Rumpus Blog

Been Here Before


After years of anxious separation, people are finally relaxing about the literary/genre fiction divide. Over at Electric Literature, Tobias Carroll asks: now what?

We’re now well into a period where literary writers are able to balance their love for horror (or science fiction, or fantasy) with their craft, and fewer and fewer bat an eye…But now that we’ve gotten past that, there’s another question raised by fiction that falls into the realm of, for lack of a more graceful term, literary horror: how does it deal with our expectations of both of its literary forebears?

Boston, Take It or Leave It


Poe is more of a Bostonian than he liked to think, not in spite of but because of his criticism of the place, because of his keen awareness of the oft-commented upon socio-economic differences that still plague Boston today.

Surprisingly, Edgar Allan Poe and his hometown Boston shared a reciprocal dislike. Molly Labell—a New Yorker who relocated to Massachusetts—writes on The Toast about the largest city in New England, its inhabitants, its writers, and its modern identity.

Frankenstein’s Legacy


For the Guardian, Neil Gaiman discusses the import of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, suggesting that the book arrived and redefined gothic fiction at a culturally apt moment:

Ideas happen when the time is right for them. The ground had been prepared. Gothic fiction had been all the rage for some time: dark, driven men had wandered the corridors of their ancestral homes, finding secret passages and dead relatives, magical, miserable, occasionally immortal; while the questing urge of science had discovered that frogs could twitch and spasm, after death, when current was applied, and, in an era of change, so much more was waiting to be discovered.

The Market Decides


In the midst of debate over Amazon’s place in the publishing industry, Margo Howard raises questions about the authority of its consumer-based literary criticism. When it comes to art, the retail giant’s capitalist-populist approach may do more harm than good:

These people were not reviewing my book, they were reviewing me. Or rich people. Or something. And Amazon gave them the tools, through Vine, to damage my book for the casual browser.

The Secret Lives of Twin Peaks


Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost is working on a novel based on the early 90s television series. The news comes shortly after Showtime announced plans to revive the series in 2016.

According to a press release from publisher Flatiron Books, The Secret Lives of Twin Peaks “reveals what has happened to the people of that iconic fictional town since we last saw them 25 years ago and offers a deeper glimpse into the central mystery that was only touched on by the original series.”

The Book of Gaza

The Book of Gaza, edited by Atef Abu Saif


One of the principal conventions of mainstream American narrative culture—as true for something like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as it is for something like 30 Rock—is that domestic life, which includes the workplace, happens in spite of politics. Politics, in fact, are a pale shadow of domestic life. This makes sense, since American popular culture, which includes what the newspapers, at least, call politics, has no politics. The two parties are ideologically indistinct; broadly speaking they are anti-ideological, vaguely cultural affinity groups; their opposition is effectively that of the old stand-up comedy standby memorably lampooned on the Simpsons. Black guys drive like this, but white guys drive like this. Alec Baldwin is a Republican; Tina Fey is a liberal; yuk yuk. Walter and Patty Berglund’s son rebels by becoming conservative, suffers a guilty, ahem, loss of essence, and decides to grow organic coffee. Politics, in other words, is not personal; it’s merely personality.

As an American with more radical sympathies, I can regret these conventions, but I can’t wholly escape them. I see them in my own writing, and I see them in many of the Anglo-American books that I read. This, as much as any other quality of literature, is what made my reading of The Book of Gaza so searing, so dislocating, and, I think, so necessary. Though they occur against a background of war, displacement, and occupation, these stories are not, in the American sense, political. I don’t believe there is a single mention of Fatah or Hamas or the PA or the Likud. There are no elections. Where there is violence, it is actually nightmarish: dreamlike, a-causal, symbolic, and strange. And yet, whether in a story explicitly about armed resistance, such as Zaki al ’Ela’s “Abu Jaber Goes Back to the Woods,” or in a brief portrait of the utmost ordinariness of daily life, like “Red Lights” by Talal Abu Shawish, there is the abiding sense of politics as Jacques Rancière defined it: “not a conflict between well-defined interest groups; it is an opposition of logics that count the parties and parts of the community in different ways.”

Atef Abu Saif

Atef Abu Saif

The Book of Gaza is a collection of ten stories from both established and new Palestinian writers from Gaza. It was published by Carcanet Press in England, part of a series called “reading the city,” and I should note, although I was only able to review an electronic version, that it is a lovely book, with spare, beautiful illustrations by Mohamed Abusal. It is also very short. None of the stories is longer than 20 pages, and half of them are ten or less. As the editor (and one of the authors), Atef Abu Saif, notes in his introduction, this brevity is itself a function of political reality. Israel imposed restrictions on printing in the occupied territories, and “[c]opying and transporting a story to publishing houses in Jerusalem to be printed was no easy task […] short length helped facilitate publication.” Curiously—or perhaps not—the best of these stories are frequently the shortest. Several of the longer works are somewhat overstuffed. At least one, “A White Flower for David,” by Ghareeb Asqalami, feels like a series of sketches toward a much longer story. It has some of the most affecting writing, line for line, of the whole book, and yet it is often difficult to tell who is doing what to whom. “Red Lights,” on the contrary, is only three pages long. It consists of cab driver hitting every red light and dispensing grudging charity while the narrator sits in the back seat. A radio “brings an air of war, raging war, right into the car.” The narrator watches “mellow faces” and “young men” and “a gaggle of careless, coquettish young women” through the window. “All of them are looking for an escape.”

The quality of writing is less than consistent, although, to be fair, these stories don’t share a translator, and it’s possible that some of the unevenness is result of varying aptitudes with that related, writerly art. But despite its inconsistency, there is a vitality that sometimes lacks in very polished works of English-language fiction. These stories have knees and elbows. “When I Cut Off Gaza’s Head,” by Mona Abu Sharekh, is another piece that may allude to more than it can rightly contain in its length, but it still contains jewels: “Maybe the beginnings of transformations in women’s lives are all much alike.”

Women—writers and characters—predominate. They are often doubly caught, doubly occupied:

She doesn’t feel any relief. She draws a deep breath and wishes that she could smoke, that she could breathe out with each exhalation all the unyielding things within her, the very spectacle of herself in this state. She extends her hand to the light beside her, switches it on, and then takes the packet of cigarettes and the lighter and touches its flame to a cigarette. She almost devours the cigarette with greedy lips, calming her anguish with the cigarette dangling between her upper and lower lips. More composed now, she focuses on breathing the tobacco in and out. She always imagines this scene, but knows absolutely that it will never take place, for she has not, and will not ever try a cigarette. How could she ever dare to acquire something so ostracised in a society like hers, something carved in stone as forbidden – for her and for millions of women like her. (“The Whore of Gaza,” Najlaa Ataallah)

There are no crude sexual liberations or neat epiphanies in the story, and this one woman’s sensual incoherency is one of truest depictions of the relationship between the human body and the divine that I’ve recently read:

Smiling, she flicks through her text messages while he gets ready. She conjures up, with the messages, a picture of the man that sent each one, and recalls also what Allah and his messenger said about how each person should not ‘forget to pursue his share of the world’.

In the end, she takes the proceeds of her occupation and rides around Gaza in a cab, depositing it in the collection boxes at a series of mosques under the silent, bemused gaze of her driver. Then she “heads towards a flat in one of the most beautiful streets in Gaza . . .” Oh, yes, Gaza too has beautiful streets.

“What do you expect from the enemy?” asks an abused laborer in “A White Flower for David.” And a young man who managed to hide from the abuse laughs and cries, “Mercy, of course!” Collectively The Book of Gaza is the story of the logic of oppositions in this occupied land that is, as Abu Saif observes, “difficult to enter” and “even more so” to leave. These are not lives carried out in spite of politics, but because of them—because of the irreconcilable contradictions of love and aspiration banging up against the ubiquity of an enforced waiting, because the desire to be charitable and the desire not to appear to be charitable wait together at the same red light, because forbearance becomes resistance, and necessity becomes choice.

One and The Same


Nosy readers often delight in sleuthing out the parallels between an author’s work and their life, as if an identifiable autobiographical source might change the meaning behind the words. So what happens when authors eliminate the boundary altogether?

By calling these books novels you might say that Coetzee is holding onto a fig leaf. More interestingly, I suspect he is telling us that the word “fiction” was always a fig leaf, that literature can always be deconstructed to arrive at a play of forces that is essentially autobiographical, so that in a sense these more candidly autobiographical works are no more revealing than the fiction that came before them.

A Modern-Day Typewriter


The personal computer may have revolutionized the way writers write, but distractions from the Internet and social media may not make it the ideal tool for writing. Designer Adam Leeb has created a hybrid typewriter called a Hemingwrite. Long battery life, instant on, and a mechanical keyboard help make Hemingwrite feel more like a typewriter or word processor, but with one key distinction—cloud connectivity backs up and syncs documents to services like Google Docs.

The device isn’t available for sale yet, but is currently a semifinalist in Engadget’s Insert Coin contest. Until then, get your typewriter fix with our own iPad app, Typing Writer.

Little Traveler


In support of his new memoir, Little Failure, Gary Shteyngart’s been touring the country. Lucky for us, he’s keeping a journal:

Philip Roth, in a 2000 interview with David Remnick in the pages of this magazine, speaks about the declining number of serious readers in America—he supposes it might even have dwindled to around five thousand. But, Roth says, “five thousand is a lot of people. And, as a friend of mine said about five thousand people, ‘if they came through your living room one at a time, they’d have you in tears.’” Today, that number has fallen to about four thousand, by my estimate, but the intensity of the connection between reader and writer has never been stronger.

Find the rest over at the New Yorker; Shteyngart also reminisces about day-time television, the southern iced tea question, and Atlanta’s chicken and waffles.

Another Story to Guide You


Over at the New Yorker, Etgar Keret and Sayed Kashua continue their conversation:

I believe that this despair is temporary, and that even though there are quite a few political elements that would rather see us despairing, and even though it sometimes seems as if enormous forces are working to convince us that hope is just another word in our national anthem and not a powerful force that can lead to change, people feel deep down that the terrible situation we find ourselves in is not really the only dish on the regional menu.

Notable Los Angeles: 10/20–10/26


Monday 10/20: Joe Perry signs Rocks: My Life in and Out of Aerosmith. 7 p.m. at Book Soup.

Lauren Cobb reads from Boulevard Women. 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books.

Tuesday 10/21: Dan Jones presents and signs The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors. 7 p.m. at Book Soup.

The Moth presents Accident. 7 p.m. doors/7:30 p.m. show at Los Globos. $8 at the door or $16 online for prime seating. 21+ event.

Guernica Annual Print Journal launch party. 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books.


Using Language to Combat Violence


Feminism needs stronger language to combat violence against women, argues Jacqueline Rose in the Guardian. Fourth-wave feminism must confront the issue of male-on-female violence globally, crafting new language “that allows women to claim their place in the world.” She points to various forms of violent oppression women face regularly, from genital mutilation to rape as weapons of war.

The Joy of Someone Else Reading Your Writing


Writing is its own form of music. And though I had read my novel aloud to myself many times and had read passages of it aloud to dozens of audiences on my book tour, hearing another person — a trained actor — reading my writing was a curious kick, a revelation. The words I was hearing were deeply familiar yet somehow refreshingly new. The miles flew past. I actually forgot I was in Ohio.

For The Millions, Bill Morris talks about the pleasure he got out of listening to an actor read his work.


Cinderland by Amy Jo Burns


“The communal voice is not intended to presume upon the memories and experiences of others,” reads the disclaimer on Cinderland’s copyright page, “but to reflect the shared nature of the event itself, as the author remembers it.” Thus begins Amy Jo Burns’ memoir. It is a harrowing sketch of growing up in the overwhelming agony and infrequent ecstasy of Mercury, Pennsylvania—the pseudonym for a small, rustbelt town, which Burns describes as “an Appalachian Miss Havisham, tattered and waiting for someone who would never show.” The monotony of Mercury’s decline is shattered, though, when seven girls accuse a middle school teacher—Mr. Lotte—of molesting them during piano lessons in his home.

While Burns was also a victim, she stays silent, unlike the other seven, and her guilt echoes through the rest of her childhood. She dedicates the book to the seven and “to all the others too.” Mr. Lotte casts a shadow on every page, and Burns is a master at depicting her choices and actions in a way that silently alludes to the molestation without hitting her reader over the head. When Burns makes decisions about her friends, her romantic relationships, her extracurricular activities, and her college choice, Mr. Lotte is standing over her shoulder, and it’s terrifying.

Equally terrifying is the figure over her other shoulder: Mercury itself. Burns describes the town as a place full of “mundane items that are often mislabeled as antiques” and where “innocence is the small-town girl’s currency.” Burns’ ability to transfer Mercury to the page is fantastic and spot on, bringing to mind other great small-town portrayals like Karen Valby’s Welcome to Utopia and David Connerley Nahm’s recent Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky. Mercury is very much a character in this book, and while Burns occasionally feels like a part of the town, most of the time the town is an oppressive, separate force that silently judges every move she makes, a place where complicity and complacency go hand in hand. Mercury imposes silence on the girls who don’t come forward and punishes the girls who do, blaming the victims for shattering the town’s sleepy facade. Burns gives Mercury a voice through letters to the judge and whispers of betrayal among the grade-school girls. “The difference between Nineveh and Mercury is singular,” Burns writes, “Nineveh repented when Jonah delivered his message, and Mercury did not.”

Amy Jo Burns

Amy Jo Burns

Burns wants to flee the town’s entropy, and she looks to Mercury’s most famous escapee, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, for inspiration. Burns is so desperate to ensure her departure that one of her highest priorities in picking a boyfriend is whether or not she thinks he’ll leave Mercury. But despite her eagerness to leave, Burns sometimes loses herself in the comfort of small-town ritual. Her sanctuary is the church boys at summer camp, who “were pros at finding fun in places it didn’t exist.” She wants a place in the spotlight, either in school plays or as the homecoming queen.

Burns’ writing is deliciously dense and full of perfectly picked observations. Reading Cinderland almost instantly brought to mind Jo Ann Beard’s collection of memoir essays The Boys of My Youth. In both works, boys and men serve as catalyst, occasion, and antagonists for the writing. Burns and Beard have a similarly powerful command of language and the ability to be brutally honest and sympathetic toward their past selves. The difference is that Beard’s scope is bigger, both in terms of her themes and the period of her life. Burns would have benefited by following suit and not hanging so much of the book on Mr. Lotte. She takes us on tangential anecdotes where Lotte is out of the spotlight, but then jerks him back to the spotlight with transitions that feel forced. Burns’ depiction of her own life and the town are great, but she keeps returning to Lotte as a touchstone even when it doesn’t seem necessary or natural.

Despite this, Cinderland is a powerful and captivating memoir, especially for a debut. As Burns recounts and questions the choices she made in her youth, both the brave ones and the safe ones, she forces her readers to ask what we would have done, if we could have been strong enough to say something. This is, of course, what makes a memoir a success: not just being able to see the world through the author’s eyes, but understanding the whys and the hows of that foreign, intrinsically proprietary reality.

Sunday Links


This week’s Sunday Rumpus essay made me especially attuned to other pieces that touch on immigration and power differentials. In “On Publishing a First Memoir,” Daisy Hernandez recalls a teenaged boy, an artist, who was in the U.S. without papers when he won a contest.

“He walked onto that stage, and for the first time, he mattered. ‘I was somebody,’ he said, standing by this work table in a T-shirt and jeans. He said it with such conviction, such insistence — ‘I was somebody’ — because he knew deep down inside that not everyone in the world agreed with him. His own papi didn’t agree with him. Who had ever paid the rent with art?” (more…)

Notable NYC: 10/18–10/24


Saturday 10/18: Poetry Forum 2014. The New School, 10 a.m., $45 daily / $135 full pass.

Melissa Buckheit reads poetry along with Corollary Press founder Sueyeun Juliette Lee. Berl’s Poetry Shop.

Happy fifth anniversary Greenlight Bookstore. Celebrate all day, party at night. Greenlight Bookstore, 7:30 p.m., free.

Peyton Marshall talks with Julia Fierro about Marshall’s debut novel Good House (September 2014), the story of a graduate student who is witness to arson. Fierro’s debut, Cutting Teeth (2014), explores the lives of bourgeois families enjoying a long weekend. BookCourt, 7 p.m., free.


The Efficacy of Words


The truth is that the horror of being eaten outpaces the horror of death by any other means. Microbe, animal, another human: being consumed feels sharper, entirely visceral. But why?

Over at Guernica, Lance Richardson writes on Peter Gorman’s Ayahuasca in My Blood: 25 Years of Medicine Dreaming, an ethnographic account of his experiences  in the Amazon. Richardson writes: “[Reading Gorman,] I discovered that plants like ayahuasca broaden the bands of our senses so that we see, hear, feel, touch, taste and sense things we can’t under ordinary circumstances.”

Richardson narrows his discussion to one particular event in Gorman’s book: almost being eaten alive. Richardson questions the efficacy of words in relating experience from one person to another, in broadening the bands of our senses, in relating the pure dread of being eaten alive.

Calvino’s New York


Sometimes I worry that New York changes too quickly. I find myself clinging to things, silly things I wouldn’t have imagined, like the Kentile Floors sign or Joe’s Superette. “Brooklyn as brand has overtaken Brooklyn as place,” I remember reading in the New York Observer months ago. So many people move to New York looking for a different version of the city where I grew up. Sometimes, after living for so long in the same neighborhood, it’s easy to be envious of that, to want to move somewhere without nostalgia, to move somewhere that feels totally new.

At The Airship, Freddie Moore takes a trip through Calvino’s Invisible Cities and finds New York.

This Week in Short Fiction


As the story goes, nearly 100 years ago a group of Surrealist artists gathered together and put a new spin on an old parlor game called Consequences. The meeting resulted in their collective authorship of this phrase: “The/ exquisite/ corpse/ will/ drink/ the/ young/ wine.” Now familiar to many writers by the name of “Exquisite Corpse,” the game requires at least three participants who send round a single sheet of paper on which each member, looking only at the entry that came before him or her, makes a written or drawn contribution, folds over the paper, and passes it on to the next person. The final result, believed by those wily Surrealists to be a representation of the “collective personality” of the group, is only revealed after all members have made their contributions. Here, for example, is a drawn selfie by Jacques Hérold, Yves Tanguy, and Victor Brauner from 1932.

On Thursday, Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (2013), corralled 15 well-known authors—from Joshua Ferris to Zadie Smith to Nicholson Baker to R.L. Stine (!) to do an Exquisite Corpse a la 2014. (more…)