Rumpus Blog

The Art of Mixing Genres


At the Paris Review, Dwyer Murphy interviews David Gordon about transitioning from writing novels to stories, his time working for Hustler, and how he blends literary and genre fiction in his work:

I think that horror and sci-fi in particular are great generators of imagery, and genre produces great characters. To find figures in Western culture as lasting and powerful as Dracula and Sherlock Holmes, you have to go to the Bible or Greek myths or Shakespeare. But as my work matures, it’s really more about the forms of genre storytelling—the way these stories shape and generate and vivify narrative. I’m trying to express something very personal through these classic forms, to use them as a poet uses a sonnet form.

If It’s Not One Thing, It’s A Mother


My mother stood before me in her quilted bathrobe, dark hair held back in a ponytail, her eyes sunken, grey. I felt like the narrator of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, who, startled out of sleep, opens his eyes to behold the monster reaching out to him: ‘the miserable monster . . . held up the curtain of the bed and his eyes . . . were fixed on me. His jaw opened and he muttered some inarticulate sound while a grin wrinkled his cheeks.’ Dr Frankenstein’s horror is intensified by intimacy, by the bond and expectations between parent and child.

Anxiety, nightmares, monsters, and mothers.

Don’t Fear the Reaper


At The Hairpin, Caitlin Doughty, mortician and author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, talks about death positivity, women in the funeral business, zombies, and why she thinks the recent move toward alternative burial practices is more than just a trend:

I don’t want to say it’s a trend because that makes it seem like it’s going to be a fad for a couple of years and then go away… like artisanal pickles or something . . . I think people — and I’ve found especially women, for some reason — are very, very interested in being closer with death and having more of an understanding of death. And the traditional methods we have now, which is take the body away immediately and bury it in the ground with lots of chemicals, is not really having an intimate relationship with death. It’s pretty much the opposite of that.

Song of the Day: “That Girl”


Some artists demand our respect right away, and others earn it over time. Justin Timberlake made a big splash as a cast member of The Mickey Mouse Club in the early 90s, and an even bigger one as a member of the wildly successful boy band, NSYNC. While his skyrocketing popularity garnered naysayers, even some of the most hard-nosed critics softened at the 2013 release of his polished record, The 20/20 Experience. Michael Jackson’s influence is prominent on the infectious single from the album, “That Girl.” Timberlake complements the tight, in-the-pocket groove with crisp vocals:

So what you’re from the other side of the tracks
So what if the world don’t think we match
I’ll put it down like my love’s on wax
I’m in love with that girl
And she’s in love with me

Notable Portland: 10/30–11/5


Thursday 10/30: Join contributors to Winged: New Writing on Bees for a book launch celebration. Readings by Michele Glazer, Adrienne Flagg, Annette Fisch, Kate Gray, Jennifer Moore, Leni Zumas, Lois Leveen, Paulann Petersen, George Venn, Marina Callahan, and John Beer. Literary Arts, 7 p.m., free.

Friday 10/31: Writers will be incapacitated by alcohol and candy consumption and thus unable to provide literary entertainment this Halloween! ENJOY!

Saturday 11/1: Cuban novelist Leonard Padura reads from his latest work. Note that the reading will be in Spanish with a simultaneous English translation. Glyph, 5:30 p.m., free.


An Inconvenient Fiction


Invoking his new play, Buzz, Benjamin Kunkel writes in the New Yorker about how “few imaginative writers have dealt with the present-day experience of global warming in a direct and concentrated way” and why this might be the case:

If climate change has, to date, proved hard to write about, that’s because it exists for most of us, to date, as something that afflicts different neighborhoods, distant cities, or future times.

Wolf in White Van

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle


I believe it was Kurt Vonnegut who talked about how being a writer spoiled his innocence as a reader; if he was able to discern the structure of a book he would often stop reading it, no matter how beautifully written.

In the opening pages of John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, I felt I was seeing the novel’s bones materialize: disaffected narrator, hospital, something terrible has happened, we’re going backward in time, clues will be doled out in carefully allotted crumbs in a reverse Hansel-and-Gretel up to The Big Reveal That Explains Everything. And on top of all that: Sean the narrator’s face is grotesquely disfigured, lending an aspect of le mort vivant, à la Phantom of the Opera.

But unlike Vonnegut, I ventured on. And I was mentally sucked into the book by a stealthy undertow that necessitated no longer reading the book on the subway because I knew I would end up obliviously taking the train to its terminus instead of returning home. And I’ve never been more delighted to be so upended, to be so wrong in my first impression.

Sean is in his late thirties, but his speech is littered with contractions like “he would have had to’ve stopped,” which somehow makes him seem younger, like an impatient Holden Caulfield who can’t be bothered to write out the two extra letters. He’s seventeen at the time of the Disfiguring Event, and his narration zigzags between “now” and various childhood memories.

Because Sean cannot go outside without causing a ruckus—everyone looks at his face first—he supports himself by running a subscription play-by-mail game called the Trace Italian, a sort of choose-your-own-adventure that he created during the aftermath of the Disfiguring Event as he lay in a hospital bed, immobile, in an almost hallucinatory amount of pain. The object of the game is to survive various challenges (escaping from dungeons, foraging for food, deciding what to do when confronted with a dead fortune teller) and be the first to reach the labyrinthine fortress called the Trace Italian, which lives, fictionally, somewhere in Kansas. The Trace Italian itself is a structure inspired by the medieval trace italienne, a mazelike multiply fortified battlement, “stars within stars.” Even with the instant-gratification of the internet age, Sean stubbornly confines the game within the U.S. Postal Service, “slow gaming,” if you will. This gives him time to create and embellish his imaginative world, figure out the moves, and ruminate on the players and perhaps even subtly influence their fates.

This arrangement not only provides Sean with an income and independence, it allows him an interface with the outside world, where to the Trace Italian players he is someone to engage and curry favor with, instead of being a grotesque a bystander from whom people can’t wait to get away.

Because the book is written from inside Sean’s head, we don’t see his disfigurement; we only catch sporadic glimpses, like when he happens to see the glint of light off of some hardened scar tissue on his cheek. But because of this vantage point we get a clear view into the workings of his mind. Despite the spooky tone of the book, he’s actually very funny:

People look up from what they’re doing when I enter a building… on good days, I feel like my job is to try to set them at ease…

Unless they’re being gauche about it: covering their mouths with their hands like somebody in an old horror movie, or whispering loudly to somebody nearby. Then I pop open my jaw… and they get to see the inside of my mouth.

John Darnielle

John Darnielle

This voice has echoes of Darnielle’s previous novel, Master of Reality (part of the 33 1/3 series, where each book is written about an album), also written in a close first person, a series of diary entries by a Black Sabbath-obsessed teen who has been institutionalized for unnamed psychiatric and/or behavioral problems possibly related to this obsession.

Heavy metal is another link between the two books. Readers who remember vinyl albums will likely remember the kerfuffle over the rumor of “back masking”: secret messages embedded in records, which were revealed when you played the album backward. Kids everywhere ruined their needles trying to hear “Satan is king” and “smoking marijuana is fun.” Black Sabbath was an oft-accused culprit. So were the Beatles. My friend remembers actually being made to listen back masking in church (all the better to know the Satan they were up against). In 1990, a civil suit (later dismissed) was brought against Judas Priest, alleging that a subliminal message of “do it” caused a fan’s suicide.

The titular “wolf in white van” is a phrase supposedly back masked into a Christian rock song. Although it’s unparseable, this subliminal message, Sean tell us, “was a hellish picture to paint, and for young people to hear.”

The novel portrays not a binary between adult control and youth culture, but rather the great gray space in between. Darnielle’s American Eden is comprised of the twinkling lights of a southern California shopping center’s arcade, a childhood memory of the CBS nightly news, a gun store. It’s a world that presses upon Sean. Having made a decision that resulted in his never being able to fit into “normal” life again, Sean is the inverse of the Trace Italian players who make decisions in the game, with irreversible consequences.

What gripped me about this book, almost to the point of distress, is how it is so terrifyingly present. Sean observes his previous, pre-disfigured self as someone remote and separate from the person he is today. And given the isolated way he lives, he has no kind of future that anyone could predict. He manages to tear himself away from the constant chattering of society and simply spend time with himself, looking inward. The “now” of the novel is somewhere in the new century, but it rarely mentions technology. Sean hears a birdcall, but not a ringtone or the blurble of an incoming tweet.

Perhaps I’m reading or projecting more than I should, but the book works as a meditation on the radical presentness demanded for creativity. It should be noted that besides being a writer, Darnielle is also the vocalist and songwriter for the indie/folk/alt/rock/somewhat unclassifiable group the Mountain Goats. (I am a fan, but I feel fandom is irrelevant to the reading of the novel, as is this aspect of the author’s biography.) While he is confined to his bed, after the Terrible Thing That Disfigured Him, Sean’s creation of the world of the Trace Italian as he’s forced to stare up at the cracked ceiling day after day feels not unlike the novelist staring at the blank page, nervously waiting for the images to come, finding the flow, doing whatever is necessary to continue:

Somewhere in the middle of a long night, between one dosage of Darvocet and the next, I made a promise to myself. I remembered it now. I’d promised myself that all this was temporary, the medication and the bed in the room where the blinds were always down, and that I would get out of it somehow, get away somewhere, do something again with little reference to any of it. I didn’t promise myself future success or total recovery. Just escape.

Sean believes he can know what’s going to happen next, if he knows what the current situation is. But life is unpredictable. Darnielle nails that frustrating feeling of starting a work of art, having a distinct idea of where it should go, and then watching helplessly as it veers away from its original premise. In one scene, Sean sees a man in truck. He is so sure the man is going to turn and see him staring that he does an elaborate charade to make it look like he’s actually not looking. But as sure as he is—he even visualizes the man’s head turning—the man doesn’t look over. The story he’s created in his head, as much as he believes in it, doesn’t happen.

The novel doesn’t so much as end as arrive circuitously at the event alluded to at the beginning.

I won’t say what exactly happens. But at the Big Reveal The Explains Everything, I thought, Wait, that’s it? And after having ridden even the tiniest tributaries of Sean’s discursive thoughts to their ends, and gathered up the patches of his childhood memories, I was frustrated because I wasn’t sure I was convinced. If this were a student’s manuscript, I might have said in my teacherly voice, “What about the character’s motivation?”

This narrative vacuum may be precisely the point. Like the novel’s narrator, I have a tendency to “storify” almost anything I come into contact with (e.g., people on the subway), but after removing the causal relationships that we seek, we are left with an unsettling idea: there is no explanation for some truly horrible events. School shootings by disaffected, Sean-like teens come to mind. Perhaps the trickier feat Darnielle has pulled off is to use what isn’t there in the narrative rather than what is.

The Advanced Reader’s Copy I was sent looks like a flat black-and-white drawing of a maze. I only noticed after I finished reading that there’s a subtle iridescent shading to some of the letters, visible only when the cover is at a certain angle in a certain light. Similarly, under certain conditions we are all capable of impulsive acts, terribly irrational acts that make perfect sense at the time, and yet remain unexplainable, even to ourselves. Darnielle’s novel attempts to make sense of the insensible, to describe that inarticulable space where despite what came before, something still struggles to be born. As Sean notes:

The inside of the Trace Italian, of course, does not exist.

It both confirms my way of seeing and leaves me seeing differently. Like the best novels do.

Reviving Tongva


Pamela Munro on reviving a language no one speaks:

It’s hard to find information on Tongva. There are no audio recordings of people speaking the language, just a few scratchy wax cylinder recordings of Tongva songs. There are additional word lists from scholars, explorers, and others dating from 1838 to 1903, but Harrington’s notes are the best source of information on the language. These records are often inconsistent and maddeningly incomplete, however—it takes a lot of analysis to synthesize them into a clear picture of the language.

Reading Recs: Man vs. Machine


At Co.EXIST, Jessica Leber pits the algorithms of digital giants Amazon and Goodreads against the ultimate recommendation engine: librarians. Leber details her experience with the Brooklyn Public Library’s BookMatch program, in which real librarians respond to patron’s requests for reading recommendations based on other books they’ve enjoyed. While online services get smarter by the minute, it’s hard to imagine anything replacing a human approach to either the search or the written response itself; a hybrid approach, however, offers a compelling argument for the continuing value of librarians and online tools alike.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Late Night Football Strategy Sessions


A century ago, Princeton University was a premiere football school. As a freshman, F. Scott Fitzgerald was cut from the team after just one day. But that didn’t stop him from calling the famed football coach Fritz Crisler in the middle of the night with crazy football strategies, one of which might very well have been fielding separate teams for offense and defense. Separate teams defines the mechanics of modern football. Of course, the two-team system might not have been his idea at all. Kevin Draper over at Deadspin looks back Fitzgerald’s place in football history.

Skewed Standards


The YA battle rages on at Flavorwire, where Sarah Seltzer responds to Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker essay pondering the effects of supposedly lowbrow children’s lit:

We have to interrogate our basic assumption that writing skills possessed by educated white people are the best skills around…Humor, action, relatable language, and plotting are not lesser tools in a writer’s toolbox, but equally necessary ones. They are only treated as lesser because they cannot be exclusively mastered by those who have been trained on George Eliot and the New Yorker.

Word of the Day: Pneumatophony


(n.); the utterance of articulate sounds by a ghost or a spirit

“Each year, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere. He’s gotta pick this one. He’s got to. I don’t see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one. You can look around and there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see…”

—Linus, from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)

Every year around this time, the Internet seems to explode with pumpkins, spices, and other seasonal mania: but let’s not forget where the real heart of Halloween lies. Not in candy, not in funny costumes—anyone who grew up with Charles Schultz’s iconic Peanuts gang knows that the real magic of autumn comes with the annual awakening of the Great Pumpkin. But, as Nicola Twilley reveals in her recent New Yorker article, the “great pumpkin” isn’t so much a holiday phenomenon as it is a scientific feat comprised of careful genetics and—Linus would be mollified to know—a sincere pumpkin patch.

Is Word Perfect?


Writing for the NYR Blog, Edward Mendelson gets deep into philosophy to address a true writer’s question: Is Microsoft Word the best tool for composing text? Borrowing ideas from Plato, Auden, and the programming concept of a “kludge,” Mendelson teases out some key differences between writing in theory and in practice. While he ultimately concedes to the ubiquity and utility of the .doc ecosystem, don’t be surprised if you find yourself booting up an ancient version of WordPerfect on the other side.


Notable San Francisco: 10/29–11/4


Wednesday 10/29Ari Larissa Heinrich is in town from San Diego to speak with Scott Esposito about the work of Qiu Miaojin, whose Last Words from Montmartre Heinrich has just translated from the Chinese (Free, 7 p.m., City Lights).

The Center for Literary Arts hosts Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (Free, 7 p.m., Center for Literary Arts).

The New York Times presents the first of a new events series, Look West—in conjunction with Bank of the West—”that brings game-changing innovators in the arts, media and technology on stage for engaging discussions with New York Times journalists before live, local audiences in states throughout the Western US”. The series is a way to promote their new title, By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from the New York Times Book Review (and, presumably, to boost NYT sales in the West). The first event features Dave Eggers ($25, 6:30 p.m., SFJazz).

Passages on the Lake features William Gainer, Chansonette Buck, Dhaya Lakshminarayanan, Karlyn DeSteno, Gina Gold, and Caitlin Myer (Free, 6:30 p.m., The Terrace Room).


Duly Sympathetic


Over at BOMB, Claudia Rankine takes a look at the way we use our words:

Tone is an everyday kind of maneuver. It disrupts and communicates aggression, disgust, dis- respect, and humor, among a myriad of possibilities, thereby allowing language to morph into a blanket or a gun. It helps me know how to read the spaces between things. One has an ear out for it always. It’s a thing to be translated.

Lauren Berlant delivers the rest of the interview; the two chat about poetic structure, the blank space between moments, and Rankine’s latest collection, Citizen

Crowdsourcing Publishing


As if upending the publishing industry with its ongoing battle with Hachette wasn’t enough, now Amazon wants to cut out publishers entirely. Amazon is launching a new program called Kindle Scout, a system where customers will read excerpts and vote on which books will move forward with publication. Voting for a winner gets users a free copy of the book, and the nomination and voting process will take about six weeks. Ultimately Amazon’s editors will have a final say, reports Techcrunch.


Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals by Patricia Lockwood


Are you going to read Patricia Lockwood’s new book Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals? Yes. You can’t help it. Like you can’t help wanting sex, in your brain sex, on your body sex, repetitive sex, again, AGAIN! sex. Are you listening sex. Are you listening to this? Because this is Patricia Lockwood doing the twitter and the pornography and “The Rape Joke Poem” in all the intensities you’re looking for. Want me to ruin it for you? Her mother and father are having sex in the opening poem. In front of her. It’s sex! And not just describing a fatherland indistinguishable from a motherland when the speaker walks into their bedroom. And not just the positions, and the mountains and valleys and DOWN THERE’s that are existing here in the poem. The real sex in this poem and all the poems is voice, insistent voice, keeping saying voice that once it gets started, gets started. Like if every sentence of the poem were actually a metaphor for YES! And some of these poems have long sentences. Some of them have short sentences.

Like imagine if Russell Edson had decided that he was going to make poems that were about the spaces between his sentences. That weird feeling you get in your head when a Russell Edson has ended one sentence, and you’re kind of crazy for what will be in the next sentence. Patricia Lockwood has taken that energy, and spelled it out YES! and then made that YES! a sentence. And for my reading, and for all the poems in this book that make reference to sex, I would say these are sexual poems. Sexual, like the rhythms of sex, the sometimes repeating and sometimes varying rhythms of sex, inside your head there is blood rushing around during sex making other rhythms of sex. When you read Patricia Lockwood’s poems this is what you’ll be feeling.

SEXY! But not sexy, too. “I like sexy,” you say. No problem. Just think of the world as a sex partner. The world populated by taxidermied owls and monuments that have a woman’s curves. There’s curiosity, especially that curiosity. Canada is in the world. And family. “I’m having sex with my family?” Avid sex! Gross! So maybe it’s not about real sex, but figurative sex. The human body has a capacity for paying special attention during sex. Maybe you’ve noticed. Like a stuffed owl in a museum case takes this role on in your brain where it is actually STUFFED OWL! (YES!) with stuffing and weird googly eyes and owl-stiff postures. This is the best owl in the world. You better believe it. It’s important, and it’s only an owl! One time I walked through the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington, DC lusting after my 70-year old tour guide. I thought about her and me in every room. In different positions, too. That museum trip felt very important. I was paying attention! That’s what I feel in Lockwood’s poetry. Attention and YES! and discovering and the pleasure of discovering and the keen interest that all I want is discovering as the essential part of my life. Like this part of “An Animorph Enters the Doggie-Dog World”:

Discover the power at age eleven. Discover all powers
at age eleven. A kittenhead struggles out of your face
and the kittenhead mews MILK, you gasp with its
mouth and it slurps itself back. Yet the mew for MILK
remains, you drink it. You think, “I am an Animorph.
Your sight and your hearing increase, like wheat
and the wind in the wheat. Well you’ve never seen
any wheat but it sounds good, to you and your new
trembling ears.

Notice here (1) the declarative mixed with the imperative creates a feeling of language nonstop-ness, and (2) the feeling of discovery is compared to a kittenhead growing out of your face, and the kittenhead asking for MILK, and you drinking down that request like wanting and getting to want something are exactly what you need. Then notice (3) how this string of logic actually increases your senses. It’s like sex. But it doesn’t have to be literally sex. Granted, everyone seems keen on a Patricia Lockwood tied to sexuality. But be fun with it, people. Be imaginative sexual. Be courageous sexual. Be thoughtful sexual. Be metaphorical sexual, too.

Patricia LockwoodBecause the book is breathing with metaphor. Or panting with metaphor. Or exasperated with metaphor. The book is tired with a metaphor-driven critique of persistent information overload. Everywhere we look it’s the 21st Century. And that means we want to and need to tell everyone that we looked at the world. Take a picture. It will last even longer! We are so acquisitive of this world, and that acquisitiveness creates more information about the too much information already out there. In “When the World Was Ten Years Old,” Lockwood describes a boy who “entered encyclopedias and looted every fact of them and when he had finished looting these he broke into the Bible.” Everything’s mine. I take it it’s all mine.

But a concept like “mine” is complicated for Lockwood. There is a porousness to words, as in a poem like “Love Poem Like We Used to Write It,” where “love poem” and what we think “love poem” could possibly do is exacerbated by all the associations that stick to “love poem,” to the point that our talking about any “love poem” with any kind of certainty just starts to look ridiculous. The now familiar poem “Rape Joke” uses a similar tactic, but with an honesty spliced in with Lockwood’s more typical satire so that the poem doesn’t only comment on the troubling fact “rape joke” is even a term, but also that what happened to this speaker is tragic, what happened is a fucking joke, and “joking” about it allows even more of the tragedy to come to light.

Did you like Balloon Pop Outlaw Black? That part about Popeye? Popeye as method of analysis, as subject, as subjectivity, as analysand, as he’s just a cartoon character, why are you getting so intense on him? The material world is intense, people. It’s reality, and what we look at reality with, and what reality would be if we weren’t looking, and don’t forget the reality when we’re looking right at it. Lockwood is like Jorie Graham as a hummingbird, where if Graham’s reality has a veil separating the abstract from the concrete, and Graham would approach the veil so she could indulge that thin separation between the two, Lockwood will plunge and whip around every part of what makes reality a reality. There’s an abstract to reality, too. Don’t forget. So goes the figure of Popeye in Balloon Pop Outlaw Black. So goes the speaker in Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexual, who wants and then wants to want more if only to make wanting to want more like a trajectory that keeps drawing itself out even while we think that just wanting something will supposedly make it ours. It turns out wanting is another of those porous words. All of this sounds so uncomfortable. It is!

Summer Camp for Book Nerds


For the burgeoning field of Critical Bibliography, “the study of the physical characteristics of books and the process of bookmaking,” Rare Book School is the highlight of the year. The Paris Review’s Benjamin Breen reports from the annual conference out of UVA, where old-school book enthusiasts gather to share in the examination of woodcuts, medieval manuscripts, and specimens like a gold-edged copy of Encyclopédie with Diderot’s handwritten notes in the margins. In addition to serving as an important research symposium, this so-called “summer camp for book nerds” is a testament to the abiding fondness for books as material objects, which should bring some measure of solace to readers and historians everywhere.

Burnt and Found


[Lowry] spent a decade working on In Ballast to the White Sea, but the draft was lost when his shack near Vancouver in Canada burned down in 1944. However, it has transpired that Lowry had given an early copy to his first wife’s mother.

Seventy years after the fire, In Ballast to the White Sea, British author Malcolm Lowry’s supposedly lost novel, has just been published. The earlier draft was found in 2001 after his mother-in-law’s death. Get all the details here.

panter feature

The New York Comics & Picture-Story Symposium: Gary Panter


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…)

Pride, Prejudice, Repeat


Jane Austen has been blowing up these days, with hundreds of fan-fictional responses to Pride and Prejudice gracing the dusty corners of bookstores and the Internet. Over at Flavorwire, Sarah Seltzer wonders why we’re still so eager to return to Pemberley:

Because Austen doesn’t overload us with sensory details about her characters, but merely depicts them walking around in the world, talking, judging, and making mistakes, we project a lot of our own experience and imagination into our reading, and this makes us feel personally acquainted with them.