Rumpus Blog

Man V. Nature

Man V. Nature by Diane Cook

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A woman, Linda, returns from the hospital with her newborn baby, Beatrice. As she and her husband pull into the driveway, they see a man waiting in their backyard, “skulking behind the maple.” Linda hurries inside the house hugging Beatrice to her chest as her husband tries to scare the man away. “Inside, she watched the man in the yard watch the house. She knew it wouldn’t be long before he got inside. He always did.” And sure enough, after several vigilant, sleepless days and nights, Linda answers her door to sign for a package, sees that the package is not addressed to her, and runs after the mailman to return it—realizing her mistake, she hurries back into her house screaming, only to find that Beatrice is gone. Desperate, she turns to the neighboring women for help, to which they respond that she shouldn’t worry: he always takes the first two or three.

That is the beginning of “Somebody’s Baby,” the third story in Man V. Nature, Diane Cook’s collection of twelve deeply unsettling stories. Cook, who was a radio producer on This American Life for six years, has succeeded in writing one of the most original, unforgettable releases of the year. Each of the twelve stories is unlike any I have read before: masterfully constructed, deftly written, and strange in only the ways that count.

Cook is committed to the uncanny. The worlds of her stories are like our own but unnerving and different, somehow menacing. The strength of each story’s conceit lies in the author’s awareness of our deepest fears and, therefore, desires—the possibilities that frighten and electrify and consume and terrorize and animate us all at once. In that way, Cook has written a collection of ambivalence: Man V. Nature oscillates rapidly between divergent poles of familiarity and strangeness, likeness and difference, comfort and horror, love and hatred. Her stories live in the twilit nether of the neither/nor.

Through it all, a basso continuo rumbles the domestic scaffold around which each tale wraps itself. The tension between social structure and primal desire seems to always approach a breaking point, a level of unsustainability that might explode the book’s binding and singe the hair on the backs of the reader’s fingers. Each of Cook’s characters is an individual in the Foucauldian sense: “the product of a relation of power exercised over bodies.” The question is whether it is civilization, our civility, that has grown too severe, or our animality.

“Moving On,” the first story, modifies our world in a curt, believable way that makes the reader feel acutely all of the feelings that the State, which is mentioned in several stories, seems to reject. “They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs,” the narrator begins, and immediately we know that someone or something now has within its jurisdiction the mourning of a widow. She is then placed in a women’s shelter where she begins the brutal process of moving on, an undertaking that she is forced to endure by the Placement Team. Her brief memories of her husband are understated and nonspecific enough to move the reader after only a couple of pages.

I had a picture of us hidden under my mattress. It was one of those pictures couples take when they are alone in a special place, at a moment they want to remember. We smooshed our heads together and my husband held the camera out and snapped the picture. We look distorted, ecstatic. One night, I fell asleep while looking at it; it dropped to the floor, was found at wake-up, and was confiscated. I still can’t believe I was so careless.

Diane Cook

Diane Cook

“The Way the End of Days Should Be” is the portrait of a selfish man at the end of the world. Some unnamed event has resulted in a massive flood, which leaves the narrator, who had planned for this day, alone in his well-stocked, fortified stilt house. He routinely turns away beggars in boats until one day he decides to take in a drunk named Gary. What follows is an absurd, darkly comic chronicle of the kind of love that we feel even when we refuse to acknowledge its existence. Man V. Nature’s peculiar blend of the stark (a broken, hopeless world), the funny (the businesspeople who hold an impromptu board meeting on the roof of a skyscraper to discuss what, exactly, to do about the horrifying monster that is about to tear them to shreds), and the somehow erotic (Gary, for instance, whom the selfish man often invites into his bed, or the woman who becomes obsessed with a meteorologist), is one of the closer things to Kafkaesque that I have had the good fortune to encounter since that frustrating phrase was coined.

The stories are dream-like in several ways. They are possessed of that specific mixture of definition and shadow, of specificity and anonymity. In a dream, it may make perfect sense for someone whose face is invisible to say, “You should put Aunt Liz in the trash,” and then for you to open the garbage can and find that it is teeming with millions of ants. These stories, too, explore the place between the metaphorical and the literal, along with the subterranean eros that exists there. “It’s Coming,” the title of the story about the businesspeople, functions in more than one sense of the word “come.” On the one hand, the monster approaches, destroying everything in its path. On the other, two employees seize their final moment as an opportunity to bring each other to orgasm. The reader asks if this is another way of looking at coming: as the inevitable realization of an unharnessable, primitive force of death, la petite mort.

In many of the stories in Man V. Nature, Cook explores femininity with unrelenting scrutiny. “Girl on Girl” concerns a young teenager who finds herself the target of her former friend’s abuse. When she stumbles upon the friend, Marni, on her back in the bathroom demanding that the two snotty members of her entourage stomp on her stomach as hard as they can, both the reader and the narrator are at a loss as to what we are witnessing. “The world is where things feel too hard to explain, and so they stay a secret,” she says, and the reader realizes that each of these stories is born of a hard, hidden secret.

Some of the stories are short and nondescript enough to be fables: “Marrying Up,” for instance, about a woman who marries a large man to protect her from the violence outside, and who bears his similarly massive son; or “Flotsam,” about a single woman who every time she does her laundry finds yet another foreign item of children’s clothing. (The latter story has one of the more extraordinary beginnings I have read: “‘Linda means “beautiful” in Spanish,’ the man in her bed whispers. ‘My name is Lydia,’ she whispers back.”)

Others feel like novellas. “Man V. Nature” concerns three men, lifelong friends, each insufferable in his own way, who embark on a fishing trip and soon run out of gas. Cook’s gaze is unremitting, even as their friendships dissolve and their less civil urges begin to consume them. “Meteorologist Dave Santana” is about Janet, an expertly drawn person who will remind the reader of at least one friend or colleague. She is almost sociopathic in her aversion to long-term relationships, preferring instead to obsessively masturbate over the televised weather forecasts of a meteorologist who is “classically unattractive—short and balding, his light-colored skin and hair hardly distinguishable from one another, and his eyebrows almost nonexistent.” Yet something about Janet’s story rings true, and deeply so. Man V. Nature delivers again and again that feeling that readers seek out, the feeling that the story is speaking a truth, something you have experienced before but have never been able to put into words. And “Meteorologist Dave Santana” contains a wonderful new word: “The mulch around the front windows of Dave’s town house was oversprinklered.”

I have spent the last few days telling everyone I know about this book. It is easy to be a missionary for Man V. Nature. The stories lend themselves to quick, startling previews. But these summaries miss the real power of Cook’s fiction. It is always profoundly startling, but without being scary in a shallow way. It is alarming in the way the visions and pictures that come to us when we sleep are alarming—they mean something more, something unknowable and yet essential, just beyond our grasp. Cook’s fiction is moving in a way that testifies to her deep familiarity with the human experience. And it is never, for lack of a better word, oversprinklered.

Notable San Francisco: 11/26–12/2

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Wednesday 11/26: The Berkeley Slam presents Sock Puppet Slam—yes, all three-minute poems are performed with sock puppets, with special guest feature Caitlin Gill ($7-10, 7:30 p.m. signup, show at 8:15 p.m., The Starry Plough).

Saturday 11/29: Evan Morgan Williams reads from his collection of stories, Thorn (Free, 1 p.m., Book Passage Ferry).

Saturday Night Special presents short features by Sarah Kobrinsky and Renee Swindle, along with 19 3-minute open mic slots, all with a “Saucy” theme (Free, 7 p.m. signup, Nick’s Lounge).

Sunday 11/30: Donnelle Malnik reads and performs songs from her book/album combo Ghost in the Music, with special performances from Carletta Sue Kay and Sarah Bethe Nelson (Free, 8 p.m., Adobe Books).

(more…)

Women Read Women

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Women read books written by women and men read books written by men, reports the Guardian. A study of Goodreads data suggests that people prefer reading books written by those who share their gender. The study also reveals that men and women read roughly the same number of books; however, women read twice as many books published in 2014 as men did.

Smoking Gun

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Etgar Keret has a new short story at the New Yorker, and an interview with Deborah Treisman afterwards. When she asks him about the piece’s political connotations, he gifts her the courtesy of a joke:

There is an old Israeli joke about an Israeli-Palestinian who finishes his law studies and goes to ask for a job at a big Tel Aviv-based law firm. One of the senior partners takes him to a huge, beautiful office and tells him that it’s his new office, then hands him the keys to a Porsche and tells him that it’s his new car. “You’re kidding!” the Israeli-Palestinian says, surprised. “I am,” the senior partner says. “But you started it.” (more…)

Love in the Library

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What is it about the stacks that gets everyone so hot and bothered? Over at The Millions, Elisabeth Cohen explores the Mary/Magdalene dichotomy in the figure of the female librarian:

The whole good-natured romp of it bespeaks a clear message: Bad girls are redeemed in the library. Casually promiscuous would-be actresses can be reissued as the wives of successful photographers. No matter how many times an item is checked out, when it returns to the library, its past is wiped clean.

Ferguson: A Rumpus Roundup

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Early in August, unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.

While protests broke out in the weeks following Brown’s death, Wilson remained free, awaiting a grand jury indictment. Grand juries decide whether or not a crime has been committed, not whether a person is guilty. The burden of proof is significantly lower, but an indictment allows prosecution to move forward with a formal trial.

After the initial series of protests, a calm settled over Ferguson while the grand jury deliberated. Darren Wilson married a fellow Ferguson police officer. Former New York City police officer and mayor Rudy Giuliani said some racist things, including, “White police officers won’t be there if you weren’t killing each other.” Two alleged Black Panther members were arrested after acquiring explosives.

Then, on Monday night, the grand jury announced that they would not indict Darren Wilson. (more…)

Moisseinen image feature

The New York Comics & Picture-Story Symposium: Hanneriina Moisseinen

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The New York Comics & Picture-Story Symposium is a weekly forum for discussing the tradition and future of text/image work. Open to the public, it meets Tuesday nights 7-9 p.m. EST in New York City. (more…)

Known Pleasures

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In the wake of So This Is Permanence, a recently released archive of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis’s notebooks, Jillian Mapes reflects on why artists’ scribblings mean so much to fans:

“It’s a human reaction to see handwritten things, as opposed to typewritten things, as being quite intimate,” Savage tells me. “Rock music is burdened with this kind of authenticity. And it’s also burdened with generational expectation and identification.”

Fail Again, Fail Better

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How it all got so bad is a blur. I blocked the door. I blacked out the basement windows. I remember myself curled in feral positions, sounds on repeat getting louder, climbing up and out of the window to piss in the grass. When I had an exam, I studied for sixteen hours, then didn’t go. I called home and my parents said they would rather I didn’t talk to my siblings.

Over at The Hairpin, Sarah Nicole Prickett recalls the two times she dropped out of college, and all that doing so entailed.

Robinson Renewed

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For The Millions, Alex Engebretson argues that despite the twenty-four year gap between the publication of Marilynne Robinson’s first and second novel, the author’s recurring themes and imagery present a “singular vision”:

Instead of an author who recreated herself late in her career, Robinson is one who has returned and renewed imaginative possibilities already latent within her first book.

Brecht in Love

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Who would’ve thought Bertolt Brecht would turn out to be such a romantic? While his newly released Love Poems are surprisingly erotic compared to his better-known plays, they retain that Marxist flair we know and love:

Brecht’s love poems might just as easily be dubbed the death of love poems, since he is concerned with the vicissitudes of love, with the manner in which one is first defined and then destroyed by love. You get the feeling that sex for Brecht is not just a life-giving bliss in itself, but a private theater in which bourgeois morality is flouted and trounced.

Sweetness #9

Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark

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The tension between wanting to enjoy what we have and finding ourselves unable to do so is the subject of Sweetness #9, the first novel by Stephan Eirik Clark. David Levereaux is a young graduate of the food science program at Rutgers who has started work at Goldstein, Olivetti, and Dark, “an industry giant” in food and flavor development. David narrates his story, which begins in 1973 and proceeds to the present day. His time in Goldstein’s animal testing labs introduces him to Sweetness #9, “The Nine,” an artificial sweetener not unlike saccharine or aspartame. A series of tests performed on lab rats and monkeys awakens David to the possibility that Sweetness #9 is more harmful than anyone has yet disclosed—after several weeks of exposure to the sweetener, one of David’s rats, which he has named Louie, becomes lethargic and refuses to complete a maze test. The lab’s monkeys soon grow obese and refuse to do anything but watch television. After informing a superior of his suspicions about Sweetness #9, David returns to his lab only to find that each of the animals has been replaced with a new, thin, healthy imposter.

Through all of this and the events that follow, which land our flavorist briefly in a mental hospital, David contextualizes himself and his story within the political state of affairs in America and abroad. “It was the summer of 1973 and I too was doing my part to win the Cold War, for if anything other than an ICBM could clear the Berlin Wall, it was the taste of a smuggled Ho Ho or Ding Dong—flavors that suggested a life freer and more limitless than any possible under the grey yoke of Communism.” At first these asides, which demonstrate a sympathy for Richard Nixon, an admiration of Ronald Reagan, and a willingness to invest the hamburger and the Hot Pocket with national pride, seem absurd and implausible. Who really thinks that way? But David Levereaux was born in Britain and “brought to America while [he was] still in short pants”; he has been “a student of the culture since he was a young boy.” For him, the American predilection for vanilla flavoring was not a given, it was a unique characteristic of the whole sociopolitical mélange in which he potted himself like a bonsai in Brooklyn.

Stephan Eirik Clark

Stephan Eirik Clark

David’s embrace of the right-of-center zeitgeist, which occasionally feels ham-fisted, explains the novel’s periodic, non sequitur digs at feminism. When I first read them, I wondered what inspired both Clark and David Mitchell to slip in comments about the supposed silliness of a movement predicated on equality for all. Mitchell, in his most recent novel, The Bone Clocks, which I reviewed for The Rumpus, seems to find himself clever when he can create a Dworkinian caricature and tear her down all in one paragraph. The vaguely anti-feminist social conservatism of Clark’s narrator, however, is of a piece with his whole clumsy universe of reliable certainties and faith. “Yes, asking him to lead a field trip was out of the question,” David says of his coworker at FlavAmerica, the flavoring firm that hires him and allows him to become a higher-up in the surprisingly interesting world of flavor development. “It would be like asking a leader of the women’s movement to babysit your kids. Even if I knew the answer would be yes, I wouldn’t be able to sit through the explication leading up to it.” Some are tougher to chalk up to skillful impersonation than others.

As David’s career progresses, along with his desperate efforts to have children with his hapless wife Betty, Clark treats the reader to beautiful discussions of bouquets of flavor that contrast with descriptions of the drab, ultra-processed foods they eat at home. The novel is admirably attendant to the sensual, evocative powers that flavors and odors have in our lives. In that way, it is reminiscent of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which tells the story of Grenouille, a perfumer born with no body scent who kills virgins in search of the perfect odor. Süskind’s and Clark’s novels are a delight to read because both are concerned with painting the sensory kaleidoscope that we all experience but rarely notice.

The more analytical side of Sweetness #9 owes a debt to another story: David Foster Wallace’s “Mister Squishy,” published in the collection Oblivion. In it, Wallace describes a focus group’s encounter with Felonies!, a new chocolate snack cake. The story, in typical Wallace fashion, quickly rebounds from discussions of the minutiae of artificial food production to the serpentine methods of marketing professionals. We are left with a picture of the awkward application of systematized analysis to something as apparently unruly as human taste and experience. All the while, a man armed with a machine gun uses suction cups to climb the outside of the skyscraper in which the focus group is seated. The story does not end with an explosive conflict, but rather with a refusal to resolve the impending catastrophe that has dominated the preceding pages.

Sweetness #9 is guided by this sense of imminent doom. The artificial sweetener comes to dominate the landscape of American food, and its effect is destructive. We get the impression that things are acutely unsustainable, both in David’s family, with his militant bleeding-heart daughter and his monosyllabic son, and in American culture generally. The dramatic power of this device is profound. At several moments, however, I felt frustrated that there seemed to be little criticism of the idea that an artificial sweetener could in fact be the cause of all of society’s ills. To be fair, David’s experience is a testament to that: even after the Levereauxes give up the red dyes and pink crystals that they used to consume, they are still faced with many of the problems that dogged them before. The ending of the novel does not whitewash this, and that is a good thing.

I found myself wishing, however, that Clark had paid more attention to the nostalgia that moves us away from the artificial and toward the natural. This is another manifestation of the fantasy that causes us to hate our cellphones, or to long for a life of foraging and dowsing rods while we sip from supposedly cancerous Nalgene bottles. But it is hard to ignore Clark’s deft, economical prose. Early in the novel, David and Betty try and fail to have sex. They reassure themselves that they love each other and that they will not become the people their parents were. “And then we turned out the lights, and our despair recaptured us in the dark.” The line is breathtaking and the novel is full of them. That sentence alone would be reason enough to read Sweetness #9, even if it weren’t as funny, smart, and entertaining as it is.

Tart, Mitchell, and Gaiman to the Rescue

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After years of financial struggle, Barnes & Noble’s enlists renowned authors like Donna Tart, David Mitchell and Neil Gaiman to help compete with Amazon this holiday season. While Tart and Mitchell will contribute thousands of signed books to helps bolster sales, Gaiman has planned appearances at several of the chain’s bookstores.

Dan Weiss’s Morning Coffee

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will really return next Monday. I can’t begin to say how thankful I am for all of you who’ve been reading this dang thing for so long and for the whole Rumpus community. See you soon.

Next Letter in the Mail: Amy Butcher

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We’re getting ready to send out our next Letter in the Mail and it’s from Amy Butcher! Amy asks did we enjoy our Halloweens? Then, she tells us about about one of her most memorable Halloweens, when she was 15 years old, and asks the question, “Why, dear reader, had I not gone with my gut?”.

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

Politics and Football

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The Millions takes a look at Rumpus columnist Steve Almond‘s book Against Football:

Almond stalks through his arguments against the modern state of football at a pace that is both clipped and highly personal. There is a lot of shame here, a discomfort with being complicit in that “system” lying at the root of his angry screed. Like many a blue-state fan, his liberal nature is offended by being complicit in the advertorial-spewing, money-mad agglomeration of celebrity and cruelty that is the NFL and its media courtiers.

Final Tour

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Phil Klay’s just won the National Book Award, and he talks with Rumpus Interviews Editor Emeritus Rebecca Rubenstein about the repercussions. They also hit on the burden of multiple voices, “entry points”, and what qualifies you to tell a true war story:

Authenticity is a tricky thing. I think perhaps we’re too willing to assume authenticity just because the author has some sort of connection to the experience. Homer, after all, didn’t seem to have known how the Greeks fought in the Bronze Age. If a Trojan War veteran read Homer, he’d probably angrily point out all the inaccuracies. And yet, The Iliad is true to so much of what matters about war. I think it’s less about what you’ve experienced than it is about how honestly and rigorously you try to approach your subject. Tolstoy was able to write authentically about war for the same reason he was able to write authentically about the inner life of a woman having an affair—because he was a great artist with insight into human beings.

Weekend Rumpus Roundup

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In the Saturday Interview, May Cobb talks with Austin-based multi-instrumentalist Guy Forsyth about The Freedom to Fail, his first studio album in six years. In a touching aside about his daughter, Forsyth explains the album title: “…she can only grow to the extent that she reaches for things.” Their discussion is framed by the backdrop of Austin, Texas, the continually metamorphosing “Live Music Capital of the World.”

Then, in a review of the “masterful” and “personal” Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows, Kenji Liu highlights the gradually evolving voice of poet Eugenia Leigh. (more…)