Rumpus Blog

Words for Words Without Music


Philip Glass has written a memoir.

Philip Glass has written a memoir.

The composer Philip Glass has written a memoir.

Philip Glass has written a memoir. It begins in Baltimore.

The composer Philip Glass has written a memoir. It begins in Baltimore.

The American composer Philip Glass, known for his use of repetition and incremental variation, has written a memoir.

For The Nation, David Hajdu reviews Philip Glass’s memoir, Words Without Music.

The Joy of Knausgaard


For Flavorwire, Jonathon Sturgeon works to define “contemporary” literature and wonders where Karl Knausgaard’s My Struggle fits into the mix. What he ultimately argues is that contemporary literature is often “project based,” and that Knausgaard’s self-exploratory novel is the most definitive example of this kind of work in recent times:

Not only does the title My Struggle claim for Knausgaard the agency to define his own project, it also points to the audacity of its own belatedness. In other words: part of the joy of reading Knausgaard is watching him elevate a version of his life, by will, into posterity, when it shouldn’t be possible — when stupid critics would police its possibility.

Kafka’s Father


Franz Kafka’s letters reveal how the author’s father impacted his writing and his life, and a relationship fraught with fear. Kafka worried about his father’s “intellectual domination” creating an environment of “emotional tyranny.” Over at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova finds in Kafka’s letters a deeply haunting father-son relationship:

What I would have needed was a little encouragement, a little friendliness, a little keeping open of my road, instead of which you blocked it for me, though of course with the good intention of making me go another road. But I was not fit for that… At that time, and at that time in every way, I would have needed encouragement.

Letters for Kids Signed Book Giveaway


We’re doing another Letters for Kids giveaway! Win a beautiful hardcover edition of The Key & The Flame, signed by the author Claire M. Caterer! (Claire also wrote our next Letter for Kids.) All you have to do for a chance to win is head over to our Letters for Kids Facebook page by May 2nd and leave a comment telling us where you first heard of Letters for Kids. The winner will be announced on the Letters for Kids Facebook page on May 3rd. And even if you’ve won before, you can still enter!

For more information on Letters for Kids, click here. Or click here to subscribe now, and get Claire’s letter delivered to your favorite kid’s mailbox! And, to receive our new, free newsletter, click here.

Didn’t Know a Thing


BOMB Magazine continues its Oral History project: a collection of oral biographies about New York City’s African-American artists. This week, Alteronce Gumby’s subject is Stanley Whitley:

Stanley told me once, “There are many art histories … and many art worlds.” The more I talked to him about his work and influences, the more I found that statement to be true. Every artist creates their own history, their lineage through other artists and practices that lead them to this “thing” called art, and it takes place in their studios, their world. It takes more than just a BFA or MFA degree to arrive at a place in one’s practice where subject, material, and image project a new idea and perspective of the world around us.

Notable Los Angeles: 4/27–5/3


Monday 4/27: Elizabeth Alexander discusses and signs her new memoir, The Light of the World. 6:30 p.m. at Diesel Bookstore.

April Dammann discusses and signs Corita Kent. Art & Soul. The Biography. 7 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore.

Sarah Tomlinson reads from her new memoir Good Girl. 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books.

Tuesday 4/28: Red Hen Press presents readings by Gary Dop, Steve Langan, Ramón García, Elena Karina Byrne, and Hélène Cardona. 6:30 p.m. at the Annenberg Beach House. The event is free, but parking will cost you.


Weekend Rumpus Roundup


For National Poetry Month Days 25 & 26, Christian Anton Gerard and Ada Limon provide us with poems of love and luck.

Then, Sean Donovan has good things to say in his Saturday Review of the film It Follows, a “clever” tribute to John Carpenter and the horror cinema of the 80s. It Follows is refreshing in its offering of a strong female protagonist, which “provides the film with a merciful self-awareness,” Donovan argues.

In the Sunday Book Review, Lesley Heiser takes us back to the world of literature when she examines two memoirs by Wendy Ortiz, National Book Award Winner Phil Klay’s Redeployment, William James’s 1910 essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” and Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf. (more…)

Satin Island

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy


On the cover of Tom McCarthy’s new novel, a number of words appear crossed out. “A manifesto,” “an essay,” “a report,” “a confession,” and “a treatise” are all struck through, leaving only the words “a novel” un-slashed. But none of these terms quite captures what Satin Island really is: a polemic. Here Tom McCarthy fully embraces his notion of “invented reality” that he espoused last December in the London Review of Books. He quotes J.G. Ballard’s introduction from his 1973 novel Crash: “We live inside an enormous novel,” Ballard writes, “It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.” McCarthy reminds us that “Realism is a literary convention – no more, no less – and is therefore as laden with artifice as any other literary convention,” as if artifice were the death knell of any realist work. He lauds Burroughs’ cut-up technique and asserts, “20th-century avant-garde often paints a far more realistic picture of experience than 19th-century realists ever did.”

Despite the hue of postmodernity in McCarthy’s argument, this idea is not new. Near the end of the 19th century Oscar Wilde, in his essay “The Decay of Lying,” makes the following comparison: “The difference between such a book as M. Zola’s L’Assommoir and Balzac’s Illusions Perdues is the difference between unimaginative realism and imaginative reality.” Though unwilling to fully praise Balzac’s novels (“He set far too high a value on modernity of form,” Wilde ruefully notes), Wilde does extol Balzac’s creative power: “He created life, he did not copy it.”

So here, now, is McCarthy’s coup de grâce on realism, his fourth novel, Satin Island. Here we get almost no descriptions of characters, places, or things. Here we have characters with only first names––Madison, Daniel, etc.––and a protagonist referred to only as U. Here we have an eerily cryptic corporation involved in an even murkier project called Koob-Sassen. Like Burroughs’ cut-up technique, Satin Island traces four disparate narratives in which the only correlative tissue is U., our mysterious corporate anthropologist, assigned the task of composing The Great Report, a be-all-end-all statement on our epoch. The stories, if we can call them that, have little or no thrust, no narrative momentum. Instead, they greatly suggest meaning with proximity yet seem to mock you for finding any. In other words, McCarthy throws out many of the so-called rules of fiction writing in order to depict something he believes to be greatly missing from realism: the erratic and associative movements of the mind.

In his essay, McCarthy quotes Ford Madox Ford, who, according to McCarthy, “brilliantly skewers the claim that a certain prose style––that of realism––faithfully and objectively captures historical events and mental activity.” Here is, in part, the quotation:

Life does not say to you: in 1914 my next-door neighbour, Mr Slack, erected a greenhouse and painted it with Cox’s green aluminium paint … If you think about the matter you will remember, in various unordered pictures, how one day Mr Slack appeared in his garden and contemplated the wall of his house. You will then try to remember the year of that occurrence and you will fix it as August 1914 because having had the foresight to bear the municipal stock of the City of Liège you were able to afford a first-class season ticket for the first time in your life. You will remember Mr Slack – then much thinner because it was before he found out where to buy that cheap Burgundy of which he has since drunk an inordinate quantity though whisky you think would be much better for him!

Ford wrote those words in 1924, at a time when many other Modernist novelists were trying to depict this very thing. Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Gertrude Stein all embraced an essentially, in McCarthy’s definition, anti-realist view. The point is that writers and critics have long argued the merits of realism, and have implemented their stances in their art. But what makes Satin Island different from, say, To the Lighthouse or Ulysses is that it not only embodies this tradition but also argues for it. McCarthy’s novel is a polemic against the aspirations of realist novels and novelists, which are dismissed as ultimately fruitless (though intoxicating) enterprises.

Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy

Here’s what I mean. When U. is assigned the “Great Report” from his vague but very cool boss Peyman, he’s told to write “the Document… the Book. The First and Last Word on our age.” When U. expresses concern by noting that anthropology has greatly changed in the last century, Peyman tells him not to worry, that the Report will “find its shape.” Throughout, U. continually considers his impossibly grand task. He cites Lévi-Strauss, his hero, and notes: “I spent my twenties wanting to be Lévi-Strauss––which is ironic, since he spent most of his life wanting to be somebody or something else: a philosopher, say, or novelist, or poet.” He evokes Bronislaw Malinowski’s dictum “Write Everything Down” but soon ceases the practice. “What if,” he wonders, “rather than it finding its shape, the age itself, in all its shape-shifting and multi-channeled incarnations, were to find and mold it?” His most exciting development comes when he postulates what he calls “Present-Tense Anthropology… an anthropology that bathed in presence, and in nowness.”

This is McCarthy’s model for contemporary realism, a kind of homogenized and corporatized attempt to characterize an era, to capture the nowness of things in a text. McCarthy, so dismissive of what he condescendingly refers to as “Oprah literature” (which he characterizes as “candid confession and exposure of personal peccadillos”) takes aim at these endeavors with a strange airiness, a lightness, as if he assumes the reader agrees with his thesis. U. is never going to write the “Great Report,” just as Satin Island fails to deliver a meaty or meaningful climax, both of which become clear very early on in the novel. By the end––during which time McCarthy eschews realism’s commitment to characterization, rising action, plot, and heart––Satin Island can be seen for what it is: an intellectual enterprise formulated on McCarthy’s ideas on realism more than reality.

McCarthy knows how to tell a story, as evidenced in his previous novels, especially Remainder, which creates its own reality, focusing its narrative attention on the protagonist’s altered mind, all while riveting the reader with causality, momentum and meaning. With Satin Island, McCarthy makes an argument for the future of fiction, for the futility of contemporary fiction. But he forgets a few vital aspects of storytelling. First, his essay on realism carries with it an implicit contention about fiction itself: that it has a responsibility to depict reality. This, of course, is not at all true. Fiction has no responsibilities to anyone or anything. Sure, to aspire to reflect the real world or create one’s own are worthwhile pursuits, but they are no more required of a novel than last names or descriptions. McCarthy has every right to produce a book like Satin Island, but he would be remiss if he thought it amounts to anything more than his own version of a narrative aesthetic. And it seems his version isn’t very interested in depicting reality, because his characters and the world he invents are missing one crucial component: humanity.

In Search of Women


The latest VIDA count might have some disappointing if unsurprising results, but there are empowered women involved in the literary community if you know where to look. Danielle Lazarin compiled a list of journals run by women over at The Review Review and reflects on her choice to focus on these journals:

Most of my writer friends are women. My current writer’s group is all women; two-thirds of my MFA program: women; readers of my manuscript drafts: women. Why did I know so many women writers and yet was always addressing my submissions to men?


The Fine Art of Fucking Up by Cate Dicharry


Cate Dicharry’s excellent debut novel, The Fine Art of Fucking Up, weaves humor and humanity to explore one woman’s personal and professional dissatisfaction and to suggest how we all might be able to cleave past our setbacks to find our own joy.

Dicharry assembles a delightfully absurd cast of characters. The protagonist, Nina Lanning, is the administrative coordinator at the School of Visual Arts and she appears to be the calm eye at the center of both bureaucratic and personal storms. Her boss has retreated from any professional duties to indulge her obsession with romance novels, and the professors Nina now finds herself in charge of are behaving like grade school students with a substitute teacher. Meanwhile, Nina’s marriage is strained by her husband’s baby fever. This set of circumstances would be enough to set a nice story in motion, but Dicharry ups the ante. (more…)

Oakland Is The New Everything


The lineup for the first annual Oakland Book Festival has just been announced. But you don’t have to wait until the festival—on May 31st—to put on a tweed jacket and tell your favorite Jack London story on Telegraph Avenue.

On Thursday, April 30th, Greil Marcus and Justin Desmangles (of the Before Columbus Foundation) will hold a public discussion about “multicultural literary work focused on the Bay Area” at Laurel Book Store on Broadway. Consider it a warm-up for the main event.

As its more famous sibling across the Bay continues to mutate in startling ways, it’s tempting to focus on everything that has changed in Oakland, too. But Oakland’s literary tradition—with its working-class roots and its emphasis on political action—is as old as the city itself. Oakland may be the new everything, but literature is the old Oakland.

Notable NYC: 4/25–5/1


Saturday 4/25: Cassandra Seltman, Ian Hatcher, and Clare Nazarena Tascio celebrate the release of Seltman’s poetry volume Palimpset: Down. Mellow Pages, 7 p.m., free.

Ronaldo V. Wilson and Renée Green join the Segue Series. Zinc Bar, 4:30 p.m., $5.

Sunday 4/26: CLMP hosts the annual Lit Mag Fair. Discounted literary magazines and some editors will be available to answer questions. Housing Works, all day, free.

Porochista Khakpour, Kyla Marshell, Ethan Sirotko, and Sara Wallace join The Eagle and The Wren reading series. BookCourt, 7 p.m., free.


Next Letter in the Mail: Aracelis González Asendorf


We’re getting ready to send out our next Letter in the Mail, and it’s from writer Aracelis González Asendorf. Aracelis González Asendorf writes to us from sunny Florida about the joys of family and the Cuban tradition of pig roasts!

Aracelis was born in Cuba and raised in Florida. Her short stories have appeared in Kweli Journal, Puerto del Sol, Sunscripts, Creative Loafing, and The Acentos Review. Her short stories have been included in the anthologies 100% Pure Florida Fiction and All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color. She has been a contributor at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a recipient of a New York State Summer Writers Institute scholarship, and a Pushcart Prize nominee. A former English and Spanish teacher, she is currently an MFA candidate at the University of South Florida.

To make sure this letter finds its way to your mailbox, subscribe to Letters in the Mail now!

You’re Not a Real Writer


 If anything, other people’s success should only encourage me: if they did it, so can I. But that’s where the self-doubt steps in and says, They can do it BUT YOU NEVER WILL BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT A REAL WRITER. It’s the same voice that tells me submitting to writing contests is a waste of money. (It really is, though). It’s the same voice that says, You will never be anything other than what you are at this very moment.

At Electric Literature, Lindsay Merbaum explores a feeling achingly familiar to most writers: self-doubt.

Read More Women


The message sent to women that what they are writing isn’t important or serious enough is not a new one. It is as old as literature itself. And its persistence has everything to do with how women’s literature is treated in college and university classrooms and, in turn, how it is treated in the literary world.

At The Millions, Anne Boyd Rioux argues that reading more women writers in the classroom is an important part of creating a future society that values the perspectives of women.

This Week in Short Fiction


Let’s talk about sentences. Let’s talk about how poets, when they let their lines run long to prose, can make sentences sing. And if we’re going to talk about those sentences, we must also talk about details. Details, details, and more details.

It all started on waking Thursday morning and reading David Ebenbach’s “Nobody Else Gets to Be Crazy When You’re Being Crazy,” which is up over at AGNI Online. The title and several sentences in the 969-word piece seem to indicate that to be the “crazy one” in a family, a community, or a relationship, is a desired position. The person making the address in this story seems almost envious of the free and unexplained histrionics and oddities afforded to the mentally unstable. In this way, the story imbues a certain power to the mentally ill. Falling always outside the restrictions of the norm becomes a currency of freedom.

But we’ve gotten away from the sentences. (more…)

Next Letter for Kids: Claire Caterer


We’re sending our next Letter for Kids from Claire Caterer! Claire writes to us about her outdoor wild friend Pete the cardinal. Pete’s not like other cardinals but he has won Claire’s heart, and he’ll win yours too. This letter is handwritten with lots of awesome drawings of Pete doing all sorts of things. Claire is the author of The Key & The Flame and she’s generously donated a signed copy for our next giveaway—keep an eye on our Facebook page for details!

Don’t miss out on this awesome letter—subscribe today! For more information on Letters for Kids, click here. And, Letters for Kids is now on Twitter and Pinterest, so visit us there, too.

Notable Chicago: 4/24–4/30


Friday 4/24: The Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo (C2E2) opens at 11 a.m. and runs until Sunday at 5 p.m. You need to purchase tickets to attend the weekend-long event at McCormick Place.

While you’re at it, rage on at King Bone Press’s Indie Comix Expo after party. Reggie’s Rockclub, 6-11 p.m.

Kate Hannigan launches The Detective’s Assistant, a mystery for young readers. Seminary Co-op’s 57th Street Books, 3 p.m.

Reporter Peter Slevin discusses Michelle Obama: A Life at Women & Children First, 7:30 p.m.


Creativity and Mental Illness


Though I did not know it then, Adeline was not just a work of fiction, or an act of literary ventriloquism. It was my suicide note. Had I succeeded in taking my life, this would have been clear.

At Lit Hub, Norah Vincent writes about the intensity of creating her Virginia Woolf novel Adeline, the link between creativity and mental illness, and how this led her to attempt taking her own life.