: The Battle for the Magic Kingdom (2005). Memorably, Ross begins "No. 1512" with a phone call from Huston. "You know something?" he said, over the telephone. He has a theatrical way of inflecting his voice that can give a commonplace query a rich and melodramatic intensity. "They don’t want me to make this picture. And I want to make this picture." He made the most of every syllable, so that it seemed at that moment to lie under his patent and have some special urgency. "Come on over, kid, and I’ll tell you all about the hassle." Granted by Huston and the studio, MGM, the kind of carte blanche access that has virtually disappeared in today's spin-doctored culture, Ross, using her favorite 3 x 5-inch spiral Clairefontaine notebooks and micro-point Uni-Ball pens, recorded the making of the movie with stenographic precision, detailing all the compromises, the noble intentions, and self-absorbed foolishness of Hollywood, often in long chunks of what seem to be verbatim dialogue. It feels as though she’s present everywhere, a technique that’s similar to “participant observation,” a form of qualitative data collection used in sociology and anthropology. In the introduction to her 2015 anthology, Reporting Always, Ross simply called it “writing a piece as if it were a miniature movie.” She was there to witness the death of the studio system that defined the Golden Age of Hollywood, when big companies, like MGM, were facing competition from TV and anti-trust legislation that would soon end their dominance, to be replaced by an era of smaller studios and directors and actors who demanded greater control. Although Ross, with her micro-approach, only alludes to the macro forces at work. She always thought of herself as an observer, not an analyst. Born in 1918 in Syracuse, NY and raised in Brooklyn, she started writing for her school newspaper in the sixth grade. Her first story, about the library, began, “Fat books, thin books, new books, old books…” Reading it in print, she recalled, was an “unforgettable rapture.” Later, on a school trip to The New York Times, she was seduced by the sights, smells, and sounds. In the early ‘40s, she got a job on an experimental liberal newspaper called PM that featured splashy photographs and no advertising. When William Shawn, then the managing editor of The New Yorker, tried to hire Ross’s editor at PM, the editor recommended he hire Ross. She distinguished herself from the beginning with vividly drawn stories about a bullfighter in Mexico, the Miss America pageant, a busload of midwestern teenagers visiting Manhattan for the first time, and diamond dealer Harry Winston. Once her reputation was firmly established by her profile of Hemingway, she turned her attention to Huston’s movie. Given the sanitized portraits of Hollywood up until this time—mainly puffy biographies of stars and cleaned-up histories of the big studios—what surprised readers was Ross’s depiction of how crude internal politics and battles between art and commerce were at the heart of moviemaking. Huston saw "The Red Badge of Courage" as an artistic endeavor, a story of the moral ambiguities of war (his next film, which he regarded as a quick-and-dirty money spinner, was The African Queen). Although backed by his producers, Huston wasn't aware that legendary MGM boss, Louis B. Mayer, who favored corny, big-budget entertainments, hated the idea of The Red Badge of Courage but was content to watch as his subordinates fell on their swords. Ross captures the action with a cinematic intensity and her trademark rendering of dialogue, as in a characteristically vivid scene in which Mayer is seen in his office ranting about modern movies: "Don't show the good, wholesome American mother in the home. Kind. Sweet. Sacrifices. Love." Mayer paused and by his expression demonstrated, in turn, maternal kindness, sweetness, sacrifice, and love, then glared at [producer Arthur] Freed and me. "No!" he cried. "Knock the mother on the jaw!" He gave himself an uppercut to the chin. "Throw the little old lady down the stairs!" He threw himself in the general direction of the American flag [behind his desk]. "Throw the mother's good, homemade soup in the mother's face!" He threw an imaginary bowl of soup in Freed's face. "Step on the mother! Kick her! That is art, they say. Art!" He raised and lowered his white eyebrows, wiggled his shoulders like a hula dancer, and moved his hand in a mysterious pattern in the air. "Art!" he repeated, and gave an angry growl. James Thurber once admiringly called Ross “the girl with the built-in tape recorder,” although Ross didn’t believe in using tape recorders. In her 2002 book, Reporting Back: Notes on Journalism, she wrote: “To me, the machine distorts the truth… Tape-recorded interviews are not only misleading; they are unrealistic; they are lifeless… I make sure to write down key, identifying phrases and words that help me remember the rhythm and context of what I’m hearing. Then I’m able to reproduce long exchanges.” And in a 1961 interview in Newsweek, she said, “You try not to get in the way of the person you’re trying to show. If you’re trying to follow along with the person you’re interviewing, to respond to him instead of coming along with a lot of prepared questions, you just get him going. And don’t bother him.” In a review of Picture in The New York Times, producer and screenwriter Budd Schulberg summed up what many of the people associated with “The Red Badge of Courage” probably felt. “It is a book with many morals. Perhaps the first and most obvious is that, if you value your privacy, if you don’t want to be caught with your clichés down or your pretensions showing, Miss Ross is not the lady to ask into your home.” When Picture was published, reviewers made much of Ross's so-called purely factual, objective reporting, even though the author's hand is evident throughout the book. Noting that spending time with Huston felt like being in a Huston film, she wrote, "In appearance, in gestures, in manner of speech, in the selection of people and objects he surrounded himself with, and in the way he composed them into individual 'shots'...and then arranged the shots into dramatic sequence, he was simply the raw material of his own art." In her understated, yet no less deliberate, way, of course, Ross also shaped her material into an expression of her own experience. Her judgments, cloaked as observations, are often incisive, as in her description of a Hollywood executive lunching in a fashionable restaurant. "He was almost the only one in Chasen's who was not at that moment looking around at someone other than the person he was talking to." Unlike the so-called “new journalism” that was to come in the 1960s, when writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson put themselves front-and-centre in their stories, Ross held a view that today seems quaintly old-fashioned. In her introduction to Reporting Back: Notes on Journalism, she wrote: "reporting is not about the reporter, even though he is always revealed in the writing. If one is the kind of person who needs attention from others—who prefers talking to listening, who wants to be the star of a situation or important to the situation, who essentially wants to show off—reporting is not a choice line of work." Shortly after Picture was published in late 1952, a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement wrote, “Miss Ross, though she makes no comments of her own, lets everyone babble with childlike trust and in such an uninhibited manner that without exception they appear a crowd of grotesques worthy of Nathanael West.” Midway through her research, Ross was attacked in the literary magazine Partisan Review by Hans Meyerhoff, a UCLA professor friendly with movie insiders. Among the charges was Ross's technique of asking questions "deceptive in their sophomoric simplicity" and her habit of seldom saying anything herself. A shoot-the-messenger observation at a time when journalism, like the movie industry, was in the early stages of a radical evolution. In an interview after Picture was published, Ross explained, "All I do is take a lot of notes. And I listen." A simple strategy that allows readers to see and hear what they would otherwise be excluded from, pioneered by the woman a New York Times reviewer described as "one of the most creative innocent bystanders of our time."
The author of Beirut Hellfire Society on writing about the Lebanese Civil War, collective memory, and the selfishness of Greek deities.
Rawi Hage’s Beirut Hellfire Society (Knopf Canada) is a delirious percolation of grief and remembrance. The novel takes place in Beirut in 1978 —just as the Lebanese Civil War began to crescendo—where Pavlov inherits his father’s task to cremate the bodies of the unknown, the outliers, and the shunned. Pavlov’s undertaking of burial also serves as his induction to the eponymous secret society, which operates on the fringes of conflict while full of flashy, hedonistic characters. What you get is a story that is not only critical of nationalism and religious superiority, but one that is lush with fabulism and decay. Writing about war is a dance between respecting the integrity of collective memory and finding the freedom to revisit it in fiction. It’s a dance that’s all-too-familiar for Rawi Hage, a survivor of the Lebanese Civil War who came into recognition via his debut, De Niro’s Game, which chronicles the friendship between two men as they struggle to survive in the same turmoil-ridden landscape. The novel won him the International Dublin Literary Award. More than a decade later, with Beirut Hellfire Society, Hage circles back to writing about the civil war. Amanda Ghazale Aziz: What stirred a return to writing about the civil war? Why now? Rawi Hage: I was trying to write a book about death, about loss. I was thinking about situating it inside Sarajevo at one point because I was there a few years ago, but then I felt that Beirut is more familiar and the Lebanese Civil War would surely provide that amount of death, especially that excess of death. I found myself going back without any hesitation. Let’s consider the act of burial in this book; Pavlov’s newly acquired task to bury the outliers of society reminded me of the collective conscious affected by the missing and unclaimed bodies (Tel al-Za’atar, for instance). I have to say, writing about burial of the unclaimed and shunned seems like a partaking of the ritual itself. Well, I started this book as a personal mourning for friends and family and close people, and the Middle East in general, with the amount of cadavers these wars were and are producing in various regions. That access of a parade of cadavers. The book is a bit fantastical, it’s a bit unrealistic, but that was made on purpose. I think we’re ready, as Arabs, to move on with how we process these events, much like in Latin American literature and magic realism. The fabulism in Beirut Hellfire Society is a way of processing? Yes, and it’s also a way to contribute to a new form of Arabic literature. I think it’s due. I’m not the only one, and I think it’s time to move on from that nationalistic literature and head into that of the imaginary. I think we’re ready. Especially with the new generation. If anything, I’m writing for the new generation and hope that they would carry this on someday. I think, by seeing the new generation [of Arab writers] doing amazing things—they’re very combative in that sense—that I get my inspiration from them. I don’t get it from my generation. I hope I get to play a role of transition. You were formally trained and worked as a photographer before you ventured into writing. How does memory and documentation guide you as a writer? I think when you experience a certain trauma, the only way to see the narrative clear is through images. I think it’s a phenomena for people who went through wars, it’s a mechanism of coping with the trauma. Maybe I’m projecting, but maybe that’s my experience. When I recall the war, I recall it in images, not verbally or by text. That’s what really comes to me: fragmented images, much like photographs. Images in different sizes that can be interpreted or projected on or be used as a memory to recall events. At least that’s for me. I think the system of recollection, which are in the form of images to me, is much more current for people who experience collective trauma. Collective trauma and memory has me thinking of Etel Adnan’s question in Night: “Is memory produced by us or is it us?” When it comes to collective memory of wartime and location, though, what do writers owe to readers and the event itself? Do they owe it to collective memory or do they serve the story first? There are many functions, but I’m not sure with literature to what extent it contributes. It depends on the era, too. I think in terms of severe crisis, many literary writers try to become a spokesperson or try to record things as close to reality as possible. I know for the Lebanese Civil War, after it had ended, the government had tried to obstruct the memory as much as possible. It was a conscious decision to not talk about the war, or to excavate what happened. It was only done by artists, such as Akram Zaatari—there was a small group who were very conscious about immediately recording the war. What was interesting is they recorded in a fictitious way. If you look at their work, it’s very close to fiction, and that’s maybe because the narrative of the war was still contested. There is no official say, but certainly it’s still contested, though I think most of the artists were sympathetic to the left-leaning narrative of what happened, which I agree with. You know, it’s a very tricky balance. You don’t want to write with an agenda, as it affects the art, but you don’t want your art devoid of history. So it’s a very, very fine balance. When I had set to write De Niro’s Game, my intention was to write a book of literature and to contribute to the literary scene. Having said that, what concerned me the most was the trauma that I couldn’t escape. I think with this new book, I’m moving to somewhere different. There’s been enough recording of what has happened by other artists; the Arab world, they’re outspoken… There are six-hour arguments. Things are out in the open, the politeness is not there. I agree. I also think there is a burden for racialized writers to represent the whole community, to have the last word on a said event, which is impossible. That’s right. The responsibility, the burden, is much heavier for us. If we don’t exercise our collective imagination—and not just documentation —we’ll always be at a certain disadvantage. I think what literature could provide us with is showing other possibilities. What I fear most is homogeneity. Ancient Greek literature is heavily referenced in Beirut Hellfire Society, with Pavlov’s obsession with the Iliad in particular, what with the downfall of Troy serving as a mirror to that of Beirut. Were you reading any works of Ancient Greek literature during your time spent writing this novel? Yes, I’ve read the Iliad many times—it’s a book I’ve read again and again. I like it, I like the poetry, I like the story, but I also like the Greeks in general, though I do not want to idealize them. They were like any other empire: oppressive. What I like about the Greeks was the multiplicity of gods and goddesses, and how accessible the gods were, and that transformation between humans and gods. That accessibility. Gods were not unanimous, and the Greeks knew it, they were very conscious that they had constructed their own gods. I like that, I think that it’s much more sophisticated, especially with how open they were about the failures of their gods. The Greek deities were notorious for being as jealous and selfish as humans, if not more. So selfish, so openly manipulative that it’s hard to take them seriously! They’re so transparent that they’re a mirror to their own society. It’s almost naive. I don’t know why I like reading these works, but it certainly helped my writing. There’s a certain courage that I appreciate.
I can’t imagine where I’d be if they knew my version of what happened.
I’m the only man in the village who subscribes to The Hollywood Reporter. The latest clipping, which I paste in my scrapbook, is just a column inch, an ad for waterbeds on the reverse. Black Water director Edgar Van Buren is once again facing criticism, this time for his decision to host a lavish party for the jurors who acquitted him of manslaughter. Held at the director’s mid-century home above Coldwater Canyon, the party marked the one-year anniversary of the verdict, on May 15, 1988. All twelve jurors attended. The father and former manager of Doretta Howell, who intends to sue for wrongful death, has called the party “proof you can’t find one good man in Hollywood.” I recognize the byline. The writer had tried contacting me countless times throughout the trial, but I could not be reached for comment. Because I was non-creative personnel—below-the-line, as they say—and had no height from which to fall, I could avoid the most public disgrace. But behind tinted glass, the studios don’t forget. Without the help of the courts, they took everything from me, my whole life in America. And I can’t imagine where I’d be, if they knew my version of what happened. * After a morning of being thrown through a window, Dot Howell collapsed in the honeywagon, unable to proceed with her French. I remember handing her a Yoohoo and picking sugared glass from her hair. Edgar Van Buren insisted his actors perform the stunts themselves—no body doubles—and as I testified, she obeyed his every direction. Dot and I wouldn’t get our three hours that day. On the set of The Chasm, our lessons were just ten-minute fragments before she was hauled off again. The few times I cornered a producer—and once, disastrously, Van Buren—he wouldn’t take me seriously. I said Dot needed those hours, there on the shag rug of the honeywagon, chewing Skittles and microwaving in the desert heat. I said she needed to be a girl for three hours a day. I asked her, “Do you think he got the shot?” She shook her head, a shimmer of glass. All she could focus on was the model. A Medieval French castle surrounded by the sodden country of my native Normandy—it was our class project; we had a different one on every shoot. Now Dot cracked the lid on another tub of clay and slapped some on the hillside. I didn’t protest, but lately the clay had been piling higher and higher, while the castle went unfinished. It wasn’t encouraging that she pictured Normandy as a muddy wasteland. “Soon we’ll need to add the servants’ homes,” I said, in French. Dot massaged a lump into the landscape. Finally, she said, “I need to tell you something.” I kept picking at her hair. “Stop it,” she said, freezing my hand. Dot had never addressed me so formally. I sat very upright behind my desk and put my fingers together in a steeple, as if to show her that when you speak like an adult, everyone around you grows cold and severe. “Dad and I made an agreement,” she said. “When he gets here, he’s going to be my manager.” Betraying nothing, I said, “He was supposed to be here yesterday.” “I know that.” Dot’s first assistant pounded on the honeywagon door. It was time to go back through the window. “Do you think he’ll come today?” I asked. "Probably, yeah." “That’s not very professional.” Dot looked at her dirty hands, and suddenly lurched at me like a beautiful, filthy little vampire. I neither flinched nor smiled. * God hated The Chasm. If I believed in predestination, I’d observe how He arranged the production’s calamities to torment Edgar Van Buren. The director’s perfectionism was the stuff of renown—dozens, sometimes hundreds of imperceptibly different takes to achieve the one. That’s why, despite everything—despite the drinking, the verbal abuse, the reckless endangerment—everyone wanted to work with him. It was a chance to be a part of something everlasting. Yet on that project, everything conspired against him. Twice the set was ripped away by sandstorms that gathered on the radar, blood-red and too late to evade. That’s when Dot and I laid the foundation of the castle, the honeywagon rocking in gale-force winds. And we had further opportunities to work when the elder star, Xavier Braun, stepped on a rattler and was bitten three times, fast as automatic weaponry, and had to be air-lifted back to Los Angeles. The Chasm was Van Buren’s first horror film. Having asserted himself in almost every other genre—comedy, history, war—it was an aesthetic challenge he’d set himself. But what was it about? The script was impressionistic, constantly reappearing on different-coloured paper as it underwent another visionary mutation. I don’t think he really understood what horror meant—not yet. In the latest version—mustard yellow—a narrative spine had formed at last. A runaway orphan (Dot) hitchhikes into the desert, and comes upon a seemingly abandoned chapel, only to discover a man (Braun) living inside. The orphan mistakes him for a priest, but as it turns out, he’s an escaped convict, a child-murderer. The title, as I gleaned from the mustard-yellow version, referred to the psychic underworld into which the killer initiates the orphan. But everything else remained indistinct. The budget was ballooning. The studio was terrified. Van Buren’s indulgent, improvisational method was a Hollywood anachronism. He’d inked a famous contract in the late 1960s, wedding him to the studio in perpetuity, but guaranteeing certain artistic protections. At the time, it had seemed like a colossal mistake. But by the ‘80s, he was the last of his generation’s directors still to be provided unlimited budgets and vast creative leniency. As his fellow auteurs found themselves directing second units on third sequels, Van Buren remained untouchable. He took as long as he liked; the budget was just an abstract figure to him. At night, he’d start a bonfire and drink to semi-prophetic excess, sweat shining in the flames, and everyone waited to hear what he’d discovered and transform it into cinema. I didn’t care about Edgar Van Buren or his Chasm. I was there for Dot, Dot alone. I only dreaded the one calamity: that Ryder, her father, was coming to take over her career. And what would that mean for us? * It was dusk when Dot’s bike finally skidded to a stop outside the honeywagon. After a Yoohoo, to my amazement, she took up her math textbook and moved through the algebra with vigour, as if her mind were ravenous. In our classroom, all was orderly and French and still as a mirror. In fact, it was I who spoiled the environment. “Is there anything I can say to persuade you?” Not looking up, she said, “No, Pascal.” “He’s a day late. He doesn’t call. Is this the behaviour of a manager?” She placed the pencil by the page. “You don’t know him.” Something in her voice frightened me, a kind of echo from a place I didn’t understand. I corrected her pronunciation and poured some Skittles on her desk. She exaggerated the sticky gnashing of her teeth—that was better. And then I heard the crunch of tires, and we were outside, headlights sweeping over us. As the truck rolled to a stop, it nearly mangled Dot’s bike. Ryder slammed the door of the Ford F-series, which she’d bought for him. He was bald, but wore a red beard, dense as a forest observed from a jet, and his barbell biceps were unevenly patchy, the hairs like scratches. Already he looked northern and overheated. “Doretta!” He could barely support her when she leapt into his arms. “This is Pascal.” We shook hands. “You’re the teacher.” Dot cleaved to me and said, “Mon astre.” “What’s that.” I felt a warmth in my cheeks. “There’s no good translation,” I said. “I’ve told you about him.” “Sure,” he said, “I remember.” “And she’s told me about you,” I said. “Alright.” Ryder told her to look at the sky. Wasn’t it indigo? Wasn’t it beautiful? “It’s like that every night,” said Dot. “Is that your bike?” “Yeah.” “Good for you. Remember where I taught you to ride?” “Lake Erie.” Ryder glanced at me. “I found a little spot with a view of the valley,” he said. “Get in the truck. We’ll catch the last of the light.” The sky was fading fast, but Dot humoured him. He heaved the bike into the cargo bed, and in another moment, the truck veered away. I replaced the textbook on the shelf, and dropped her pencil in the oblong ceramic cup we’d fired together. Then I corrected her algebra—so many mistakes—and my day’s purpose was fulfilled. * Awake on the honeywagon’s narrow bed, I listened for that shy knock on the door. Then she’d come inside, as she’d done so many times, and wordlessly curl up on the carpet. I’d imagine her sucking her thumb as we fell into our dreams. No one ever appreciated what those children went through, not until something happened—and then everyone had an opinion. But they were a lot like a movie set, like the chapel they’d built for The Chasm: pristine from certain angles, behind which the trash collected and a producer was smoking. Eight years old, Dot had been given to me on a set at Nickelodeon. I mean that in earnest: her mother, Roxane, just a bruised little child herself, entrusted Dot to me. After a brief, impulsive marriage to Ryder, Roxane had fled to Los Angeles with some inarticulate ambition, but before she even had headshots, she was drinking for breakfast and coughing. The limelight isn’t morbid; it skipped over Roxane and fixed on her daughter—Doretta “Dot” Howell of the rosebud hair, the endless eyes. Doctors said they were actually growing too big for her head. With that monumental face, Dot appeared like an adult you’d once known, or had, at least, once seen on screen. Those are my fondest memories, still glowing. I recall Dot as an energetic blur. At Nickelodeon, we’d play hide-and-go-seek, and she’d give herself away with laughter. She’d do anything for Skittles; she’d imitate the sound of French. When the Enquirer started following Roxane around, just to catch her drunk in public, Dot began staying overnight. After Roxane’s death, I gave up my other children and wholly devoted myself to Dot. I banished the charlatans and money-lenders. I gave her an idea of God, telling her there was always a beautiful man watching her. And so, I was the one she asked about the bleeding; I was the one who told her what it meant. As for Ryder, on certain melancholy nights I’d hear about him. She had so few memories, she always returned to the one good summer on Lake Erie, stretching it out until it seemed like a marvellous history. When he took her on his back, she said, she didn’t fear the water. The way she spoke of Lake Erie, I sometimes felt she was still waiting for him to take her back and finish those lessons. Meanwhile Nickelodeon became Disney, and Disney became Fox. And then the Chasm script arrived, on fresh white paper. It was the first script she wouldn’t let me read until she’d finished. From the very beginning, she was doing this for an idea of herself. Now fifteen years old, it was time to choose: orient yourself toward Oscars, or be an unserious girl forever. The Chasm set was unlike any I’d ever been on. They weren’t creating this movie to be happy, or to make others happy. Lying awake that night in the honeywagon, I heard the crew’s drunken laughter, the hiss of someone pissing on the sand. And Dot didn’t come. I said a prayer for her, alone in the night. She was still so unknown to herself. * Van Buren suddenly took Xavier Braun and a small unit up into the mountain caves. They were gone for days, but Dot and I still didn’t get much done. Ryder would scoop her up after breakfast and shoot through the desert toward the cliffs or the Indian reserve. They’d fire off guns together, blowing up the Joshua trees, or skid around on ATVs with a recklessness I’d begun to see as common to them. By the time she got back, she was more depleted, more useless to me, than after the most violent Van Buren workdays. Yet nothing was so contemptible as what Ryder asked me as I filled my flask at the water station. “Pascal,” he said, “what exactly do you teach my daughter?” He’d accosted me outside the shade, the white sun hovering, a pitiless disc, above his head. I said, “A standard Californian curriculum.” “And more besides.” “Well, of course. The state mandates that studio teachers be certified welfare workers. I manage Dot’s well-being, whether it be getting her inoculated, or discussing the morals of the script, or just keeping her company—being there for her, you understand.” “I don’t want to offend you,” he said, “but Doretta seems, sometimes, a little stunted.” “Stunted.” “Basic things—things she should know—she doesn’t.” “And you’re to judge what she should know.” “The names of presidents, yes. The cause of the Civil War. All fifty states.” “American things.” “It isn’t only American,” Ryder said. “She’s slow with simple math. She knows nothing about tectonic plates, or how tornadoes form.” “I assure you, Mr. Howell, Dot’s developing perfectly well.” “Then why can’t she take the proficiency exam.” I’d been in Hollywood long enough to get guarded when a parent mentioned the exam. The fact that he even knew about it already betrayed him. If an underage actor could test out of high school, she became eligible to work longer hours, overtime, even through the night. A sick green glow always emanated from the heart of a Hollywood parent. “You’d better leave that up to me,” I said, and began to walk away. He put a hand to my chest. “All the same,” he said, “I’d like to sit in tomorrow afternoon.” “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” “I’m her manager,” he said, “I have the right.” He’d kept me there just long enough for my nose and cheeks to burn. * Dot was dabbing pink paint on the little princess when he entered. She dropped her brush and Ryder sat, ridiculously huge, in one of her chairs. In French, I said, “Your father is going to spend the remaining time with us.” And Dot answered, in American English, “I know.” I clucked and reminded her to sustain the French, as we’d agreed. “But it isn’t fair. He won’t understand what we’re saying.” “As you wish,” and I looked to Ryder. “But you see, there was something being taught here, and now, no longer.” “Noted.” I didn’t dare give her Skittles. I handed her the math textbook, and told her to work on the algebra. At first she was confused, thinking she’d seen the problems before, but then she settled in. As I stared at Ryder, I gradually perceived that he was struggling with the conditions in the honeywagon. Everyone thinks they understand what it means to work on a movie. It was pushing a hundred; the walls were sweating. The toilet was close, unclean. Soon he was fidgeting. I’d applied cold cream to my face, and could sit there for hours, deriving austere pleasures from how Dot gripped the pencil, how she turned it idly in her fingers and nibbled the edge. I only broke my pose upon hearing the commotion outside. For days, the set had been held in a kind of scorched suspense, but now there were shouts and laughter, cars swooping through camp, refreshingly. Van Buren had returned from the mountains. Ryder seized upon my distraction to shoot a spitball at his child. “Hey!” I turned to see Dot clutching her ear, Ryder laughing like an ape. She balled up a page from her notebook and rang it off his dome. Now he was looking at her with appetite, and in one brute motion, he cleared the desk away and grabbed her at the waist. She let him pull her to the carpet, laughter breaking into hiccups. I moved the castle to safety and watched them roll around. Ryder caught my eye, and he must’ve read my satisfaction there. He disentangled from her and righted the chairs. He said, “I don’t know what came over me.” Dot was still heaving on the floor, hair strewn over her face. She blew it off her lips and said, “It’s fun here, isn’t it?” I said, “Isn’t it?” “Get back to work,” he ordered. “Start working, Doretta.” * Ryder befriended Van Buren. At night, I’d see them, crackling bronze figures by the bonfire. They’d pass the Jim Beam, and when it was empty, set the bottle out in the clear moonlight and blow it to smithereens. Van Buren had come back changed by the caves. He said The Chasm cohered for him there; he was throwing out most of what he had. In the day, producers waited anxiously outside the tent while Van Buren rewrote the script, ash dropping into his chest hair. They called the studio; they tried to explain what he was doing. At day’s end, he’d have the latest scene copied, and issue it like law. Drunk in that infernal light, he and Ryder unfolded Dot Howell’s future. If she got The Chasm right, there would be more projects, all the awards, unimaginable money. I could hear them howl together—“Yes, yes,” went her father, her manager—and more gunshots. * I found the pink pages on my desk. She’d left them for me. I took them out to the plastic chair beneath the parasol with a view of the hills. They were just piles of Martian-red rocks, as if a giant had ground up mountains in his fist. As the sun set behind a dusty film, the sky purpled and dimmed. At once, I saw why she’d left the new script, why she didn’t want to face me as I read it. The Chasm was darkening; it was becoming real horror. Before, the relation between Dot and Xavier was all innuendo, arresting suggestions between cuts, but Van Buren had made it explicit. So this was what you learned in caves; so this was genius—the molestation of a child on film. When the night had gathered around the camp, I went looking for him. There was no one by the bonfire, but I heard the pop, the breaking glass, and followed them out to where Van Buren and Ryder were shooting. The light of the moon was so pure, the men seemed to stand on stage, the sand flat and crossed by the shadows of the Joshua trees. Off to the side, three women sat on lawn chairs, smoking in fur coats, their legs bare and blue. They noticed me first, and their silence alerted the men. I stood with the pages, observed by Van Buren. Behind him, Ryder reloaded. I said, “You have a wicked heart.” Ryder hooted, plunking in the bullets. “What did you say?” and the director stepped forward, close enough that I could toss the script against his chest. He caught the wad, glanced over it, and threw it aside. “I said there’s a worm in your soul.” All the while he was coming toward me. “What do you know,” he said. “What could you possibly know.” “Ease up,” called Ryder. “It’s only the teacher.” “I know she won’t do the scene,” I said. “But she will.” “I won’t let her.” Van Buren shoved me with both hands, and stumbling back, I tripped on bramble and landed hard. He sent me back down as I tried to scramble up. I felt his drunk, elemental strength. I managed to say, “I’m not afraid of you.” “You’re a fool, Pascal.” Now he crouched down and slapped me, once. I briefly saw the women, and then my cheek was to the sand. I thought of snakes and scorpions. “You’re a fool.” The shots rang out in rapid succession—a woman yelped—and Van Buren stepped back. “Enough,” said Ryder. Dot’s father hoisted me to my feet, and brushed me off, motioning for Van Buren to stay where he was. “Why don’t you go to sleep, Pascal.” I was staring at Van Buren, his eyes full of moonlight. “She won’t do it,” I said, to myself. * I couldn’t find Dot in the morning, and everyone had a different answer. They sent me to makeup; they might’ve seen her with the first-assistant; she’d just biked by—see the tracks? Finally, I approached the chapel, where they were setting up the scene, and over a producer’s shoulder, I saw her. “Dot!” He cut my angle off. “You can’t keep me out. I’ll have this whole thing shut down. Dot!” I snagged her eye, and she said to let me through. The chapel smelled of fresh sawdust, but was staged to signal years of decay: a collapsed wall, the Virgin caked with grime, doves in the rafters prodded by the handler on a ladder. And Dot—her dress was bloodied and torn, blotched with black fingerprints and sticking with sweat. “You don’t have to do this scene.” “Pascal—” “I know we haven’t talked about it.” “We don’t have to.” “Can’t you see what they’re doing?” Van Buren was riding the camera like a dark horse, and Ryder stood nearby, reading the pink version. How could he let the scene play out in his mind? “Don’t let them do this, Dot.” She seemed confused by how I took her hand. Van Buren tapped her on the shoulder, and without even looking at me, said, “Let me explain this to you.” Actor and director angled away. I got as close as I could to the scene. It was just a squalid mattress by the altar. Dot sprawled as if drugged, eyelids thick and heavy as a toad’s. Her legs were bare, bruised. I’d never seen her thighs, and I remember wondering, absurdly, where she learned to have thighs like those. Van Buren called for action, and Xavier squatted down. He was strangely clean, grey hair wet, pulled back. The beads dangled from his neck like grapes. It wasn’t artifice—it was lust. It was real in his eyes, and on his fingers, and blazing through his lips. Van Buren thrust the camera forward. I heard them murmuring. Xavier pinned her by the wrists, and she writhed—not against his strength, but within it. He cupped her chin—her soft cheeks bunching, lips squeezed into a square—and leaned into a suctioning kiss. Her eyes closed voluptuously, horrifically. Then she put his hand to her breast and pulled him back onto the bed. Suddenly Dot sat up straight and shook her head. My heart thrilled. Van Buren yelled cut. The director wiped his mouth. Someone brought Xavier a cigarette, and the actors lounged there on their elbows. Van Buren crouched down to Dot and called for Ryder. The four of them had a quick conversation. Ryder came back to me through the crew. He said, “She can’t do the scene.” “I can see that.” “She’s asking you to leave.” Doves shuddered on the roofbeams. “What.” “She can’t do the scene in front of you. Will you go back to the classroom, and wait for her there?” I looked to Dot. She put her eyes everywhere else. From a distance, Van Buren was watching me. “Let me talk to her.” “You’re wasting everyone’s time, Pascal. Now she’s asked you nicely—go.” * I’ll never know if she came back to the honeywagon afterward. I’d taken the bottle to the hills. My sister sometimes sent me Calvados from home, though I almost never found occasion to drink. I’d been working through this bottle for a year, but that evening, I sucked it worshipfully, as if it were the very pith of Normandy. The desert stars came out, and my mind turned to Roxane. I wanted to pray to her, but the stars were cold, withdrawn. I knew I’d disappointed her. She’d urged me to take her daughter; shaking, she’d pressed the beads into my hand. It was a promise, soul to soul. And the old picture came, man and wife on a little plot of Normandy. He’s reading in the shade, apples dropping from the tree, the castle in the distance, tall. The children sprint past and she calls to them, still a child in her heart. But I found no direction there. The picture hovered in two dimensions. The Calvados tasted thin, even putrid at the edges. Instead a story Roxane once told, chasing Stoli with milk, invaded me. Ryder would have her smear lipstick on his erection, she said, as if his penis were a cheap whore, and then she’d suck it like a woman’s lips. And I thought of the women, naked under fur coats, and I thought of all the money Ryder had now, Dot’s money. I broke the bottle on the stone, and the liquor burst over my hand. I knew where he slept. The jagged edge of glass caught moonlight, and I felt like Roxane, way out on some private rampage, pursued by journalists. But I didn’t realize how drunk I was until I stood and moved unsteadily, rock by rock, down the hill, and then all I wanted was to be buried underground, asleep. * I grew formal over the coming days. I’d taught adults before. No Yoohoos, no Skittles—and where had the castle gone? Doretta knew I was angry—there were times I thought she sensed the rest—but didn’t attempt a reconciliation. It would’ve been the death of the woman she wanted to be, the icon looming over her, beckoning her out into the world. So it was already written. She failed at the new lessons I gave her. She had to stay late, do them over. She put on a show of not minding. She tried harder, but still wasn’t ready. Meanwhile The Chasm was collapsing—that’s something that never made the papers. The producers tried keeping rumour in check, but the studio’s anger was known; it had seeped into the cast and crew like guilt, everyone but Van Buren. He only responded with further provocations. But in private, as we’d learn during the trial, he was tormented, blocked. The Chasm had no climax. It needed something spectacular—a permanent image—and it was then that water, black and deep and strong as steel cables, began to rush across the desert sands of his imagination. * On the morning of the stunt, he had us up before dawn, and announced that we were going to the sea. It was all arranged; he’d sent the crew ahead. Now Doretta, Ryder, Van Buren and I piled into a truck, and headed west, dust blazing up behind the wheels. I remember Doretta was excited. This was why you worked with Edgar Van Buren—so you could reminisce, later, to The Hollywood Reporter, all about the time he had you up at dawn and took you to the sea because he’d seen the movie ending in a dream. In the truck he passed around the mint-green pages. Escaping the murderer, the orphan would plunge into the cove. Later, they’d shoot her underwater on a stage at the studio, feeling her way into a cave. But for the drop, the location was perfect, said Van Buren: a little cove of ink-black water. He said, “A shot of you falling—it could be immortal.” With the stunt, The Chasm would be whole, at last. “We shoot at sundown.” But his star was staring out the window, the stooped desert trees rushing past. In sunglasses, and with a kerchief tied around her head, she looked like a woman twenty years older, twenty years ago. “What’s the matter,” he said. “Don’t you like it?” Doretta’s head turned toward me, but she said, “I love it.” “The audience will know you’ve given them everything,” said the director. “The Academy despises doubles. They want to see you act every frame.” Only I knew what she was thinking, but I also knew she didn’t want me to speak for her, not anymore. In her shades, I could see myself, just a small man in the corner of the truck, indistinct, like the memory of someone you knew as a child. * After weeks in the desert, I relished the breeze that pulled off the sea. All day was spent setting up the stunt, the crew bobbing in lifejackets down in the cove. The water swirled around them, black and deep, like a pit. Doretta would drop from the cove’s rocky wall. No one ever asked if she could swim. I wandered away from the set, over to where the sheer cliffs plunged, and stared out to the hovering line of the horizon. Already the sun was lowering and flashing off the water. It wouldn’t be long before the stunt. I heard: “Pascal.” It was Ryder. He came to my side and peered into the wind. “Everything takes forever,” he said. “But I guess you’re used to it.” “Yes.” He laughed, “Don’t be so high-strung, Pascal. I come in peace. I know we got off to a bad start, but I’ve been thinking—I was wrong. I mistook her excitement for immaturity.” “Excitement.” “For me to be here. She was just being my girl, like before.” I wanted to say there never was before. “Shake hands?” he asked. I’ll never know for certain, but in that moment, I sensed he’d had me fired, that in the morning, I’d be recalled to Los Angeles. Over blinding water, Doretta Howell’s future stretched out to the vanishing point. We shook. Ryder stepped to the very edge, and looked straight down. The rocks pointed up like bayonets; the current ripped into the open sea. I remember my hands felt light, inspired, primed to push. But the spirit deflated. He’d prevail, anyway. The bulb inside her had finally split; a powerful stalk had broken through. I saw the mud she’d slung beside our castle. It piled up before my eyes, incompatible with life. There was a call: “Pascal!” I turned to see Doretta’s first-assistant, and Ryder and I came running to the makeup truck. We found Van Buren leaning over the chair where she shivered and gasped for breath. “What is it,” Ryder asked. “It just came over her.” “Give her space,” I said, and knelt. “Breathe easy. You’re safe.” She’d gone bright red, and hot tears issued from the corners of her eyes, though she wasn’t really crying. I took her hands; the wrists rapidly pulsed. “You’re safe.” “We were reviewing the stunt,” said Van Buren. “She’s never been this way before.” “What is it, Doretta,” asked Ryder. She was regaining composure, I thought, or a sense of audience. She said, “It’s nothing.” “Maybe the water,” the assistant offered. There was a brief silence while the men decided whether to take her seriously. “But she can swim,” said Van Buren. “Of course,” said Ryder. “I taught her myself—you remember, Doretta, on the lake.” She nodded. “I remember.” Later, no one would recall how they all looked to me, even her. But if I forget every other instant of my life, I’ll still remember how I said, “She can swim.” “Maybe it’s the drop,” said Van Buren. “But the water’s deepest right where you’re landing, and anyway it’s not as high as the window. Alright?” She touched the tears from her eyes, and pushed out a smile. “Alright.” Van Buren clapped. Ryder helped her up. “I’m sorry to be so childish.” The first-assistant cooed, “Not at all, darling, not at all.” Van Buren was out the door. “She’s fine,” he reported to the producer outside. “I’ll put you on my back,” her father joked. “Just get me to the set,” Doretta said. “Then I’ll do it on my own.” * I remember the light was perfect. From where Ryder and I stood, we could just see her pressed against the wall below, her famous rosebud hair precisely tangled. The cove whirled beneath her, swallowing. The camera lowered to the surface. I heard Van Buren’s call for silence, for action. “Go!” he shouted. “Go!” There was still something I could’ve done. Then Ryder started running, but it was a six-minute climb down to the water. The camera never stopped rolling. The footage was never made public. * My sister has set out coffee and Le Monde beneath the apple tree. The fruit is full of worms; a drought has killed her garden. This isn’t what I’d pictured, what I’d tried to make out of the girl once given to me. But I can see the castle, and the indifference of the stone—watching everything, anything—is like the love of God. In Le Monde, I find another clipping. I will paste it in the scrapbook. There are fewer all the time; soon they’ll vanish altogether. Translated into American English, it reads: A film by Edgar Van Buren, Black Water, premieres in Paris this week. Critics say the film subtly reworks the tragedy of child actor Doretta Howell, which derailed Van Buren’s last production and nearly cost him his freedom. Black Water has been nominated for Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards, and has grossed over $40 million in the United States.
I didn’t realize, when I drove a U-Haul packed with all of my belongings 1500 miles away from home to a new apartment and a new city on the East coast, that I was leaving the sky behind.
The sky dances, but only for me. Lying on brittle sun burnt grass, I can stare up into that untouchable ocean and see it move. On the North Texas plains, where I grew up, nothing interrupts the sky; if I stand on a road that’s long enough, both horizons are visible just by looking right and left. That sky is giant, looming, and unbroken. As a child, I thought I could see the air, could visualize the wind. Ribbons flipped over, and lines squiggled and bunched and drifted left and right in front of me. The air became permanent inside my eyes, my brain registering something real, something alive. I asked my sister, my parents, my friends to look at the sky with me, to see the strange movement that mesmerized me on days when the sun was high and the air thick with heat that radiated back up from the ground. But a glance is not enough to see the sky. It takes focus, and boredom, and the ability to let your eyes glaze over and see nothing but a shining, shaking, panel of blue. I didn’t realize, when I drove a U-Haul packed with all of my belongings 1500 miles away from home to a new apartment and a new city on the East coast, that I was leaving the sky behind. All skies, I thought, were the same, until I moved and realized that can’t possibly be true. * In early photographs taken with long exposure times on clear days, the sky washes out, becomes a lightbox, stark, backlit. Looked at for long enough, it disappears. The sky is more void than substance, more air than material. It has almost no mass. The sky is not the crisp azul of morning. It is not the amber of sunset. It is never truly the blush of dawn. We say the sky is clear when it is vacant of clouds, but the sky itself is actually clear. Air molecules have no color, possess no character or influence. The sky exists only because we do. The molecules of the sky, those tiny bumper cars of atoms, scatter the light of the sun, forcing it into smaller and smaller waves. Blue light has the shortest wavelength and so we see it the most clearly, our eyes performing a conversion of the world in front of us. We replace a mile of gas particles with a sea of cerulean. We build a perimeter for our world. We make the sky only for ourselves. In every season, I know what the Texas sky looks like. Show me a photograph from the plains where I grew up and I can tell you the month. My brain reads the muted gray blue as January. The fluffy cotton candy clouds floating in a sea of Byzantine blue are May. A powder blue backdrop is October. Boyhood could only have been shot in the summer, probably July. No Country For Old Men must be May. Same for Dazed and Confused. The sky is more legible than a timestamp, more consistent than the follow of a shadow. The sky, in theory, is universal. It connects us all, hangs over us all, is something we all share. Except that my sky is special: my sky, the sky I crave and miss and dream about in my boring dreams. The sky I grew up with is the same one that stretches from the Gulf of Mexico up into Canada. It is the sky of the Great Plains. These are flyover states to some, middle America to others, Big Sky Country to everyone who lives there, whether they know it or not. In his 1834 travel journal-turned-guidebook, German settler Detlef Jordt described it as, “The clear, Italic sky, of which we can form no idea in our part of the world…” For visitors, the Texas plains inspire awe. “I am loving the plains more than ever it seems—and the SKY—Anita, you’ve never seen SKY—it is wonderful,” the painter Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to her friend in 1916 during her four year stint in the Texas Panhandle. “It is absurd the way I love this country.” This obsession with the sky, the love of it, is embedded in the state’s pride. Like a long A in speech or cowboy boots, the sky deserves pride just for being there. The first two lines of the state’s favorite song, “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” are: “the stars at night are big and bright,” and “the prairie sky is wide and high.” Deeply ingrained in the state’s identity is access to this big, smooth, unchanging thing, this reminder that no matter how big our problems feel, or how bad the world gets, we are always small, always barely a blip under the dome of the heavens. “Like being close to the ocean,” Pulitzer prize winning author Lawrence Wright writes in his new book God Save Texas, “the sky [serves] as a natural point of focus for the contemplation of eternity.” You grow up a soothsayer under that sky. On a clear day, when no clouds dare to interrupt the sweep of that cornflower backdrop, it’s almost as if you can see the future. Look at the horizon and any affront, any storm or shade, can be recognized and prepared for. With these storms, the ones that come from the West, there is time: time to finish a game, or swim another lap in the pool, or go down the slide one last time before walking home. These are the storms with personality, that don't start with light rain, gentle sounds of approach, but with flashes of light, some snaking like varicose veins across the navy of approaching clouds, some bolting downward to earth. As a kid, we learned to count after the flash. One-Mississippi, Two-Mississippi, Three-Mississippi, Four-Mississippi, Five. If the boom came at five counts, the sound of the crash sometimes loud enough to make the earth feel like it shook, the storm was a mile away. Any closer, and it was already too late. The weather is volatile that way, surprising. Its worst moods can produce hail the size of softballs and tornados that mow down entire homes in neat, seemingly calculated lines. But that is a weather system. The sky only gives rainbows. It is stable. The sky does not change, does not move, does not ever disappear. Drive straight enough at 90 miles per hour through West Texas and it tracks you. Lie down on the ground in your front yard, and it might just dance. It makes sense there, that heaven is above us. Of course it must be. The ground dries out and kills things that grow. The sky never does. The sky is so blue and so rich and so unreachable that it must be a holy place, a home for no one but deities. “I still feel sky-deprived when in the forested places. Many, many people born to the skies of the plains feel that way,” Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove, once wrote. * The first step of cultural adjustment, according to social psychologists, is euphoria. My first summer in Washington, D.C., I chugged euphoria. I saw the fireworks over the Washington monument and read in the grass. I found a new grocery store, and a new favorite restaurant. And then, the temperatures dropped overnight and it snowed before Thanksgiving and the cute pea coat I had worn in Texas became about as useful as a down feather bikini. Even in this city of short buildings, the sky felt distant, a panel where a dome had been. Instead of feeling like a protector, it felt like a background. Even when clouds moved across it, it looked one-dimensional. It appeared briefly between buildings like a hole in the world, which was here on the ground, here in the deadlines and the errands and the freezing wind. Even when this city’s sky was blue, it felt restricted, limited. I stood on the two bridges near my house just to get a better glimpse, to try and see the curvature of the earth above me even though the world felt flatter than it ever had on the prairie. Winter came quickly and I floundered. A tidal wave of clinical depression tried to drown me, and I entered the second phase of adjustment: “culture shock.” The grocery store didn’t sell any real salsa, I realized. Days disappeared more quickly than I knew they could, the sun rising after I walked through the hazy morning light to the office and gone before I headed home. Maybe time moves slowly on the plains because you can see it, see the sun emerge from the other side of the world and drift lazily up and across and back down again: every moment of it visible from any part of the tortilla-flat land. Here on the coast, the gray winter clouds sat on top of the short buildings like a lead blanket. And the sky was gone. The muscles in my neck started to shorten when I moved. All day, I looked down: down at my phone; down at the sidewalk threatening to trip me; down at my hands while they flew over the keyboard anxiously; down at my dog while we walked. I could feel them shortening, before I knew that was what it was, could feel a tightness around my vocal cords that disappeared if I lifted my head a little to look straight, that pulled when I stretched my head upwards. I never realized what that blueness, a clear sky, seeing the sun does to my mood until I went home for Christmas that first winter. The sky greeted me, open and giant. “It is strange to see the plains again with nothing to break the view in any direction as far as we can see,” Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote to her husband in 1919. She had forgotten, during her years living in the Ozark Mountains, what it was like to disappear “under the sunset and starlight of the prairie.” Returning to that sky was like chopping off six inches of hair. I felt lighter, leaner, expectant. “Room to make a big mistake,” the Dixie Chicks called the land with that kind of sky, maybe because there’s less risk there, fewer people watching. Promise is all above you, in the sky, far away, glimmering, easy to understand. What is the opposite of claustrophobia? Of needing something so big and so much that it hurts to be returned to it? Is that just homesickness?
I thought I could escape my jail kid past in an idyllic southern city. But trouble found me, and not everyone I knew got out alive.
Never before had a late-afternoon knock on the front door meant trouble. Friends and transients alike walked freely through the Italianate homes of other students at the Savannah College of Art and Design. This was college in the south and lingering throughout Savannah were open doors, gentle hospitality, mint juleps, artillery punch, and the inclination that something extraordinary might happen, the desire that it would. Mike, Miles, John and Sean thought, at first, that the knock, on October 28, 2010, was a joke. Then the housemates saw that the two boys at their door demanding weed and cash were armed. They let the young men inside. On this Friday afternoon, the air liberated the city from a compressive heat. Empty beer cans rattled in the breeze. Lining the streets, live oaks ached. The elegance of the exterior of the house belied its insides as an active drug center: Seedlings and mature marijuana plants, sheets of LSD, containers of ingredients to make hallucinogenic and party drugs, a functioning drug lab and a device police later suspected was explosive. One of the armed men, not much older than Sean, led him to the back of the house. Sean was stripped of drugs, cash, and his cellphone. He did as he was told. He obliged in a way that seemed honorable, displaying compliance with the stoicism reserved for situations of unfathomable fear. Yes, he’d do it, but grudgingly. Yeah, take the stuff, but you’ll regret this. Everyone would. The armed men bolted. Outside, in a Honda CR-V around the corner, a driver sat waiting. The license plate county tag read FULTON. The home off Barnard was in Chatham. Fulton meant the gunmen were from Atlanta, roughly four hours north. Who were these boys? Why had they come all this way? How did they know about the home, about what it held inside? Sean—who could have been any number of people in the city, a young man with a medium athletic build and the casual nonchalance of an art school student—wanted to go after them. He wanted answers. Mike cautioned him. “They’re not going to shoot me in the middle of the street,” Sean said. He ran out of the house and trailed the robbers on foot. Mike, like any friend, followed. Miles went after them. John, on crutches with his leg in a cast, brought up the rear. Students didn’t attend classes on Fridays. Most slept in on the fifth day of a four-day study week. The holly streets were empty and absent of life. Sean and Mike caught up to the two men beside the Honda. The gun discharged four times. They were both struck. John was shot in the hip and arm. He fell alone while Sean and Mike fell together. Miles was unharmed. The dark grey Honda disappeared down West 35th. Later, Mike would remember holding Sean in his arms. He asked him if he knew who the men were. “And that’s when he started to fade.” * It was hard for me to imagine anything going wrong in a city like Savannah, a place of upholstered beauty and tender manners where people were kind even to their consonants. We were far from anyone and anything. Languid tidal creeks swept clear the troubled minds of travelers and residents and students alike. Everyone was aloof and dumbstruck with tranquility, a high you could never escape. Coastal winds, healthy gulps of air off the Lowcountry, filtered through walls of wheat grass and old brick and stucco and settled into delicate whistles of the many ceiling fans. Students observed strict geographic boundaries. Martin Luther King Blvd. to the west, East Broad Street to the east, Bay Street to the north, and the top of Forsyth Park, or Park Avenue, to the south. Per southern decorum, we never spoke of why. No matter, there was a general resistance against lessons learned. A thriving drinking culture, a disenchantment about secluded life, a restlessness of youth and a history of statutory disregard for authority was a bad mix for anyone coming to Savannah, looking for slow living from a past of anything but. And like anyone in college, we never imagined our privilege could end. Slowly, then suddenly, it did. In 2009, I moved to the south from New Jersey in an attempt to escape my spiral as a jail kid. It was the start of what you could call my life on the run. Instead of vandalizing cars, breaking into homes, fighting and boozing and selling drugs, I wanted to attend college, meet a sweet southern girl, graduate, get a respectable job, buy a house, start a family. The kid in shackles was someone I was certain I could replace. In New Jersey, the police referred to my friends and me as six-oh-ones: juvenile delinquents. We spent time in lockups across the country and in hardscrabble Trenton alternative schools and youth detention centers. After one release, I moved into a dingy, ramshackle two-bedroom apartment—littered with whiskey bottles, holes broken across the walls by angry fists and the ground littered with greenery in tight dime bags I helped sell on the third floor of a housing complex on the northern skirt of the city center. Other than a putrid, yellow- and red-stained mattress on the ground, from alternate nights of pissing myself blotto or fighting through bloodshed, my possessions, gathered over a full eighteen years, were crammed into the backseat of a Chevy Malibu. I lived with a trio of friends who made their money selling ounces. I sold small amounts when they were gone. It was easy. It was quick. It also made me feel essential to people who otherwise would have never needed me. I became part of something instead of languishing as part of nothing. Sitting there in the apartment, I’d play video games until the door bell rang and someone or a group of people would ask whether I was holding. I’d invite them inside and take their money and soon they would be gone. It was a harmless enterprise that supplied me with friendly interactions and free drugs. As a teenager, what could have been better? Eyes were on the apartment. I didn’t know that then, but I had an inkling. By the time agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration raided it—as most of us were certain they would, having noted the strange reappearance of men whose dress seemed clean and pressed and unfit for where they stood hunched in poorly lighted areas on the block, translucent wires hung from their ears—I had moved into my car and readied a structured flight path out of town. Between delivering pizzas and sandwiches, I scheduled and attended GED and SAT tests. I applied to an art school in Georgia, the Savannah College of Art and Design, also known as SCAD. By some divine miracle they accepted me. Bloodshot eyes and foggy mind be damned. From there the door to what I hoped was prosperity and calm had opened. I ditched the car and all my possessions and hopped a plane. On my way to Savannah I continued telling myself how lucky I was to have escaped from that apartment when I had. I believed I was far superior to those men I lived with and that I wasn’t destined for the fate many of them met: prison, poverty and ruin. It was a fake pronouncement on its face, because we can never be more than the people who surround us. Enamored as I arrived in Savannah, stepping out from the armory building on Bull Street used for student admissions, I called my mother. “Mom, you’ve got to see this place. It’s like a fairytale.” She was happy that I had made it there safe, made it there at all. Her son, the college boy. What a dream. It seemed that way, too. That idea of a new life was more attainable in a new place, a fallacy I now realize alcoholics tend to call the “Geographic Cure.” I believed I wasn’t an alcoholic, just a kid who removed himself from bad elements. I was a lost, tattooed, dark-haired city boy with baggy eyes, a hoodlum who did not sleep, drank too much, mismanaged his anger. But I thought I still had time to change. The devil found work for idle hands, my mother always said, so my first order of business after moving into the dorms was finding employment. I had no skills, but from my time delivering sandwiches and pizza I could navigate a city well. I remembered seeing a young man peddling down Bull Street. He wore a strange multicolor pinwheel hat and a periwinkle T-shirt. His khakis were shorn above the knees. His eyes, like mine, were dirty ice. He towed a pedicab. One day I followed him and found myself also donning a periwinkle T-shirt. Every day I staged out of a tin-sided warehouse with a blue corrugated roof on the far east side of the city. I paid a rental fee for the cab, took a laminated card, printed on which were landmarks frequented by tourists, and chimed the handlebar bell through the city streets. Peddling, clattering through downtown, I navigated a swampy heat, the air like an elixir. I biked to the spot where I stood on Bull Street, talking to my mother, and peered up at the large live oak outside the converted armory. I felt comfort, safety and assuredness in my decision to go south. I biked farther down Bull Street, away from the admissions building. Taking a sharp turn, the bicycle cart hopping up on two wheels. I dipped through one of the city’s squares, peddling faster. Twenty-two squares cordoned off Savannah, swabbing the streets with green oases. In each were fountains and monuments, erected to commemorate various wartime heroes or, in one case, the abolishment of slavery. Obelisks poked fun at the lively canopies overhead, sometimes tangled in moss. Birds flitted in rusted fountains in the shadows of steeples and rooftops, cornices and cupolas. The geometrical gardens were the brainchild of James Oglethorpe, who founded the city and settled on the layout before he’d arrived from England. It took its inspiration from a Roman military camp: five squares fell on Barnard Street, five on Bull Street, four on Abercorn Street, four on Habersham Street, three on Houston Street, and one on Montgomery. Two had fallen to a highway bypass. Along Jones Street I picked up a man and woman who had stepped from Mrs. Wilke’s Dining Room. They were tourists on some foodie kick and wanted me to peddle them to Clary’s, a diner at the far end of Jones Street. We pedicabbers called our service Tips for Trips. I knew of Clary’s, its walls lined with student artwork for sale. Small rickety tables held plates of homemade food and the sweetest desserts, like the Elvis: peanut butter and banana served between French toast, dusted with powered sugar. On our way, I tried giving my fare a righteous tour. But while I described gardens and squares, I imagined giving an alternative history. Since pulling into town I’d heard about how, as SCAD grew beyond the one armory-turned-admissions building on Bull Street, it pushed out many lifelong historic district residents as rents skyrocketed. New developments replaced decades-old housing. By the time I arrived in 2009, many poorer communities had been relegated to the fringes of the historic district. The housing projects were where the pedicab boundaries ended and another world began. * There are always dueling narratives. Like my own story, there is the one that people might tell you and the one I know myself to be true, the one with all the good intentions later misshapen by poor choices. For SCAD, the official version goes like this: In 1978, as the brainchild of Richard and Paula Rowan, SCAD brought life to what was no longer a glamorous port city but instead a place long since fallen into decay. Savannah had become a shell of a town, the entirety of the historic district composed of crumbling buildings, an incubator for transients. When the Rowans arrived from Atlanta, they took out a $200,000 loan and with it bought thirty-eight buildings: 19th century stuccos, an Art Deco diner, the redbrick armory on Bull Street. Once the couple renovated the armory and opened the school, seventy-one students flooded downtown in 1979: classes were in session. The Rowans bloated the local economy with tens of millions of dollars a year as the student population swelled to two thousand in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. “They laid a golden egg,” a former staff writer for the Georgia Guardian, the administration’s newspaper, told me. From the very start the Rowans—he wore suits, she wore blazers and skirts—foresaw the school as something of a direct competitor with Parsons and the Rhode Island School of Design, a RISD of the south. The difference was that SCAD focused on a more marketable cadre of curriculums. They stressed pragmatism over artistic value, dollar signs over snobbish reproach, mass production over bespoke craftsmanship. Graphic design and computer animation, not completely eliding the fine arts, stressed the importance of living wages. Artists, and so the Rowans’ students, needed to eat. During this time the Rowans public appearances became sparse. The couple conjured a sultry admonishment from locals, critics and students for their unavailability and lack of transparency. Many felt the couple’s enterprise was expanding too fast, taking in too much money: outsiders and locals felt the Rowans had become power-hungry and were seen as making more money than was at the time normal for owners of a private nonprofit art college, especially one with limited reputation, and far fewer accreditations than its rivals.. Then, in the autumn of 1991, things started falling apart: an architecture professor died by a very public suicide. His body was discovered by a student, Julie Lansaw, outside the school building from which he jumped. Students sought answers about the circumstances surrounding their professor’s death, but were told to keep calm and quiet. Violence erupted. Students and faculty questioned the school’s quickening expansion and the paranoid atmosphere on campus. Lansaw went with other students to confront the administration about its secrecy, beginning their inquiry at their contributions to “student activity fees” that seemed unused. Students began asking why professors at this “new Bauhaus” were only contracted for one-year positions, never tenured. Students decided to form a governing body for themselves, and a student newspaper, the Georgia Guardian. Students wore T-shirts that read “Rowan Potato Ship” and “Dictatorship” and marched at rallies. Accounts of secretive student governance meetings were videotaped, but also publicly supported by local booksellers and the Rabbi Arnold Mark Belzer, who oversaw the congregation at Mickve Israel synagogue. The Rowans pointed agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to student leaders like Lansaw. Two pipe bombs, which some speculated were linked to the uprising of students against the administration, exploded downtown. One sent shrapnel into the Wallaces’ home, another blew out six doors at the Civic Center. Anyone who talked to the press about the professor’s suicide saw SCAD security or administrators waiting at their doorstep. “They sued anyone,” a bookstore owner told me. More than six hundred students rallied again at the Civic Center after the bombing there. But eventually, the riots were settled and students resumed classes. A student body was formed, but it had no governing power. For students, it became a mouthpiece without an administrative ear to hear their wishes, but time lapsed and people graduated. Life seemed to move on. * When I arrived at SCAD in 2009, everything was sponged with magic. Part of the allure and beauty of the town and, by extension, the school, was inoculation. As students, we felt pacified and cloistered inside this holistic and artistic shelter. But I came to wonder whether it was possible, even advisable, to neglect your blighted past and the people you once knew in pursuit of a better future. Because they inform, histories also define. The school avoided any mention of the crime and violence attributed to the proximity of student housing to the city housing projects surrounding the Historic District. Students were often mugged, the victims of car thefts and home invasions. Before my time, stories shared like lore: a student refused to give a mugger her money and was shot and killed. Another graduate student was placing a call to his family in Taiwan when he was gunned down where he stood at the payphone. His murder was part of a suspected gang initiation. But the crime came and went with the news and soon afterward the young man was forgotten. In this way, the history of the city and the school was a patchwork of concealed tarnish. Clues unearthing the city’s use of beauty as its veil were scattered everywhere. The fertile, manicured lawns of Forsyth Park hid beneath them the catacombs of yellow fever and death. Hundred-year-old branches still groaned, having long since endured the city’s lynchings. A dog park was once the site of gentlemanly duels. For everything beautiful, a sin. To every home, a ghost. * The blacktops of Whitaker and Drayton streets sloped downward to meet with the redbrick and cobbled stone along Jones Street as I pedaled the tourists through the city. “You go to the art school?” the woman asked and, with her palm, fastened a floppy sun hat on her head. “Just started,” I said, sounding exactly like I’d come from New Jersey, having not mastered a southern cadence. “What are you studying?” the woman asked while I struggled. “Haven’t. Given. That. Any. Thought.” I heaved up an incline. For good measure toward a tip I added, “Ma’am.” “Well, what is it you like to do?” I was certain I would like for the ride to end. But since I failed to point out one of the oldest willows in Savannah, and failed to give a brief history of Clary’s, which was supposed to be the reason for tipping at all, I obliged. “I used to be into drugs. Well, I still am. Trying to clean up. Far as I know, though, you can’t turn that into a career.” “Musicians do drugs, honey,” the man whispered to his wife and adjusted the brim of his straw hat. “That’s right, you could be a musician.” “Can’t hold a tune; don’t got any beat.” “Well, you’re awfully handsome,” the woman said with glee. “Maybe there’s something you could do with that.” I unloaded the couple at Clary’s and thought about how escaping the past would be a neat trick. * Unknown to me then, my good intentions toward a new life fell away when I returned the pedicab for the year, started classes, and began spending more time with Kevin, my roommate, drinking and selling and smoking pot. Kevin—hooked nose, sun-scorched complexion, brown-eyed and angle-jawed and grungy—came to Savannah from Wilmington, North Carolina, to study film in his mid-20s. He was much older than the teenagers I expected to meet. But he was a second-year, a transfer. He’d spent the years prior working as an electrician for his father’s company, sometimes earning credits at a community college. He’d been arrested, once or twice, dealt with cops, every instance a simple mistake he annulled with a joke about police and pork. He was self-conscious about his age. “Just tell everyone I’m 25, or 23. Think they’d go for 23, an older guy?” Moving to Savannah for him seemed natural, far enough in mileage but with enough recognition to temper feelings of displacement. He arrived the same month I did. We started classes on the same day. We moved into the same dorm our very first morning in town. Our first conversation started over a twelve pack. We hadn’t stopped drinking since. Kevin’s curly brown surfer hair, the worn sandals, the floppy way he walked and used his hands and knees to depict the slightest curtails of a story about drinking with friends, his abundant merriment toward life and love, an acceptance of being and recklessness fostered in me the misguided first impression that he was an ideal role model, someone to tear me from my own troubled past. Kevin had already found an endless supply of friends. I wanted to be like him, grow into someone as revered by his peers, even though these people traipsed in and out of his life, always seemed to follow him but were never really there. I was always there. We unfroze the bags of stew provided by his mother and sat down to lengthy meals over which we discussed business strategies: how best to go about cooking a batch of edible pot brownies, how we might sell to kids on the park bisecting the city, whether or not we could trust our roommates to know we were keeping more and more product on campus. We dated girls who were friends, more or less intentionally, so if ever we needed to flip a bag or ounce, one of us could entertain the women while the other handled business. The cops were called to the dorm one night as Kevin put down his bong. A resident assistant had spotted the glass paraphernalia through an outside window. The police arrested Kevin, making no show of whisking him off in manacles in the back of a squad car, the lights passing over the van in which I sat selling off the last ounce of the stockade we kept in the dorm. Not long after, I arrived at the jailhouse with the bond. He was summarily banned from the dorms, never allowed into campus housing again We drove home, where he would collect his things and begin his search for new living arrangements, and shared a cigarette knowing that the only way the racket would be worth anything was to go bigger. At eighteen, my risk tolerance was at an all-time high. I knew we could keep getting popped for little weight, or move more weight and make the risk nearly negligible. Somewhere along this tangled route, Kevin met Sean and Mike. * We’d been dry for some while. What had begun with a single knock on the door, a single customer and friend every few days—people with whom Kevin and I were vaguely acquainted—had turned into a revolving door of characters we’d never met before and sometimes would never see again. When we were dry, as we had been now for three days, we started losing business. And losing the business meant risking our friendship. I wasn’t ready to lose either. This seemed the way of most friendships that I had in Savannah. I knew Kevin because he was my roommate and my business partner. He knew all of his friends through selling or buying drugs. It’s how Kevin came to know Mike and Sean. Our small network relied on drugs for more than beer money and a stash we could smoke on our own: it supplied us with felicity, a mutually shared relief against uncertainty. Kevin knew a guy who might be able to sell us the kind of weight we needed, George. I drove towards the bar to meet Kevin and George in my beater, an old white pickup truck with a manual transmission, broken mirrors and a bench seat with the foam exposed. It chugged and stalled only once, on the hill outside the dorms. I could have turned back then. Not old enough to enter the bar, I climbed a fence up onto the second-floor where people gathered on an outdoor patio. I grabbed an abandoned half-full glass of beer, drank some, and carried it downstairs. Kevin shadowed everyone at the bar, talking like a maniac, spilling beer. As I neared, I became self-conscious and felt eyes on me from every direction. I had to reassure myself that this was how everyone makes friends. Through Kevin I found belonging in places and situations where no one should belong. Kevin seemed comfortable in his skin, and introduced me to George as his business partner. George was almost twice my age, with dark hair and a head that was wide between the ears. They talked like old friends for some time as I nursed the stolen beer. I was held outside the conversation—this was something Kevin was more experienced with, the haggling and dealings. I was a wheel man, an action man, never sitting still and always glancing over my shoulder wondering, always wondering, always looking back. When they settled their tab, we decided to head back to the dorms. We left the bar and climbed into my truck, the three of us crammed across the bench seat with Kevin in the middle, operating the manual shifter between his thighs. I pointed the truck toward the dorms. Obscured by Kevin’s tall forehead and receding hairline, a pair of headlights turned onto the truck and began following. I nudged Kevin, signaling to drop the gear into second as I engaged the clutch. That’s when I noticed him press his hand against a backpack beneath the bench seat under George. I hadn’t seen them bring a bag into the truck. I turned onto Victory Drive. Kevin and George faced off for a few minutes, exchanging opposing arguments about different strains of pot like two surly barristers in a spectacle of marijuana madness. Kevin dropped the stick down into first gear and we cruised beneath a green light. I edged Kevin once more, into neutral, and dumped the clutch. We rolled to a stop under a red traffic light. The pair of headlights following us from the bar pulled behind close. I squinted in the mirror, leaning over Kevin. The red and blue lights atop the police cruiser filled the truck. The officer in the car behind us spoke into his intercom. “Pull over to the shoulder.” I grabbed the stick and dropped the truck into gear. We edged to the shoulder and I turned off the engine, placing my hands instinctively on the dashboard, as I had countless times before, fearful of what a nervous cop might do at night when approaching three animated men crammed inside a truck. “I’ve an ounce on me,” George said. I said, “Great, fucking great.” “Well, boys. Never a dull moment, that’s for sure,” Kevin said. “I’ve an ounce on me,” George said again. He shook, unsure what to do with his hands. Rookie. “Shut up,” I said, “Just shut the fuck up. He’s coming on my side.” “Coming from the bars?” The officer was direct, looking around the car and at Kevin, George, then back to me. “License?” “Yeah, sure.” I reached for my wallet slowly. “Have I done something wrong, sir?” I handed the officer my license. “Registration, insurance?” “Yes,” I said. “In the glove box, can you—” I motioned toward George, who fumbled through the paperwork and handed me the slips of paper. “I thought the speed limit was thirty five, sir. This thing can’t go faster than fifty.” George and Kevin started talking, shifting with unease. I said, “Would you two shut the fuck up, please. Just stop talking, please. For fuck sake.” “I pulled you over for an obscured license plate.” “I just bought this thing. Maybe I can get out and clean—would you two shut up please, fuck—I’m sorry, I just went to get them at The Rail. They called me for a ride, now I’m stuck with this,” I motioned to the two now rigid men beside me. “We’re just heading to the dorms. We’re all students.” “SCAD?” “That’s right, yes, sir.” “Which dorm?” “Boundary Village,” I said, knowing this was a test; students were always granted mercy. I turned and glared at Kevin and George, who were muttering to one another. I hung my head over the steering wheel, frustrated. “It’s midterms and I stepped away from midterms for this shit and they—would you two shut the fuck up, Christ.” The officer said, “Alright. Just get them home.” He handed me the paperwork. “That’s my only intention. And as soon as possible.” “Have a good night.” The officer walked back to his car. “Holy shit dude,” Kevin said. He took a sip from the plastic to-go cup he’d filled with beer before leaving the bar, held between his thighs. “Ken motherfucking Rosen.” George said, “Jesus Christ, dude—” “Shut the fuck up, both of you. Just shut the fuck up.” I dropped the truck into gear and eased back into traffic. Kevin would later be arrested for possession of marijuana, and let off with nothing more than a citation, which we believed was the result of his being a student: we were coddled and secure. But one year later, our tangential friends and distant partners in crime Sean and Mike were an example of what could betide us. From what I gathered, Sean and Mike had a similar business model to ours, discreet but slipping up on occasion at parties when feeling generous, blathering more than is safe in a business whose success hinges itself on tenebrous relationships and discretion. At these parties, they had often crossed paths with Kevin. Only days after we had met, Kevin suggested we pool our resources with them to widen our base. I trusted Kevin, but I didn’t know Sean and Mike. It sounded best to me if we went it alone. When I read in the local paper about the way Mike pursued Sean despite the potentially grave consequence—how the bullets struck him and killed his friend, how John hobbled around the crime scene with his leg in a cast—I was stricken by doubt. My secure world shifted off-balance. And yet my classmates traipsed about town as though nothing and no one had been lost. It made me feel a grotesque yearning for the shepherded freedom by which I would attend class and do my school work and prepare for the next day’s assignments without fear or worry. I remember thinking it could have been Kevin outside the Italianate home with the beer cans strewn about the porch, dying in my arms, not knowing who the home invaders were, why they shot him, and whether his family might make it to his side before he left them forever. Or it could have been me. Would we have had the same commitment to each other? It seemed so simple, being somewhere good before it turned bad. It seemed equally impossible to know when to end a friendship, when to relinquish someone still breathing. It is a thought that first seems facetious and bloated—the way someone mourns a person they have not lost, an overstepping of empathy. But it was in this period, trying to feel some sort of sorrow towards these tertiary friends, that I learned that Kevin wished to die. Just two months after we’d met, Kevin and I were drifting apart. He was nearing his own fulcrum of insanity after his arrests. He found success outside the dorms by living with some friends, but was met by failure in his short film ventures. I was expelled from the dorms for dousing my roommate with cold water while he showered, filling his shampoo bottle with maple syrup. I took a bottle or two of whiskey each day and retreated into my work, a darkened apartment, and a cat who I swore would be my one and only companion. I began to realize that I had spent two too many months beside a man who cared very little about anyone beyond himself. Kevin went on selling, despite Sean’s death, and I retreated into my hole. I wasn’t there when Kevin drank all day and swallowed a bottle of Adderall and laughed as night swept over him. Later, he said he laughed because, somehow, he knew it would not work, especially after a first botched attempt, many years before. Call it a gut instinct, a higher power. Nothing could go his way, even suicide. It was such a shame it didn’t take, he said. He could not die and because of that he could not save himself. Curious similarities between the two attempts he would never see: each time someone else was there to save him. This time it was our friend Rob, who dialed 911. When the police and paramedics arrived, Kevin told the police he had not taken drugs, had just been drinking heavily all day, wanted to assess the limits of his friendship with Rob. After a psychological evaluation and returning to his sinking apartment—walls draped in terrycloth, ornate tapestries, scrawled with poetry—Kevin did the next best thing short of suicide. He went on living as though he were already dead. Fearing I’d lose him if I didn’t, I joined in. I caught a glimpse of myself in Kevin’s struggle. I believed that saving him would have been my own saving. I lacked the mettle, however, to save us both. And yet, improbable though it seemed, we lived when others died. Not learning from the hard road taken by Sean and Mike, we risked more by drinking more, by exposing ourselves to opportunities through which wary onlookers might see what we dealt. On drunken nights when Kevin or myself were not threatening to paint the walls with our brains or hang limp from the ceiling fan, we might find ourselves tearing through the park in an SUV loaded with pot and women and good old boys howling out the window, trying to keep the beer inside their plastic to-go cups. On those drunken tears we walked a fine edge together and in those years we were lucky. * In the wake of Sean’s death, administrators issued a statement about the availability of grief counselors. Nothing more. Everything outside of our own lives as students seemed outrageous, unimaginable. People focused on their own degrees, their own friends, and kept their heads down. Alex Cowart had fired the gun that killed Sean. Daniel Izzo drove the getaway car. A third man, John Andrew Adams, was in the car. I liked to imagine—wondering, always wondering—the boys felt devoted in their friendship. The trial dragged on for two weeks before a verdict was issued, then hauled through the sentencing phases and into the inevitable appeals that offered little reprieve. Cowart and Adams were sentenced on felony murder charges during the commission of a crime. Cowart received two life sentences running concurrently, plus 25 years; Adams received life plus five years. Izzo pleaded to a lesser murder charge and turned state’s witness. Mike and Miles and John, Sean’s surviving friends, were placed on probation and for all outward appearances, their lives went on. During his testimony, John, the housemate whose leg was in a cast, said, “I was very upset because I felt I didn’t do Sean as much good as I wanted to.” That is how I feel when I now think of Kevin and how life for him has found little variance beyond well-worn homes, stale drugs and cheep beer—long after we had all left Savannah. After Kevin and I went our separate ways, I got a glitzy job in another city. I quit drinking, never dealt again. Kevin traveled west to trim marijuana plants. But we met once more, even as I was cultivating new and more fulfilling, healthy relationships. Fearing that I had neglected my duties as his friend, I decided, against better judgment, to visit Kevin a few years after he graduated. I found myself on a plane heading west. In a white-walled den that I had rented for us in Los Angeles for a weekend, I fell asleep after my red-eye flight sometime before dinner. I dreamed. There I am, or the person I think I am, the one I tell myself I am, standing somewhere with Kevin, surrounded by a mad gaggle of people, everyone shouting with large mouths and pointing their fingers the way teachers threaten children with yardsticks. My mother, father, sister, boss and every editor I've ever had is looking on. There's someone with a gun or knife or cloth slowly moving toward me and I'm powerless to stop them. “Awww, look at the little boy, so tired.” I heard Kevin outside my dream and when I opened my eyes he was pointing and laughing. He looked like he always had, with the torn backpack filled with books and the long gaunt face of a man who never wanted to put down the bottle. When I saw him, I jumped and hugged and tackled him onto the bed, just like I knew I would because I'd always done this with him and he knew it, he was expecting it, too. I was predictable around him. We'd known each other too long and had become like brothers. He passed me a beer from the six-pack suffocating in a black plastic bag by his thigh. I took the frosty thing on the hot day because what choice did I have? I sat on the couch looking intermittently out at the speckled horizon, scared as ever—scared as I've always been, because then I remembered what it was that frightened me most, and that was what we’d do together that night. I asked him then about what went wrong in Savannah, or if we did OK, considering that we were alive and well and out of harm’s way. He believed we never would have taken anything as far as the other boys had. I asked him, What about that suicide attempt. He asked which time. I told him the first time, the very first time. He laughed, that same humbled and soothing laugh, and told me, “That time? That time doesn’t count.” A knock came at the door and I opened. Kevin had called her and she strode into the room wearing neon pants. It was nighttime now. She did not remove her clothes though I suppose that would have been the plan. Kevin walked over to the tall dresser, its doors of wood and clasps of aluminum shimming. We’d stowed some cash inside earlier, and Kevin counted it for the woman to see. She seemed pleased but said she needed something from downstairs and took the money with her. Kevin couldn’t get there in time to stop her. She walked down the hallway and he followed. Outside, a scuffle, a clamor, a struggle by a sedan. The woman had slipped into a car, and a man in the front seat was reaching for a gun when Kevin made the downstairs landing. He saw the handgun, stopped, and came upstairs panting. “They took the money.” “I know.” “They took all the fucking money, man.” Kevin sat down. “They could have shot you.” “Yeah, man,” Kevin said, “But they didn’t.” With a bottle of whiskey between us, we sloshed toward morning.
The author of Lake Success on Republicanism, capitalism in the age of Trump and the strange ways we differentiate serious fiction and humour.
Gary Shteyngart’s fourth novel, Lake Success, is a meditation on what it means to be middle-aged, and how the intrinsic values of love, responsibility, parenthood, and family shift accordingly. Shteyngart’s past work has great interest in what it means to be an immigrant and first generation American in a capitalist society, but Lake Success concerns itself with more insular themes. Rather than have Barry, a hedge-fund manager, engage with an outwardly capitalist society, the pretensions and casual racism that the wealthy carry are embodied within him, and he does his best to navigate growing away from those biases. His wife, Seema, a brilliant first-generation Indian-American, tries to navigate her identity and its meaning after Barry abruptly takes off, leaving her to reflect on her life while trying to care for their autistic son. Eric Farwell: I wanted to start by asking you whether or not you find that as your body of work grows larger, you're imbuing your protagonists with less of your own sensibilities? Gary Shteyngart: Yeah...I mean, there’s only so many times I can write the Russian-American novel, and even though Little Failure was written as a way to get rid of the all the material I had stored up, and, you know, try something new and a bit scarier in a way. Relying on the Russian-American background was always an easy way for me to differentiate my work, but I wanted to write an American novel without the Russian part. Did you have anything in particular that you were looking to do with this new novel that was different in terms of approach? Well, in some ways the novel is a lot less satirical than the other three novels, especially a novel like Absurdistan. It’s also the closest I’ve come to a social-realist novel. I hope it’s still funny, obviously, but the idea was to definitely capture what it’s like to live in very uncertain times, and there’s two ways to tackle that. You can try to find the humor in it, in the way of, you know, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, and I do use humor in this novel, but in some ways it’s also the portrait of a family. What I think has changed to a certain extent there is the fact that I now have a family, which makes a pretty massive difference in terms of the way I write. For me, so many of my books are written from a child’s perspective, and this is the first time I’m also writing from a parent’s perspective. These parents have a kid with a disability, and how they deal with that is, I think...I want to be kinder to all my characters as they navigate the challenges of their lives. Some people will say, “How can you be kind to a hedge-fund guy,” and that was sort of a challenge I set for myself. By the end of the book, can I make people, not agree with Barry, but in some way see the glimmer of humanity that’s lost in these stacks of money, and the ill-gotten ways in which this money was earned? That’s one of the interesting things about your work, especially the last two works. Your most recent two novels both deal with finance and the sort of value judgments we make about others in different income brackets. What attracts you to writing about the competitively wealthy in America? I did a piece for The New Yorker where I profiled a hedge-fund guy, and the appeal to me is that I kind of come from this background of the ultra-competitive because I went to this math and science school called Stuyvesant in New York, which is now very much in the news. There’s a kind of cultural war being waged because the school is predominantly Asian and white, and doesn’t really reflect demographics in the city. Immersing myself in the hedge-fund world, which I did for many years, meant going back to that Stuyvesant mentality. Stuyvesant was a place where so many of us were cheating on their exams, trying to get ahead in any way possible. The kind of distance Stuyvesant kids often feel from the rest of New York’s school population is similar to the kind of feeling I noticed bankers and hedge-fund guys exuding, this kind of, “Well, I worked so hard so I deserve all this,” without taking note of what they were doing to the world at large. If you earn that much money, I do think you’re contributing to the kind of inequality we see around the world that has lead to the most awful political outcome in the history of our nation. I think that connects with your writing about being a sort of reformed Republican. As someone who used to be a serious Republican and has crafted a book about one, do you feel that capturing that thinking is going to become more difficult with the rise of things like the Alt-Right and these fringe pockets of the party seemingly dominating the identity of the party in the modern age? When we were Republicans growing up, what motivated the Republicanism in Queens, apart from being immigrants ourselves, was a kind of innate racism. Republicanism and racism were really indistinguishable to me. We were cheering on South Africa’s white regime at that point. To me, white supremacy and Republicanism went together. When I was a kid, Republicanism was almost a kind of religion. It was this idea that, well, you’re not successful yourself, you’re an immigrant, you don’t speak the language, but there are a lot of people you can look down at just because of the color of their skin. I think that’s one reason why this kind of last-ditch effort against multiculturalism on the part of a very small community seems to be so effective these days. So, growing up Republican was a huge asset to me in understanding what’s happening today. I mean, even in writing a book like Super Sad True Love Story, my main character, Lenny Abramov, isn’t Republican anymore, but his parents still are. Understanding that is a kind of weird blessing for me. As a writer, it’s important to see as many views as you can, even if you find some of them to be personally repugnant. In your memoir Little Failure, you characterize your father as a very complex, looming presence in your own life. How do you think your work has changed since you made peace with that? Yeah, the memoir was partly written because I was going to have a kid, and I wanted to settle some accounts before he was born. I wanted to sort through my life to make sure that the good stuff stays, and the bad stuff could be mitigated. We all end up being our parents to some extent. I don’t believe that literature should be therapeutic in nature. I think you write for the art, not the therapy, but in this case I think the memoir happened because I was going to have a kid. I was writing the book at thirty-nine, which is early to be writing a memoir. Usually writing a memoir is kind of like settling a sort of last bar tab, if you will—for me, the great sense of anxiety I always felt was toward my parents, and whether or not I would please them. I remember going to Stuyvesant as a place with a lot of kids who were terrified of failing their parents. While that’s something all of my characters sort of bring to the table, when you have a kid, there’s this secondary anxiety, which is that now you’re anxious for the kid. The cycle continues. You’re trying not to make the same mistakes as your parents, and looking at your kid, wondering whether or not he has the same fundamental flaws. It expands your vocabulary, your understanding about the human condition, which is always good for a writer. It seems also like you're now interested not so much in capturing the power immigrant parents have over their children, but in what exactly it means to be an immigrant artist, or a person of certain cultural heritage, in an authentic way. What made you want to make the shift toward raising questions of authenticity, rather than questions of lineage? My parents grew up in a superpower, and the one thing they did that was certainly correct was to leave and take me with them. Now, there’s a weird sense of almost having history repeating itself, where my son is growing up in a dysfunctional superpower. If this keeps going the way it’s going, when is a good time to leave? Is that something you think about? Not yet, but let’s see how this plays out. When I was writing Super Sad during Obama, the country seemed to be going in a basically decent direction. But I always had this feeling that underneath the goodwill of those times, there were some incredible reservoirs of anger still sloshing around our country. Maybe that’s because I grew up as a Republican. I knew the kind of darkness that fueled our hatred. I knew what we were capable of when we found the right demagogue. Does that anger connect with how you portrayed Luis in the new work? The question of how authentically Guatemalan Luis is comes up over and over, seemingly only because he's a successful novelist. Do you think that immigrants often have their authenticity or immigrant-ness questioned when they achieve things in America? I think you sometimes get it from both sides, with native-born Americans asking if you’re familiar enough to write about this country, and immigrants asking whether or not you’re immigrant enough to be speaking to the culture of your parents, and what it’s like to be displaced from that. I think, for me, I don’t believe in these questions of authenticity. I think if you’re a 1.5 generation immigrant, then you write about that life. If you’re third-generation, then you speak to that experience. In my earlier books, I would return to Russia, to understand the country, but more so my parents, and that was the thrust of going to Russia as many times as I did. What’s interesting is that I always thought that after 1991, Russia would become more like America, and in some ways the opposite has happened. I did an article for The New York Times where I watched Russian television for a week, and the racism, sexism, and homophobia that permeates the airwaves there is now something that permeates the airwaves here. So, there’s a real connection there. I think the writer Luis in Lake Success is the other side of the equation. As cold and calculating as some of the hedge-fund people are, he also has his own way of making his way in the world. His whole schtick is representing himself as something that he’s really not. But what would you say that is? Is it authenticity, or is it that he’s pretending to be a serious novelist when he’s really not? Well, we never read Luis’s novel The Pathetic Butcher, but I think the title alone gives you the idea that he’s writing with a calculated way to prey on the affections and heartstrings of someone like Seema, Barry’s wife, who is herself an immigrant that’s trying to figure out her relationship with her parents. I guess, in some ways, I believe that there’s this kind of immigrant literature of, “We came, we saw, we conquered,” and that just strikes me as a little bit off, and is why I prefer a satirical approach. To me, being an immigrant is sad and funny in some ways, but it also has this element of being a satire of cultures, that you came from the culture you’re in, and so you see America in a way that more native Americans don’t, the unending silliness of this particular society. This strangeness is kind of refracted in a unique way in Lake Success, because it’s built on the belief that being a good parent can make one a good person, or wash away their sins. It also portends that children either destroy or keep marriages afloat, not necessarily love. I was hoping you could discuss this a little bit. I don’t know that having a kid can redeem you, but it can either bring out your best or worst impulses. Throughout the book for Barry it’s the worst, but something changes in him toward the end of the novel. Look, we live in tough times. If you talk to people, they talk about trying to communicate to their kids that the president is a bully and a racist. This reminds me of growing up in Russia, where my parents also had this very difficult duty. We lived in an authoritarian society where you could only say so much. They wanted me to know that things weren’t so good, and it was very hard to do so. It was only when we left Russia that they were fully able to unburden themselves about how they felt about the regime. Of course, we are still a society where you can say whatever you want, but at what point will there be issues with that? At what point does a parent telling her child the truth become an “enemy of the people” like the non-Fox media already is in Trump’s view? I think being a parent in an authoritarian system—and that’s half the parents in the world—is a balancing act of its own. Getting back to this point about how one is raised, and what one sees in their own culture, you mentioned earlier that you always saw Republicanism as this sort of party of racism. On occasion, you've received criticism for crafting male characters that are culturally unaware, to the point where it can begin to border on racist. I'm curious how you feel about this, since so much of what you write about in your memoir illuminates some of the casual racism of immigrant parents, and you could argue that these moments in your fiction are capturing the authentic experience of first-generation Americans. That’s how I think of it. I know it’ll put some people off, and I know some readers will say, “Well, this is almost a trigger for me. I can’t handle somebody like this.” A lot of what I write has a very journalistic flavor. Absurdistan was written after spending time in countries that resembled Absurdistan. A lot of it was what actually happened in those countries. Lake Success was written after a bus trip across the country, where many of the things that happened to Barry happened to me. I think for me...the dream of every writer is that you’re read six hundred years from now. I’m not saying that’ll happen for me, but that’s the hope. So, the idea for me is always, you know, fifty years from now, six-hundred years from now, if somebody picks up the book, they should be able to understand why people like Barry existed, and how they fit into their societies. That really is the goal. I think sometimes people don’t quite understand just how racist, or, not even racist, but just casually unaware and hateful so much of our population really is. To soften the edges, I think, would be a disservice to the truth. These are the people who are in charge of our country, those people who go, “I’m socially liberal but fiscally conservative.” It has such an impact on the way Barry interacts with people, and those who are different from him. Often, he’s somewhat racist, but more than anything he’s patronizing, and I think that has to be part of the equation. Otherwise, you’re skimping on the truth. You’re doing a Luis and giving the reader what they want, something nice and pretty. That’s not the literature I loved growing up, and it’s not what I want to write. That whole idea of being fiscally conservative and socially liberal was parodied recently on Reductress, which is this humor site that runs feminist parodies of the sort of sexist self-improvement articles that women’s magazines often run. I think the crux is that a woman is on a date with a guy, and he’s proud to identify as that, like it makes him heroic. They are very proud of themselves. I’ll tell you, in hanging out in the hedge-fund world, there was a lot of alt-right sentiment even before Trump was elected. So, all those people who are socially liberal but fiscally conservative wore that as a badge of honor. It’s their version of being woke. It’s like, “Wow, I like black people, I deserve a medal! I don’t know any, but in theory, I think they’re great!” People get angry at comedians for making fun of Trump supporters. I think humor is very important here, and I think we have to keep doing it. I think it trickles down. There’s an understanding that people get, and humor’s a very important weapon. We can’t not write about the Barrys of the world. I mean, compared to Stephen Miller, Barry’s a marshmallow! Even so, he’s a part of the problem, and he has to be written as such. Speaking of the value of humor, I wanted to shift and a bit and talk about the categorization of your work. Your work, along with Lorrie Moore's, Ottessa Moshfegh's, Paul Beatty's, Sam Lipsyte's, and Donald Antrim's, gets a lot of attention for being literary and funny, yet, unlike a humorist's work, it's never considered seriously as a work of comedy. I wanted to know if those boundaries we put up between genres ever bother you, even if your work is more serious than not? It’s a real pain in the ass. You don’t really get this in the UK, this separation between “funny” and “literary,” but frankly I’d rather be the former than the latter. This gets at another issue for me, which is that literary fiction, the way Luis practices it anyway, is supposed to be serious with a capital “S.” It’s supposed to diverge from storytelling, and create some kind of hybrid thing, which is fine, but for me, I tell stories, and the humor is there. I want to sit down and tell you something that I won’t guarantee will change your life, but hopefully for three hundred pages you’ll feel okay and be somewhat entertained, which is still important to me. You know, we kind of ceded the ability to tell a funny story that can be taken seriously to television. Literature has always pushed out the comic novel, or created a very small space for it. In some ways, I think it’s coming back. You mentioned all of these wonderful writers, who I think are now being taken more seriously. I don’t really care what the literary community thinks of me, it’s connecting with readers that’s very important to me. I’ve been very blessed to have great readers who get the work, who come out when I do my tours, who give me their asthma inhalers to sign. I also think that with each book, there’s a slight sort of...you know, people are used to certain kind of work from me, and there’s this feeling of, “Oh my God, he’s done something a bit different.” Absurdistan was straight up satire. Super Sad had more of a tender side. Then I did a memoir, which from some of my readers was like, “What the hell is this?” Now I have a novel that I’m hoping is still pretty funny, but has more of a realistic edge, a less satirical edge. I can’t keep writing the same book. I have to change. Evelyn Waugh was a straight up satirist for most of his life, and then came out with Brideshead Revisited, which I still think is his best work. I may disagree with him in many ways, but I think there’s something to be said for constantly evolving your writing and looking for something new. Speaking of that, I know that Super Sad True Love Story was optioned by Showtime a few years back. Yeah...there’s stuff happening with it, but not that particular deal. I mean, the thing with Super Sad is that in order to adapt it, it would require major recalibration after Trump, since so much of what happened in that book has happened in real life. Frankly, worse things have happened. The book has moments of outright authoritarianism in it, but I’m not sure I would have put children being torn out of the arms of their parents at the US-Mexico border into it. I would’ve said, “That’s maybe taking it a bit too far.” There are concentration camps sort of upstate, but at least you get to keep your kids in that version. Whereas in reality, we’re a little more heartless than the kind dictators in Super Sad. Well, to go back to my categorization question, if the show comes out, I imagine it would be billed as a comedy. Probably, but I’m fine with that. Look, I watch a lot of television, and what I love about it is the way comedy is infused in so much of these great works. Breaking Bad was darkly funny. Better Call Saul is hilarious, but also quite serious. SMILF has a dark humor to it. It just goes on and on. These shows have a wonderful and natural relationship with humor, so I’d have no problem with that. I wanted to end by asking about the evolution of relationships in your work. In Little Failure and Super Sad True Love Story, you characterize love as positive affirmations being bestowed upon the lowly male by an impossibly attractive woman. In other words, there's maybe a superficiality or neediness that births it, which makes what you deal with in earlier works more infatuation than love. In Lake Success, the protagonists, Barry and Seema, are trying to find their way to love, not with each other, but with people they believe are less superficial, or at least more capable of being less superficial. Can you articulate the shifts that occurred in your own understanding of love that led to this richer examination of coupling? I think that when you’re married, you can either continue to make the superficial mistakes you made before, or you try to fix it. I think Barry and Seema are both trying to fix things. They’re desperate to fix things. Without giving too much away for the reader, they both come to different conclusions about how to do that by the end of the book. If middle-age is the constant repetition of the mistakes of youth, then you have to stop living like you’re still twenty-seven. This is my first middle-aged novel. Remember, in Super Sad, Lenny was in love with a younger woman, but also looking for immortality. In a sense, he’s trying to repeat and enjoy his mistakes over and over. Barry, in spite of himself, knows that life is going to end. He has a kid who he doesn’t know how to take care of. He has a wife that he believes doesn’t love him. He hates himself as well. He has a father who never quite understood how to take care of him, and a mother who died when he was very young. So he’s trying to have a mature relationship, he’s trying to go beyond mere infatuation. That’s the dream for Barry, and the reader can determine whether or not he succeeds.
Matsuda Eiko’s career illustrates the erasure that occurs when women’s creative work is falsely reduced to autobiography.
A recording for Belgian television in 1976 is perhaps the only extant on-camera interview with Matsuda Eiko. The actress appears flanked by costar Fuji Tatsuya and Ōshima Nagisa, the director of the movie the two actors are promoting. Conscious of the firestorm already brewing around their film (which was swiftly banned in Belgium, neither the first nor the last time it would face censorial scrutiny), Ōshima fields most of the questions with an impresario’s disarming eloquence and easy charm. Fuji, for his part, is quiet throughout, and when the interviewers at last—briefly—turn to Matsuda, her answers lack the camera-ready polish one might expect of a trained performer. Halting but unmistakably genuine in her speech, she seems to be drawing the words up from the well of her soul. “I cannot describe how tough it was,” she says, asked about her experience mentally preparing herself for the role. But: “I felt it was my destiny to be in this film.” The film in question was In the Realm of the Senses, which would variously be described as intolerable, genius, criminally obscene, and one of the most iconic works in Japanese cinematic history. Despite the extreme legal and critical backlash that greeted its release, In the Realm of the Senses would ultimately be a career-making move for two of the three people sitting on the interview panel that day. At the time of his death in 2013, newspaper obituaries would almost unanimously cite it as Ōshima’s most important work, while Fuji, the lead actor, would go on to secure numerous major movie roles on the strength of his performance in the film, leaving behind his roots as a mid-tier TV actor. But if the years that followed the premier of In the Realm of the Senses marked a period of ascendancy for her male colleagues, the same timespan would see Matsuda leaving Japan, leaving the cinema, and disappearing from public view. Not every destiny is a happy one. * In the Realm of the Senses was controversial by design. Based on the true story of the murderess-turned-national-icon Abe Sada, a former sex worker whose brief but intense romance with Ishida Kichizō ended with his death and castration at her hands, the film was conceived in part to take advantage of recently loosened obscenity laws in France, news of which prompted French producer Anatole Dauman to joke (or half-joke) that he and Ōshima should “make a porn flick.” For his cinematic translation of Abe’s story, perhaps the greatest articulation of obsession in the scope of cinema, Ōshima decided that the only way to capture the magnitude of the central couple’s single-minded passion while avoiding tawdry sappiness was to depict it using unsimulated sexual intercourse. Shipping the footage to Paris for development prevented the project from folding under obscenity charges before it even reached theaters; to this day, however, the only uncensored screening of In the Realm of the Senses in Japan ever documented took place when the edited film was shown for a room of presumably shocked customs agents on its way back into the country. Yet while its origin story might make it tempting to write the film off as little more than scandal bait, In the Realm of the Senses is of a piece with Ōshima’s broader œuvre, which provokes in ways that are deeply philosophically engaged. Death by Hanging (1968) is a sharp and formally daring indictment of state violence and anti-Korean racial prejudice; Night and Fog in Japan (1960) chronicles the fractures and failings of the Japanese Left with which Ōshima nevertheless aligned himself. With In the Realm of the Senses, then, the director sought to challenge Japan’s conservative political mores by pushing its aesthetic ones. And the film, which contains extended, unflinchingly shot sequences of graphic nudity and sexual content in virtually every scene, pushes about as far as it is possible to go. All of this, of course, would not have been possible without actors willing to put their bodies and their reputations on the line in the service of such a statement. Fuji, who up until his casting had mostly worked in television and exploitation films, was by all accounts far from the director’s first choice for the role of Ishida, but the difficulty of casting actors willing to be filmed having sex narrowed Ōshima’s available choices considerably. Matsuda, on the other hand, had different training: she had gotten her start with Terayama Shūji’s theater troupe Tenjō Sajiki, which had positioned itself as the vanguard of the Japanese underground by mashing together such diverse influences as traditional folklore, jazz, and the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges. Tenjō Sajiki also frequently courted scandal due to the frank eroticism of its productions. Though at the beginning of her career—Matsuda was in her mid-twenties when work on In the Realm of the Senses began, a decade younger than her costar—her prior experience had given her an understanding of avant-garde, politically daring artmaking that set her apart. In interviews for the Criterion Collection, cast and crew members pointed to one thing in particular that crystallized Matsuda’s perspective for them: a tiny scorpion tattoo curled in the teardrop space of her earlobe (an early scene from In the Realm of the Senses calls attention to it). In a country where tattoos are so strongly associated with criminality that to this day it’s not uncommon for hot springs and beaches to require visitors who have them to cover up, Matsuda’s diminutive scorpion was a bold statement, a testament to her willingness to embody rebellion against the status quo. The filming process was a difficult one: due to the legal risk of obscenity charges, the project had to be kept under tight wraps to prevent the authorities from catching wind of it. Though stress was no doubt high, those involved in the project recall Ōshima’s politeness and calm demeanor, the opposite of the familiar archetype of the overbearing director. Still, despite Ōshima’s sensitivity to the emotional challenge presented by the principal roles—making sure, for instance, that when sex scenes were filmed the set was vacated to grant as much privacy as possible—the extreme physical demands could not be sidestepped. In one the most bizarre sequences in the movie, Ishida inserts a boiled egg into his lover’s vagina. During the first attempt to shoot the scene, an undercooked egg broke after insertion. “Actresses who can take on a project like In the Realm of the Senses just don’t exist in Japan—actresses with that resolve and with that faith in film, that faith in cinema and respect for cinema as an art form,” Fuji later recalled. “Without those things and without courage, you can’t take it on.” * The difficulties that confronted In the Realm of the Senses and the artists involved in making it did not stop when the shooting process was over. In country after country, censorship orders were handed down: customs officials barred it from appearing in the New York Film Festival; Japan, unable to prosecute Ōshima for the film itself due to the fact that it was technically a French production, instead brought charges against him after a book containing stills and script excerpts was published, alleging that they “needlessly arouse[d] sexual desires and violate[d] good sexual morality.” Though Ōshima was eventually acquitted, the trial dragged on for years. Critics were often similarly eager to condemn: a review in The New York Times was given the tart title “‘In the Realm of the Senses is rated ‘W,’ for ‘Why?’” and said of the final castration scene: “The movie was dying anyway; now, after pretty well stupefying, it wounds.” While In the Realm of the Senses had its fair share of early advocates, many simply dismissed the film as prettily shot pornography. Yet key to understanding the cinematic importance of In the Realm of the Senses, and the ways in which it resists this one-dimensional appraisal, is a recognition of the film’s political elements. Compared to many of Ōshima’s other major works, the elements of political critique in In the Realm of the Senses are subtextual, perhaps disappointingly so—but they are present nevertheless. Easily missed is the fact that Ōshima deliberately aligns Abe and Ishida’s affair with the February 26th Incident, which resulted in the Japanese military’s consolidation of power over civilian government. In one scene, Ishida, en route to a romantic assignation with Abe, nonchalantly passes a seemingly endless line of soldiers; when Ōshima told Fuji during filming that he was considering cutting the scene, the actor replied that in that case he would walk. The scene stayed, and was cited by many involved with In the Realm of the Senses as one of the parts of the film they found most meaningful. Set against the fever-pitch nationalism of the 1930s—during which sacrifice to the point of suicide was valorized by a totalitarian government that also preached massive territorial expansion and racial supremacism—Abe and Ishida’s absolute (and ultimately fatal) focus on the pleasures of the flesh constitutes a repudiation of the state’s collectivist ideology. In other words, to write off the film as devoid of anything but sexual content is to miss the artistic statement that the cast and crew felt lay at the heart of their work. An early shot in which a child pokes at a beggar’s exposed genitals with a toy Japanese flag succinctly captures this idea in a single image: given the social milieu of both the film’s setting and the time it was made, a radical sexual statement is a radical political statement, even an anti-imperialist one. Yet this aspect of social critique was largely lost on viewers more hung up on the film’s use of unsimulated sex which, despite Ōshima’s argument that openness negated obscenity, continued to scandalize. The weight of this outrage, as it happened, fell disproportionately on Matsuda. Even resoundingly negative reviews praised the actress for her commitment and emotional intensity, but public perception of her in Japan was of someone morally compromised, dirtied by her involvement, and unfit for serious film work. While Fuji went on to land the lead role in Ōshima’s Palme d’Or-winning Empire of Passion (1978)—in many ways a spiritual successor to In the Realm of the Senses—his former co-star got offers for nude dancing contracts and porn films. Her once-ascendant star now seemed permanently to dim, and then to fall: dogged by press censure in her home country, Matsuda appeared in a handful of seedy “pink movies” before moving to Europe, where, after making a final appearance in the minor French film Five and the Skin (1982), she left acting entirely. * Perhaps as remarkable as Matsuda’s performance and her sudden withdrawal from her craft is the fact that her story has gone largely unexplored by critics despite the global prominence of her best-known work. Both lay and scholarly writings on In the Realm of the Senses tend to confine themselves to her work in the film and give almost no consideration to what, for her, came after. The only real exception to this is the historian of Japanese film Donald Richie, who tracked down and interviewed Matsuda for an essay published in his 1987 book Different People. Richie rightly underscores the fact that Matsuda’s treatment in the press (and the subsequent drying-up of her career) differed sharply from the reception that greeted her male colleagues but, elsewhere in the piece, he replicates the very attitudes he criticizes. Describing Matsuda’s tasteful dress and cultivated demeanor during their conversation, Richie notes in a leering aside that this was “the same woman I remembered as all muscles, juice, and open thighs.” Elsewhere: “Her naked flesh was more real to me than the poised elegance now sitting beside me on a Roman balcony.” The language here unapologetically sexualizes Matsuda despite occurring in the context of an essay that upbraids the Japanese film industry for failing to see her as anything more than a porn star; it is as though by agreeing to perform in the film Matsuda had signed up for the status of Permanent Sex Object. Richie is not the only one to regard Matsuda this way: at one point during the Belgian TV interview, the camera zooms in abruptly and lingers without explanation on Matsuda’s breasts. Richie’s essay also construes Matsuda’s offscreen manner as a “sexless chic” in which she is “immured,” an inauthentic cover, he feels, for the true self she was allowed to express while playing Abe. Indeed, is it hard to reconcile the mousy, timid Matsuda of the Belgian TV panel with the bold uninhibitedness and confident physicality of her character? Well, only if one has difficulty imagining that an artist may have the power to invent. Here Richie makes the same mistake as Matsuda’s critics in Japan: an inability to distinguish between the artist and the art, a rhetorical projection of performance onto performer to the detriment, ultimately, of both. By conflating Matsuda’s personality with that of her character, Richie implicitly denies the actress artistry, interpreting her performance as a simple release of emotional energy rather than the intellectual product of a considered aesthetic and political position. Yet this kind of slippage persistently characterizes writing around women’s art practices to this day, a prurient interest in stripmining pieces for juicy “autobiographical” content to the exclusion of considering them as works of standalone creation. Among the many stories spun out of Kristen Roupenian’s viral New Yorker piece “Cat Person” was the phenomenon of just how many readers mistook the work of fiction for an essay. A still more recent example can be found in the critical response to Motherhood, Sheila Heti’s latest novel (and here I feel a certain temptation to underline that last word): as Lauren Oyler notes in her piece for The Baffler, “Of all her autofictional cohort Heti has dealt the most with the conflation of her narrator with herself, and along with this critical mistake come accusations of narcissism.” Oyler takes Alexandra Schwartz in particular to task for the latter’s “obtuse” review of the book for The New Yorker, in which the author’s open skepticism of Motherhood’s inclusion in the category of “novel” allows literary criticism to slide into cutting assessments of personal character, such as that Heti herself is “petulant” and “bratty.” It is worth asking, in 2018, how far we have come and how far we still have to go. * Though the international fame of In the Realm of the Senses—now widely regarded as one of the most important films of the Japanese New Wave—has engendered a flurry of reviews, articles, and interviews in the decades since its scandalous premier, there is a dearth of both media and scholarly attention towards Matsuda, any interest in charting her life or hearing her experience. Matsuda’s death from a brain tumor in 2011 went unnoticed by the press; by contrast, a flood of obituaries from around the world greeted the news of Ōshima’s passing just two years later, many of which prominently featured iconic stills of Matsuda as Abe. In the minds of arthouse theatergoers, her unforgettable performance in In the Realm of the Senses had become an instantly recognizable metonym for the height of Ōshima’s directing powers but left no room for a consideration of the performer herself. The question that forms the silent heart of this essay is therefore precisely this: how to rewrite into history someone so thoroughly written out, how to recover the voice of someone whose words almost nobody thought to record, someone who for so many was simply an empty vessel for their own desire. The real-life Abe Sada rose to the unlikely status of folk icon after news of her crime became a media sensation: despite personally requesting the death penalty at her trial, sympathy for her cause was so great that she was sentenced to only six years (of which she served five). For decades after Ishida’s murder, the story of two lovers consumed not by jealousy but by the too-intense flame of their passion captured the imagination of artists as well as the general populace. It is a cruel irony that the same public who were willing to look past the lurid and the gruesome and accept Abe’s story as one of love proved categorically unwilling to extend a similar generosity of heart towards the woman who played her onscreen. If Abe and her lover were applauded for their ultimately doomed pursuit of individualism at the height of Japan’s nationalistic fervor, Matsuda’s own anti-establishment political statement brought an end to her young career. It is a risk that Matsuda must have considered when she committed to the project, and it is a testament to her powers as an actor that none of this fear for what may come leeches into her performance. If there is something that unites her and Abe after all, then perhaps it is this: the understanding that when the future holds only ruin one may as well stand and let the full fire of the present moment flow.
The author of My Year of Rest and Relaxation on writing grief, the role of beauty and shuffling down to the bodega.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Penguin Press) tells the story of a young woman who lives a mostly empty life. Living off unemployment cheques and her inheritance following the death of her parents, she decides to spend an entire year in a drug induced slumber. Guided by her pill pushing, extremely irresponsible psychiatrist who believes her to be an anxiety ridden insomniac, she shuts out the world behind her and escapes. As her drug cocktails become increasingly complex, the unnamed protagonist’s experiment doesn’t go as planned. The young woman finds herself living a parallel life she can’t control or understand. Moshfegh’s first novel, Eileen, faced some criticism for its portrayal of an unlikeable woman, wrapped up in self-loathing; My Year of Rest and Relaxation's portrait of a complicated woman can feel at times almost like response to such readings of that earlier work. Sarah Hagi: I always joke that it’d be so nice to go into a harmless coma just to escape life for a moment. I’m wondering what made you come up with this as a concept for an entire novel. Otessa Moshfegh: I can’t really point to any one line of thinking or inspiration. It really just started out sketching this character who had this habitual shuffling down to the bodega, watching movies, but having a really small life. And then consequently her whole personality and character. I don’t remember thinking, “It’d be nice to sleep for a year.” How was it developing a character who’s asleep for most of the story? That was a part of the fun and the challenge in figuring out how to write the book. The one plot move that is made in the book has to do with one of the medications that she gets prescribed which allows her to live a somewhat double life that she isn’t aware of. Under the influence of that drug she seems to be setting things up for herself in a way that she wouldn’t in her regular state of mind. I think also the character Reva, and what Reva brings up for her, particularly her mother’s death, the protagonist has to revisit the death of her own parents. I feel like every woman has had a friend like Reva, a relationship where you feel like you’re kind of stuck with someone because you’re connected through a shared history. What was it like exploring that? I really liked writing Reva. She expressed so much of what the protagonist couldn’t. As much as Reva is someone who’s in denial and pretentious, she’s also very expressive and communicative. I think there’s some familial resonance there, in that the protagonist has no family. And in the way that your mom could walk into your room as a kid and start picking up your stuff off the floor and you’re like, “Mom, leave me alone!” There’s some of that in Reva and the protagonist’s relationship. Reva is a little bit maternal and the protagonist is sort of loathe to admit that Reva is important to her. The book takes place in the year 2000 going into 2001, so the reader feels 9/11 looming. It’s not a 9/11 book, but the year it takes place feels very specific. Why did you make that choice? I didn’t initially understand that I was writing a book that took place in the year before 9/11. But, it was really through the writing about the New York arts scene through the lens of the protagonist that I understood the New York in the book was the New York at the turn of the millennium. I was like, “OK, she’s sleeping for a year, that means September 11th is coming.” That was when I understood the end of the book. It usually happens to me that I’m writing a novel that I have an end image, or sensation and I know what I’m writing towards and that happened with 9/11 with this book. It was a gift because so much of this book required adopting an attitude of cynicism and juvenile angst. I felt that I needed something really deep and important to ground me in the novel because I knew where I was going. And so it wasn’t by accident that I ended up writing a book that could be put in this category of literature of 9/11. The book is so funny, but grief is woven into the plot in a unique way using various flashbacks—what was that like to write? It was probably naïve because up until that point. I had lost my grandparents and a close friend from childhood but I don’t think I understood grief as well as I do now. Since finishing this book I lost one of my best friends and my brother. It’s a completely different reality I’m living in than the one I was in writing a year ago. I think that’s good because I don’t think I could’ve written the book with the light touch that it needed because my own grief would have gotten in the way. It’s much easier to write fictional grief when you’re not projecting. I was certainly thinking about my own sadness and trying to tap into it when I was writing those parts. In reflection it does not compare to the experience of losing a parent or someone close to you. When I think about my own experiences with grief, it’s difficult to know how to deal with it, but I do understand wanting to sleep through it. There’s so much of life and healing that I think our consciousness fucks up for us. I think the body is a lot smarter than the mind. I think that was part of the principle of the protagonist functioning on, “my body will know what to do, I need to just stop thinking so much, I need to stop agitating myself with my own consciousness. That’s good reason to make myself asleep.” A lot of things can be processed subconsciously in sleep, but the extreme measure that this protagonist takes with drugs…I didn’t want this to be a druggy book, but it was also quite evident that the way to get through something is to get through it and not drugging yourself through it. All that shit will be there when you’re sober and wake up, it’s still there. Something that comes up a lot is how beautiful she is, and in a way it shields her. Do you think that helps her get away with her experiment? Maybe. She probably doesn’t have the same concerns other women in their twenties might have. I think more than anything, her beauty is something that has alienated her from people. And I think there’s a thing where we don’t like feeling sorry for people with privilege. Like, “Boo hoo, you’re too pretty.” I was thinking, how do I feel about people who fit that stereotype, tall, thin, pretty and who look like models? The thing I project on them is first of all, I resent you. And second of all, you probably don’t understand what it’s like for everyone else that you’ve been treated so specially. Maybe it’s true that people who are beautiful do subconsciously from everybody else get very different kind of attention. I would imagine when things go wrong it’s very confusing. There was controversy with Eileen because of how the character was portrayed as “ugly” and self-loathing. I think people don’t want to talk about how big a role beauty plays in every single person’s life. In a way, I made a decision to make this character beautiful partly in response to the reception of Eileen. If I’m going to have a woman narrating her inner monologue, [she] is going to be thinking about the way she looks and picking herself apart at times if she’s remotely normal. Maybe Eileen was an extreme version of that, but I was so annoyed at the response to Eileen. People were so shocked that a young woman could have these kinds of issues when actually this feels like everyone I’ve ever known [who] at some point in high school has gone through an intense period of self-scrutiny and insecurity. So it’s like, I’m going to write an equally complicated female character but make her look like Claudia Schiffer so nobody could make a big deal about the way that she looks as though it’s part of her value. I guess the truth is that it’s always a part of someone’s value. I’m talking as much about this character being beautiful as I did talk about Eileen being disgusting.
Twenty-five years after its release, Magic: The Gathering still strikes a balance between performance and commodity—a mix of chess’s chilly purity and poker’s social theatre.
Few people spent 1938 feeling very playful. Even while he tried, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga confessed that such efforts felt futile: “The fun of playing resists all analysis, all logical interpretation.” His book Homo Ludens approached games as an awed pilgrim, describing them in terms of myth and ritual. “There is no distinction between marking out a space for a sacred purpose and marking it out for purposes of sheer play,” Huizinga wrote. “The turf, the tennis-court, the chess-board and pavement-hopscotch cannot formally be distinguished from the temple or the magic circle.” Like holy liturgy, play is “pointless but significant.” Huizinga made his own arrogant distinctions, arguing that “savage” societies conflate mimicry with reality—whereas Europeans would never get so enthralled by ceremony. I doubt his research took him inside the nearest casino. Fixated on the secrecy and mystery of games, Huizinga missed their role as public spectacles: When his subjects play, there’s never any money at stake. He wanted to map out impossible territory. Chess and roulette are both games, although one involves methodical skill and the other shifts fortunes on a chance bounce. You can play with a piece of chalk or a $2000 computer. None of these definitions are coherent, but they do remain useful. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein used games as an analogy for his theory of language: We move words around following arbitrary rules, their meaning determined by our shared circumstances, trying to express the indescribable. “If a lion could speak,” he said, “we could not understand him.” Imagine teaching that lion how to play poker. Or picture a creature bent low against the tundra, with flesh striated like dead bark, as if even the trees were starved for prey. From snowdrifts it feeds on a corpse frozen mid-scream. The first Magic: The Gathering card I ever saw also came with a quotation, the last words of one Saffi Eriksdotter, all gothic camp: “Ach! Hans, run! It’s the lhurgoyf!” I didn’t know what a lhurgoyf was, and I certainly couldn’t decipher any of the symbols or rules on that card, but monsters I understood. I lingered over books full of harpies, demons, and basilisks. When other boys teased me for watching Sailor Moon, I would protest, not very convincingly, that the show wasn’t girly at all; it had a whole bestiary of monsters, and those belonged to everybody. As a kid I used to get myself in trouble for running onto some neighbour’s porch and exploring the terrain. By middle school I had turned into a fat, awkward dork, not bullied but rather ignored, and I resentfully shunned the world back. Magic was a perfect excuse. I spent my allowance money on the lottery of booster packs; I tinkered with decks at the local game shop; I even read the awful tie-in novels, which followed the adventures of a lesser Captain Riker. (I do love Magic’s longest-running villains, the Phyrexians, an empire of techno-organic horrors stitching together the Borg and the Cenobites, with dialogue like: “Father of Machines! Your filigree gaze carves us, and the scars dance upon our grateful flesh.” Someone from the storyline team must realize how horny this sounds.) There was never any sudden reckoning, as the subjects of a more tangible addiction might describe. The obsession just exhausted itself. Other interests caught my teenage mind, like weird art movies, or sexual confusion, or talking to strangers. For over a decade I barely thought about Magic at all, so that when I started playing again last year it felt both familiar and uncanny, like returning to a house amended by generations of owners. * “The question is,” Richard Garfield once asked, “can systems be dramatic? Can math be breathtaking? Can numbers move your soul?” When your work involves things like “the distribution of the binomial coefficients modulo p” (his PhD thesis), these are cosmic problems, but Garfield figured out how to make aesthetics from mathematics. He comes from an unusual family; one great-great-grandfather was James Garfield, the president only remembered for getting himself shot by a deranged office-seeker (before gruesomely lingering two more months as America’s finest surgeons prodded the wound). Another relative invented the folding milk carton. Garfield’s own father was an architect whose job took them across the world, and his lonely son noticed how people would play board games together when they had nothing else in common. The Seattle games publisher Peter Adkison later recalled their first encounter in 1991: “Then as now, [Garfield] wore mismatched socks, had strange bits of thread and fabric hanging from parts of his clothing and generally looked like someone who had just walked into the Salvation Army and grabbed whatever seemed colourful.” Still a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, Garfield approached him with the idea for a board game called RoboRally, but Adkison’s new company Wizards of the Coast had only published traditional RPGs—he feared they didn’t have the resources, and asked to see a simpler concept. Garfield realized that you could use trading cards to expand and complicate a universal set of rules. Back in Pennsylvania he began to mock up prototypes, enlisting friends or strangers as playtesters. Garfield wanted every match of Magic to feel like a different experience; he thought that people would only buy one or two starter decks each year, discovering unseen cards on the other side of the table. When you read about how those earliest players spent half the time trading pieces of scrap paper, it sounds a little naïve. The cards themselves were more sophisticated: Magic’s rules have hardly changed in twenty-five years. Simplified here and there, rephrased, but fundamentally consistent. You still start every game with twenty life and a sixty-card library, pulling out an opening hand of seven. Each turn you draw one fresh card and get to play a single land, “tapping” them for mana to cast your spells. If you run out of life, typically from creatures attacking it, you lose. Instead of nation or species, Garfield arranged Magic’s factions into five colours, a far more abstract and elegant design. White preaches order, community, and sometimes cruel orthodoxy. Blue pursues knowledge as if that can solve everything (a blue mage would definitely respond to personal essays with “citation??”). Green’s nature sprites might dance you through flowers or trample you underneath elephants. Red passion rouses, liberates, scorches. Black admires ambition, but not scruples. Wittgenstein once wrote that “I treat colour concepts like the concepts of sensations,” and Garfield knew how evocative that palette could be. When Magic first went on sale in 1993, the comic book speculator market was starting to collapse, a correction that eventually drove Marvel Comics into bankruptcy and most of North America’s specialty shops out of business. The remaining stores depended on trading cards and gaming, and Magic somehow offered both. Titus Chalk’s recent book Generation Decks records how quickly it spread: “A month or two on from release, [Wizards of the Coast] had grown from five employees to twenty-two. By May 1994, that number had swelled to over fifty. With a recruitment policy dubbed the 'nearest warm body' hiring approach, the company ranks were filling with anyone Wizards could get their hands on.” In Seattle, a city of zine collectors with rock bands, the recruiting favoured vaguely countercultural nerds. Years later, one employee described the atmosphere back then: “Wizards was a big horny summer camp.” Capitalism endures yet remembers nothing, so the comic book bubble only made way for a glut of new card games. There were collectible card games (CCGs) devoted to familiar genre franchises, like Star Wars and Star Trek, along with more baffling entries; for a moment in the mid-’90s, you could play games adapting The X-Files or Austin Powers. Nearly all of them went dormant long ago, leaving Magic as the survivor. Its generic setting turned out to be an advantage—you can’t lose the license or run out of storylines for fantasy worlds you’ve just made up. Not that anyone at Wizards entirely knew what they were doing: Richard Garfield developed Arabian Nights, Magic’s first expansion set, without playtesting a single match. Right before going to print, somebody noticed they’d forgotten to add flavour text, and the head editor wrote it all in a sleepless trance: “Expect my visit when the darkness comes. The night I think is best for hiding all.” At least Scheherazade had an audience. Other early expansions were assigned seemingly at random: Wizards art director Jesper Myfors handled The Dark, designing outwards from its aesthetic of sinister preachers and backwoods rituals. Legends got made by some Garfield friends in Vancouver, who created cards inspired by their Dungeons & Dragons characters. Sales doubled with every set anyway, and Wizards began to worry about hoarding. They printed 1994’s latest expansion Fallen Empires in the ever-growing numbers retailers demanded—350 million cards, more than twice as many as every previous set combined. You can still find sealed product lying around undisturbed at gaming stores today, like canopic jars in some Egyptian tomb. The pitifully low power level didn’t help, and for a time it seemed that Magic might be another collectible fad: POGs with dragons. Few players understood the game yet either; the earliest tournaments often devolved into giant monsters smashing against each other. Eventually people figured out that, although a Craw Wurm cost six mana to cast, you could kill or counter it for a fraction of those resources. A group of Bay Area players started testing increasingly defensive decks, focused on drawing extra cards, forcing them out of the opponent’s hand, and dealing with multiple threats at once. Before long they just called it “The Deck.” That definite article was not immodest; they had hit on crucial aspects of Magic, which pulled competitive play between the stations of a trinity. Control decks attack like a python, using card advantage to slowly exhaust all resistance. Aggro decks try to force through lethal damage with maximum efficiency. Combo decks win the game in a single ridiculous move, e.g. taking infinite turns, creating an unstoppable 20/20 creature, or generating huge amounts of mana. These extremes often blur together—the Delver of Secrets archetype resembles aggro-control, backing up a cheap threat with lots of ways to kill/disrupt things—which only makes them easier to obsess over. By 1996 the scene had matured enough that Wizards of the Coast decided to sponsor a circuit of professional events, which still influences tournaments down to the local shop. Magic pros earn a living closer to lacrosse players than NBA stars, although rotating the main format’s deckbuilding pool every year or two does sell plenty of booster packs. All of that was alien to me. I only remember staring at the cards themselves, and it doesn’t feel like mere nostalgia to say they’ve never looked better. Richard Garfield had always discouraged the busty-valkyrie style of fantasy art, but Sue Ann Harkey, Magic’s art director back then, came from outside the gaming world entirely; for the expansions Mirage and Visions, inspired by various African cultures, she recruited gallery painters and comics artists. There are many Magic cards showing some kind of enormous demon, but Mirage’s Spirit of the Night unnerves me most—it seems to melt forward from abstraction, a trick of the landscape. Harkey hired illustrators who became some of the game’s most celebrated: Rebecca Guay, whose watercolors bring to mind stained glass; Kev Walker, a graduate from the chunky-grotesques school of British cartooning; Terese Nielsen, with her sense of serene grace. She also found artists who got swiftly dispatched after Harkey left, my favourite being the voluptuously sexual figures of Robert Bliss. In his paintings, it is always big boy season. “Rob, being the naughty chap that he is, would put penises in everything,” Harkey later told the Magic blogger Jesse Mason. “And ever since [a particularly well-disguised one on the card Polymorph], everyone looked for penises… and then I couldn’t commission him any more.” There’s Magic art I love from recent years—Guay’s Bitterblossom must be one of the most beautiful things ever printed on a piece of cardboard—but the reigning style is bland competence, like illustrations marketing some lavishly expensive video game, almost flaunting their conservatism. * In 2012, Richard Garfield published a book called Characteristics of Games, describing his medium with the structural analysis that Roland Barthes brought to narrative. To play is to wander an “impossible idea,” he wrote: “A game must keep hope alive for a reversal of fortune, even while reassuring players that everything they do has a place in a fixed progression.” Characteristics of Games can be surprisingly funny, albeit with a mathematician’s sense of humour—during one aside Garfield notes that “taste is not commonly a factor in games, except perhaps in sports if things go drastically wrong”—and it sometimes sounds existential about that tension between human caprice and grand designs. “Aesthetic appeal and support of gameplay can work against each other,” Garfield argues. “Aesthetic considerations often push for a greater ornateness, and gameplay wants simplicity of interface … Thus in some sense artists and game designers are natural enemies.” Garfield created Magic: The Gathering, but he left Wizards of the Coast two decades ago after Hasbro bought the company. The game’s dominant figure over all those years has been Mark Rosewater, a former screenwriter, not a professor; he likes to joke about his old Roseanne credits. Rosewater prefers the language of genre tropes to mathematic systems. He has written that his goal is to entertain players while meeting their expectations, not unlike a Hollywood producer running some cinematic universe. Rosewater’s official title is head designer, but he also serves as Magic’s media face, marketing pitchman, and court historian. Imagine if chess were owned by a single company, and the same person creating new boards chronicled the game’s past while telling everyone how great chess was. And because that company promised not to reproduce many older, powerful chess pieces out of deference to collectors, certain formats only really get played online, the one place where enough people can afford it.11Mt. Gox, the bankrupt bitcoin exchange, began life as a Magic trading post. Until his own downfall, it was rumored that Martin Shrekli tried to buy out various out-of-print cards. Magic is both performance and commodity, a pas de deux maneuvering around display cases. Perhaps Rosewater had that contradiction in mind when he called the widest upheaval of his tenure “New World Order,” although his ambitions fell short of a planet ruled by liberal capitalism. The idea was to simplify more common cards, especially for booster draft (where you take picks one by one, like a sports draft, and then build your miniature deck). Much as I love looking at complicated Magic boards, those don’t always reveal good design—players might have to study a dozen overlapping effects, few of them immediately meaningful. Several of the most popular draft formats were developed following New World Order guidelines, including the consensus favourite, 2011’s horror-inspired Innistrad. So many cards from that set feel deceptively complex, serving different roles depending on your plan; one deck used a bunch of thirteenth picks to dump its entire library into the graveyard zone, food for an army of spiders. To evoke transformations at dusk, Rosewater created double-sided cards, which can shift from human to monster. No other theme has shaped his designs so neatly. Dominaria, the latest Magic set, returned to the game’s home plane for the first time since 2006, with Garfield making guest contributions. It’s the most open-ended expansion in years, even after they restrained his stranger ideas—like the Sagas, a new card type meant to represent living mythology. Yet the designs still feel safer than Future Sight, our previous visit to Dominaria. That set used nostalgia as an excuse to combine dozens of mechanics, some long gone and others only envisioned, with startling effect. One card does nothing outside of the graveyard. Another can counter your opponent’s spell for free, or rather in advance; if you don’t pay its mana cost on your next turn, you lose the game. Future Sight approached history like a revisionist, fracturing accepted notions of how Magic should play. Dominaria presents a timeline of ancient relics and legendary heroes, expecting their due reverence. The New World Order era coincided with Magic’s audience growing exponentially, an imperial phase now tailing off. Around the middle of the last century, French sociologist Roger Caillois critiqued Johan Huizinga’s idealized definition of play in Homo Ludens: “It is true that the kinds of games are almost infinitely varied, but the constant relationship between chance and profit is very striking … In certain of its manifestations, play is designed to be lucrative or ruinous.” Caillois never imagined how deep that relationship might run, arguing that, although a casino mogul extracts money from each gambler (“the entrepreneur alone does not play”), play itself creates no wealth or material goods. He could not foresee the esports industry, which generates hundreds of millions of dollars from people watching other people play video games. Magic puts up similar numbers in paper form, but it lags behind its younger digital cousins online. Hearthstone usually ranks among the top five games of any genre by streaming viewership; Magic scrapes to #30 on a good month. In The Characteristics of Games, Richard Garfield mentions an early example of play turning self-conscious, from Edo-period Japan: “The annual go games played before the shogun were eventually played out entirely in advance, the players sequestered to prevent knowledge of the results from leaking out, and then the games replayed for the shogun, all to prevent them from lasting too long for the spectators.” How simple can you make a game with 15,000 unique cards? Magic Online remains ugly to watch partly because it needs to handle every possible interaction—and many famous decks hinge on exploiting those intricacies. People like to say they’re playing “as Garfield intended,” the joke being that the designer always wanted his creation to mutate out of control. Garfield once wrote that his own favourite Magic card is Shahrazad, from the Arabian Nights expansion, which starts a new game within the game.22Asked about his favourite writers in a 1990s interview, Garfield mentioned Borges and Calvino. It’s also one of the very few spells to get banned in every competitive format, since clever mages can cast it over and over until time loses all meaning. Coveting the esports market, Wizards has developed a flashier program called Magic: The Gathering Arena, limited to recent sets; given the design mistakes defying Rosewaterist orthodoxy, with more cards banned over the past year than the previous decade, that pitch may not be so enticing. I haunt Magic Online in spite of its looks. When I first returned to the game, I’d spent a month homeless, crashing on couches. My days were featureless blanks contorted by anxiety. Every inscrutable aspect of Magic fascinated me: I loved how improvised booster draft feels, as alliances form and dissolve. It balances chess’s chilly purity with the social theatre of poker. When I mentioned this piece to my friend Michael DeForge, a cartoonist and part-time mage, he wrote back: “I like that Magic is always a puzzle. The deck building is a puzzle, your draft choices are a puzzle, and each game is a puzzle. Even deciding what hands to keep.”33DeForge provided the illustration for this story. At the height of World War II, the mathematician John von Neumann framed economics as a conflict between rational individuals, establishing the field of game theory. That would prove less convincing than his models for the first nuclear bomb. Von Neumann once argued that chess is not a game at all, because one player can always theoretically force a tie (mutual assured destruction). The precise series of moves involved remains a mystery, too vast for our computers to calculate, not that that offers weaker players any hope. In The Characteristics of Games, Garfield estimates the odds that a chess amateur will prevail against a grandmaster—they’re also the chances of winning the New York lottery seven times straight. But Magic’s rules allow for randomness, the harlequin behind every card. Novices sometimes bring down hall-of-famers. Nineteenth-century gamblers would seek guidance from dream books, which fastened surreal images to each play, like a soothsayer. They shared as we do an ancient fantasy, to sense the Fates losing grasp of your thread.
I somehow thought my mother would die and still be alive, somewhere in that distant sound that resembles the sea in which she taught me to swim. But she is not there.
My mother taught me how to swim and she taught me how to row a boat. She was born in South Africa, grew up in ‘the windy city’ of Port Elizabeth and longed for the sea every day in the four decades she lived in North London. She always said that Doris Lessing’s second novel, Martha Quest, forensically described her own life growing up in the sterility and ignorance of South Africa’s white colonial culture. In old age my mother had found a swimming technique to ‘totally give herself to the water’. This involved floating on her back, ‘emptying her thoughts’ and ‘surrendering to the flow’. She showed me her trick in the murky swimming ponds on Hampstead Heath, floating Ophelia style with the ducks and weed and leaves. I still try to do her trick, but I can only float for ten seconds before I start to sink. Likewise, when I turn my mind to my mother’s death, I can only do so for ten seconds before I start to sink. There is a photograph I have kept of my mother in her late twenties. She is sitting on a rock at a picnic with friends. Her hair is wet because she’s just had a swim. There is a kind of introspection in her expression that I now relate to the very best of her. I can see that she is close to herself in this random moment. I’m not sure that I thought introspection was the best of her when I was a child and teenager. What do we need dreamy mothers for? We do not want mothers who gaze beyond us, longing to be elsewhere. We need her to be of this world, lively, capable, entirely present to our needs. Did I mock the dreamer in my mother and then insult her for having no dreams? As the vintage story goes, it is the father who is the hero and the dreamer. He detaches himself from the pitiful needs of his women and children and strides out into the world to do his thing. He is expected to be himself. When he returns to the home that our mothers have made for us, he is either welcomed back into the fold, or becomes a stranger who will eventually need us more than we need him. He tells us some of what he has seen in his world. We give him an edited version of the living we do every day. Our mothers live with us in this living and we blame her for everything because she is near by. At the same time, we try not to collude with myths about her character and purpose in life. All the same, we need her to feel anxiety on our behalf—after all, our everyday living is full of anxiety. If we do not disclose our feelings to her, we mysteriously expect her to understand them anyway. And if she moves beyond us, comes close to being a self that is not at our service, she has transgressed from the mythic, primal task of being our protector and nurturer. Yet, if she comes too close, she suffocates us, infecting our fragile courage with her contagious anxiety. When our father does the things he needs to do in the world, we understand it is his due. If our mother does the things she needs to do in the world, we feel she has abandoned us. It is a miracle she survives our mixed messages, written in society’s most poisoned ink. It is enough to drive her mad. I believe that always, or almost always, in all childhoods and in all the lives that follow them, the mother represents madness. Our mothers always remain the strangest, craziest people we’ve ever met. Marguerite Duras, Practicalities When I was a teenager, most arguments with my mother were about clothes. She was baffled by what it was inside myself that I was expressing outside of myself. She could no longer reach or recognize me. And that was the whole point. I was creating a persona that was braver than I actually felt. I took the risk of being mocked on buses and in the streets of the suburbs in which I lived. The secret message that lurked in the zips of my silver platform boots was that I did not want to be like the people doing the mocking. Sometimes we want to unbelong as much as we want to belong. On a bad day, my mother would ask me, ‘Who do you think you are?’ I had no idea how to answer that question when I was fifteen, but I was reaching for the kind of freedom that a young woman in the 1970s did not socially possess. What else was there to do? To become the person someone else had imagined for us is not freedom—it is to mortgage our life to someone else’s fear. If we cannot at least imagine we are free, we are living a life that is wrong for us. My mother was braver in her life than I have ever been. She escaped from the upper-class WASP family she loved and married a penniless Jewish historian. She became involved with him in the struggle for human rights in the South Africa of her generation. Clever, glamorous and witty, she never made it to university in her early twenties. No one thought it necessary to tell her she had an abundance of talent. Women of her class were expected to marry as soon as they left home, or after their first job. This was supposed to be a nominal job and not a serious career. My mother was taught to type, to learn shorthand and to wear clothes that pleased her male bosses. She wished she had been a less skilled secretary, but it was her fast typing that fed and clothed her children when my father became a political prisoner. She gave me a hard time, beyond the call of a dutiful daughter, but I can now see that I did not want to let her be herself, for better or worse. A year after I moved with my daughters into the apartment on the hill, my mother became fatally sick. I lay awake all night waiting for a call from the hospital, each hour marked by the call of the various birds on my bird clock. The nightingale sang just before midnight, as if it were perched in the boughs of the dripping tree in the car park. She always said that when she died, she wanted her body to be carried to the peak of a mountain and then devoured by birds. In the last few weeks of her dying, she was unable to eat or to drink water. However, I discovered that she was able to lick and swallow a particular brand of ice lolly. It came in three flavours—lime was her favourite, then strawberry, last of all the dreaded orange. Winter was not the best time for this particular ice lolly to be stocked in the shops, but I had found a supply of them in the freezer of my local newsagent, owned by three Turkish brothers. They often sold mushrooms in a box that was placed on the lid of this long, low freezer, which was positioned in the middle of the shop. Also placed on its lid were lottery tickets, reduced-price cleaning products, cans of fizzy drinks, shoe polish, batteries and pastries. Inside this freezer were the ice lollies that were my mother’s only comfort during her dying. At the time I was so devastated from my shipwrecked marriage and my mother’s diagnosis of cancer, both happening within a year of each other, I was unable to explain to the brothers why I bought ice lollies every day in February. I arrived grim-faced, eyes always wet, my bicycle parked outside. Without saying a single word, I began to move the mushrooms, lottery tickets, reduced-price cleaning products, cans of fizzy drinks, shoe polish, batteries and pastries to one side of the freezer. Then I’d slide the door open and search for the lollies—triumphant when I found the lime, good if I found strawberry, acceptable when I found the orange. I’d always buy two and then cycle to the hospital down the hill where my mother was dying. I would sit by her bed and hold the ice lolly to her lips, pleased to hear her ooh and aah with pleasure. She was always insatiably thirsty. There was a fridge in her room but not a freezer, so the second lolly would melt, but my ritual was to always buy two. Looking back on this, I don’t know why I didn’t buy all the lollies in the newsagent and put them in my own freezer, but somehow it never occurred to me at this difficult time. And then one day, a terrible thing happened in the lolly scheme of things. As usual, I cycled to the newsagent, whooshed everything that was resting on the lid of the freezer aside, and, watched by the baffled Turkish brothers, slid open the freezer door. It turned out there was a fourth flavour. The brothers had run out of lime, strawberry and even the dreaded orange. I looked up from the freezer, straight into the kind brown eyes of the youngest brother. ‘Why have you only got bubblegum flavour?’ I started to shout—why would anyone bother to make a bubblegum ice lolly, never mind sell it? What was the point and could they urgently stock up on the other flavours, particularly the lime? The brother did not shout back. He just stood in baffled silence while I angrily purchased two bubblegum-flavoured lollies. It felt like a catastrophe as I cycled to the hospital, and actually it was a catastrophe because they were more or less the only things keeping her alive for another day. I tried a few other shops on the way to the hospital, but none of them stocked the brand that was easy to swallow. So I sat by my skeletal mother’s bed, unwrapped the bubblegum ice lolly and moved it to her lips. She licked it, grimaced, tried it again and then shook her head. When I told her how I had raved and ranted like a lunatic in the shop, these tiny sounds came out of her mouth, her chest moving up and down. I knew she was laughing and it is one of my favourite memories of our last days together. That night when I was reading a book by her bed, I glanced in remorse at the bubblegum lolly melting into a pink blob in the basin. I wasn’t really reading, just skimming the page, but it was comforting to be near her. When the doctor came into the room to do her last rounds, my mother lifted her thin hand and somehow managed to make the tiny voice she had at this time sound imperious and commanding: ‘Arrange for some light. My daughter is reading in the dark.’ After her funeral in March, I thought I should go back to the newsagent and explain my weird behaviour to the Turkish brothers. When I told them about the last weeks of my mother’s life they were so upset it was their turn not to speak. They shook their heads and sighed and groaned. After a while, the oldest brother said, ‘If only you had told us.’ The brother who wore fashionable jackets picked up the conversation, ‘If you had said something we would have gone to the cash and carry and bought a ton for you,’ while the third brother, whose voice was higher pitched than his older brothers, thumped his hand to his forehead, ‘I knew it was something like that . . . didn’t I say she was buying them for someone who was sick?’ They all looked angrily at the freezer, as if it was personally responsible for the horror of the bubblegum lolly being the wrong sort of lolly in the last few days of my mother’s life. This time I laughed, which gave them permission to laugh, too. It was a big release from the terror of death to finally acknowledge that it is also always absurd. We were standing on the flattened cardboard boxes laid on the floor to protect the lino from the muddy feet of customers. It was soggy and stained and slid beneath our feet as we laughed. I felt much better after I had explained things to the Turkish brothers, and in a way, I wish had explained things more to the father of my children. When I returned to the newsagent one Sunday to buy some of the mushrooms I had spent weeks angrily flinging to the other end of the freezer lid, the youngest brother had just returned from his vacation in Turkey. He handed me an object wrapped in newspaper and told me it was a gift. It turned out to be a tiny white china cup that slid into a latticed silver holder, with an ornate silver lid that fitted over the cup. He said he remembered how when I bought a packet of Turkish coffee from the shop, I had told him I drank it in a glass. ‘But a glass is for tea,’ he said, ‘so this is the right sort of cup for Turkish coffee.’ I understood that it was a gift of condolence. To this day, that cup marks my mother leaving the world. I have yet to tell him that sometimes when I write, I make Turkish coffee in a small copper pot, pour it into this very cup and then slip the silver lid over the top. It has become part of my writing ritual. To sip strong aromatic coffee from midnight to the small hours always brings something interesting to the page. I have become a night wanderer without moving from my writing chair. The night is softer than the day, quieter, sadder, calmer, the sound of the wind tapping windows, the hissing of pipes, the entropy that makes floorboards creak, the ghostly night bus that comes and goes—and always in cities, a far-off distant sound that resembles the sea, yet is just life, more life. I realized that was what I wanted after my mother’s death. More life. I somehow thought she would die and still be alive. I would like to think she is somewhere in that distant sound that resembles the sea in which she taught me to swim, but she is not there. She has gone, slipped away, disappeared. A few months after her death I was reading from Things I Don’t Want to Know at a festival in Berlin. The translator sat at my side. We had agreed that I would read three lines in English and she would translate those three lines into German for the audience. I started to read, and then I came to a section in which I am seven years old, lying in my mother’s arms. It was a shock I had not anticipated, a ghostly encounter. Our heads touched. It was love and it was pain. My voice broke and I paused mid-sentence. The translator waited for me to finish the agreed three sentences. She was left stranded, a broken sentence hanging between us. If the words were trains they had slowed right down and then come to a halt. When they eventually pulled into the station, splattered with the dust of the African past, the translator’s tone was clipped and matter-of-fact—which might have been a good thing. This struggle to get the words out of my mouth took me right back to a year in my childhood when I did not speak at all. Every time I was asked to speak up, to speak louder, the words ran away, trembling and ashamed. It is always the struggle to find language that tells me it is alive, vital, of great importance. We are told from an early age that it is a good thing to be able to express ourselves, but there is as much invested in putting a stop to language as there is in finding it. Truth is not always the most entertaining guest at the dinner table, and anyway, as Duras suggests, we are always more unreal to ourselves than other people are. After my reading in Berlin, I was sitting with my German publisher outside the author’s tent. She had a question to ask me. ‘When you read out loud, are you an actress?’ She was referring to the highly emotional way those lines had at last been delivered to the audience. This was my opportunity to explain to her that my mother had recently died and how it was a shock to re-find her on the pages of my book. But I did not say that. I said nothing at all. So the Turkish brothers fared better than my publisher. ‘You look very pale,’ she said. I did not know how to reply to that either. After a while, I pointed to a vendor in the festival grounds selling currywurst, and told her that I wanted to write about a character, a major male character, who would stand by a currywurst wagon in the snow of Berlin, waiting for someone he had betrayed. ‘Currywurst is not a romantic dish,’ she interrupted me. ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘but love is like war; it always finds a way.’ Love did find its way through the on and off war between myself and my mother. The poet Audre Lorde said it best: ‘I am a reflection of my mother’s secret poetry as well as of her hidden angers.’ She sent me a postcard from Johannesburg in 1992, where she had travelled to see the friends who had helped support her family in the years of political turmoil, the transition from apartheid to democracy. Kicked off hols to a glorious start by going to Walter Sisulu’s birthday celebrations. Saw people not seen for what seems a 100 years. Sat next to Nadine Gordimer. She is tiny & thin & bird-like & bright. My mother had made a biro’d X on the front of the postcard and written, X is where I am. She seems to have been located in a neighbourhood somewhere beyond a big flyover, near a telephone tower and skyscraper. It is this X that touches me most now, her hand holding the biro, pressing it into the postcard, marking where she is so that I can find her. This essay appears in The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton Canada, 2018).
The author of Foe on marriage, having Charlie Kaufman adapt your work, and why he likes stories that remind him of Manu Ginobili.
With his 2016 best-seller I’m Thinking of Ending Things and the new Foe, Iain Reid has made the middle of nowhere into home turf: his wary, watchful novels take place off the grid, both in terms of geography and genre. “We don’t get visitors. Never have. Not out here” says Foe’s narrator, Junior, a young farmer living somewhere in Ontario with his wife Henrietta. His tone suggests that the intrusion of a third party is as unwelcome as it is unexpected. Junior’s anxiety is not misplaced. The visitor is a figure out of an X-Files episode, a proverbial Man in Black claiming to represent a government-funded initiative to relocate Earth’s swelling population to outer space. (“This is a long time coming.”) What’s more, the man, whose name is Terrance, explains that Junior has been selected by lottery as a possible candidate to join the off-world workforce. If his number comes up, choice is not a factor; he cannot decline the call of duty. Service is mandatory. But—and this is where the outsider’s spiel truly starts to seem strange and sinister—arrangements can be made if Hen needs somebody who looks and acts a lot like her husband to take care of her. The pleasure of Reid’s work—and he’s as gifted and scarifying a storyteller as Canadian fiction has produced in a long time—is how judiciously he parcels out narrative information. If I’m Thinking of Ending Things was a brilliant and resourceful variation on one of the oldest tricks in the mind-fuck-fiction handbook, Foe is similarly indebted to a science-fiction tradition encompassing Dick, Clarke and Asimov. These layers of reference are no more than a brilliant disguise, however, cloaking Reid’s true and universal subjects even as they lurk in plain view on every page. Adam Nayman: It seems to me that the through-line between your two novels so far is isolation. In I'm Thinking of Ending Things, you have a young woman who becomes increasingly unnerved as her boyfriend takes her into the country and out of her urban comfort zone; it's sort of a journey away from the center. In Foe, you focus on a couple who already live on the margins of civilization in the middle of nowhere and are accustomed to it, until an outsider shows up. It's an interesting reversal, but there's also a continuity there. Iain Reid: There definitely is that underlying current of isolation [in I'm Thinking of Ending Things] and it’s here as well. It does change a little bit for Foe, as you said, as the isolation here involves things that are familiar for the characters. At least at first, anyway. I think that isolation and solitude are the things that I started out with on this one. I always think of one or two major conflicts or problems when I'm getting going, and on Foe, they were isolation, solitude and confinement. “Confinement” was a word I was thinking of a lot in the early stages. I wanted to know what it was about confinement that I find so unsettling and disturbing, and it ended up going down the path of relationships and marriages. If you've been told for your entire life that you should feel a certain way about something—that you'll like something, or dislike it—you start to believe it. But what if something happens to make you start questioning that attitude? That's sort of what Foe is for me in a lot of ways. I also noticed that Foe begins with the image of headlights in the dark, which is pretty central to I'm Thinking of Ending Things. We talked about that image at the end of our last interview, so maybe it's a fun way to get into the new one. That’s the opening image of the book exactly, yes, and it was absolutely one of the first images that came to mind for Foe too. But the thing that really influenced me before I started writing was this: I was out at an awards ceremony and there was a man who was receiving a prize and the way he thanked his wife from the stage was very disturbing, at least to me. Everyone else was really happy with it, and they thought it was this great acceptance speech; they were almost sighing out loud at how it was. He said things like “I want to thank my wife for putting up with my instability, and allowing me to do what I do.” I thought, “No, I'm sure she has her own thing, her own life, she's not there to prop your genius up.” It seemed so icky to me, as did the idea that this dynamic was something he was being accepted or even congratulated for. So that's when that idea I mentioned before about confinement within a relationship came to me. I wanted to write about a relationship that wasn't ruined by one dramatic moment, like somebody cheating or losing their temper or a secret, but instead had been slowly rotting over time. Once you're in a situation and you're committed to it, what else can happen? How can you get out? That's where things started. Let's talk about how a lot of people are going to come to Foe, which is not only in light of I'm Thinking of Ending Things but also via genre: it's being marketed as science-fiction and the genre stuff is present alongside the portrait of the marriage. And it gets into the sci-fi stuff pretty quickly, so much so that I was surprised. It's very disarming when Terrance shows up and provides all this exposition about the possibility of colonizing outer space to a couple who seem to be living this out-of-time existence in the country. I think I had it in my mind for a long time that I wanted to write a novel about space, to have some type of element about space. And the reason for that is that my brother is a rocket scientist, and he works in that world. So whenever we would be together, the conversation would always evolve or devolve, depending on your perspective, to me peppering him with questions about space travel, and where it's at and where it could go from here, It's fascinating for me, as somebody who has probably a fairly average knowledge of that industry, to learn what it might look like in ten or twenty years. My brother is the kind of person who if you go see a science-fiction movie with him, or a movie about space-travel, he'll pick them apart. So I always thought he'd be a great resource in ensuring that what I was doing was authentic. So going back to the idea of confinement, what is the opposite of that? Space. So I also realized this would be my book about space. I talked to my brother a lot while I was writing but then he read it and he said, “It's not really about space.” Part of that is that I took a lot of things out during revisions, to the point that the outer-space aspect is more of a metaphor than anything else. Science-fiction is always really conducive to metaphor, and in that sense Foe felt a bit old-fashioned to me—almost nostalgic even though it's set in the future. There's a really slippery sense of time throughout, actually; there's very little about Junior and Hen's lifestyle that wouldn't have been more or less identical if they were living in the same place in the 1960s. It felt like I could have been reading a book about two people in 1969 who suddenly learn that there's a Space Race going on between America and the Soviet Union. You’re right to think about the initial moon landing. That was on my mind, too. What would happen if an ordinary person had a chance to be a part of that? If somebody showed up at their house with this mission and this invitation, how would it play out? It's also really effective how you suggest that the world has changed around them in some big ways but they haven't even tried to keep up. There's no reference to technology, social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, even though all those things will likely be around in the near future, if not amplified... That's the timeless element we were discussing earlier. I think there is a dynamic to their marriage that's closer to the 1950s or 1960s. There's this assumption that things have changed a lot since then, but I think that restrictive element is still there in some places, including some rural settings. That places things right on the fault lines of some of the larger culture war stuff that's going on now in Ontario and of course in the United States, too. That's not to generalize about “small town values,” because I think those liberal clichés about them can be as reductive and reactionary as the values themselves. But I did feel like Junior and Hen's marriage was suggestive of something larger and older that's also cyclical and maybe inescapable. I mean, Junior could not be a more patriarchal name, right? That’s exactly right. And if you think about sort of what happens in the triangular relationship between Junior and Henrietta and Terrence there’s a shift along those same lines. There is a change that Henrietta goes through, as does Terrence. I think Terrance changes too. Really, the only one that doesn’t change is Junior. Hen’s pretty suggestive as a name too. Ha, yes. Junior talks about them having chickens and how he goes out to feed them and care for them. He also likes it when Hen plays the piano for him... Junior reveals a lot of things by accident; he's not just an unreliable narrator but he doesn't seem to necessarily know his own mind all that well either. In I'm Thinking of Ending Things your narrator had a huge amount of self-awareness, and kept throwing up all these defense mechanisms and checks and balances. I feel like Junior is transparent, and that makes him a unique entry point into a narrative where all is not as it seems— especially not to him, we could say. In this type of marriage, who would be the one who would be permitted to speak for both parties a lot of the time? It would be Junior. He would be the filter that their communal story would be told through. That also I think was part of Henrietta's wanting a change, as she begins to wonder what's best for her, to assert herself, and to take some power back. I was thinking a lot about toughness when it came to her character. Normally if you say that one of your themes is “toughness” people will assume it's a story about boxing or something; I wanted to access toughness in a different way. You've probably heard people talk about a basketball player like Manu Ginobili and how he plays “in between the dribbles,” and I like stories that do that too. So when Junior is telling us things, he's also giving us more than he's saying, and maybe some of it is about Henrietta, more than he even knows. It's funny because, while he gets a lot right about Henrietta and even how she feels about him, he really doesn't know what's going on with Terrance; his suspicion and jealousy become misplaced in a way that's very alpha-male macho and sort of naive at the same time. Yes, exactly, and I think that when I was reflecting on how a marriage like this might disintegrate, that's sort of how it would happen, with the intrusion of a third party, whatever the third party is actually trying to do in the end. Trying to reflect on a way that this relationship is disintegrating in the way that I envisioned, that’s sort of how it would happen. I think that when these people got married they thought that it was love and that it would last a lifetime, but I don't see how that can work if you think of yourself first. This seems like a common thing, actually, that from the male point of view you get married and you're sort of “done.” It's like getting a job or something—you just check off the box and you're married and that's all. That's a horrifying thought from both perspectives, I think: that marriage is a thing to do instead of a process that requires work and effort and change from both parties. The idea that you just take comfort from the fact that you're married, you're in it, and that's it… that's horrific to me. Well, not only that, but culturally we’re conditioned to think that the stubbornness and the laziness of men—and to some extent the flaws of both genders in heterosexual relationships—is “cute.” And then it hardens over time, and any complaints about it are met with truisms like, “Well, you're married, that's how it is.” It's like the idea of “letting yourself go” but not just your body; your sensitivity and your curiosity, too. Junior hasn't let himself go physically, though, and there's a frightening quality to how he describes his own body and his strength—it turns the narrator of the story into a potential source of threat even as he's growing paranoid about what's going on behind his back. It is frightening, I agree. And again, if you think about it in the context of confinement, or the opposite of space, and that physicality that Junior has...Again speaking about metaphors, I think for me what seemed enticing about a story like this right now, again I don’t think I’ve really talked about this yet and I don’t know how much I will, but sort of what’s happening in the world right now, in the western world, politically, ending up stuck with someone strong and scary like that... it's not a joke, it's not charming, it's quite horrific. You're stuck with that. Are you married yourself? No, I’m not. I know that you are. It's funny because marriage is such a clear interest of mine. No kidding. Yeah, and it’s funny, because I have been asked, it must be because people think I’m anti-marriage because of these books and I’m really not, in fact I’m the opposite. I think that marriage is wonderful and I can see how it would be very appealing in certain situations. I would say that I might be married at some point, who knows? I’m not anti-marriage, I just find the idea of it utterly fascinating. We do it in such huge numbers, and so many people do it in such a way that’s sort of like passive acceptance. And yet it seems like the hardest thing you can do. Even having kids, that’s more purely biological right? That you have this desire to protect your children? But to live with one person for your whole life, and the inherent challenges in that... so many people want to do it, or think they want to do it or don’t want to do it, or don’t think about it at all. They just do it. Maybe that's indicative of why the divorce rates are over 50 percent now. And then if you take into account those couples who aren’t divorced, how many are struggling in a very serious way? That notion of being trapped in a marriage because there's no language to even discuss separation evokes the frontier—it evokes the past. But I agree with you that it's no less of an issue now. I think that if I were to write a story about a serial killer chasing somebody, I'd be interested on how the person being chased would try to escape—all the ways available to get out of that situation. I think that's what I was thinking about, actually, in a different context. Foe is a more quiet kind of horror. Did you have fun coming up with all the gimmicky sci-fi stuff? Terrance's stories about his company and their experiments in 3-D printing and replication are quite outlandish but he keeps rooting them in science and it's quite funny, but there's also the possibility—broached by Junior and passed on to us—that Terrance is just full of shit, or crazy, or making the whole thing up. It's funny because that’s the one part of Foe that, when I look back at it—at some of what Terrance says, and how he says it—that makes me laugh a bit. At the same time, he's a character who contains the possibility that anything can happen at any time, which heightens urgency and suspense and tension. It's a balancing act to be as delicate as possible, and the more you try to explain, the weaker the material gets. If I let a reader imagine what's happening—and maybe wonder about a character like Terrance—it's so much better, because then it lives in their imagination. I feel like Terrance and his story are effective because Junior is so out of the loop. If he lived in a city and had a smartphone and a Twitter feed and a bunch of friends, the ambiguity would be gone. He sort of has to go on what he's being told... Exactly, which goes back to you talking about isolation at the beginning. That's why it works. Well, now that we've worked our way back to the beginning, let's end by talking about the fact that I'm Thinking of Ending Things is being turned into a Netflix movie by Charlie Kaufman. I wonder if that last sentence is surreal enough that you just want to sort of talk about it? Yeah. It's been a great experience so far, because it was so unexpected. The last time we talked we discussed how interior I'm Thinking of Ending Things is and how impossible it would be to adapt into a film. A movie version was never in my mind, but if I could have picked anybody to do it I would have said Charlie Kaufman. So it was an unbelievable surprise that he had interest. I've been really happy with everything so far and Charlie has been so nice and kind and generous. At this stage it's still in development and I'm excited to see the final version and how it turns out.