Rumpus Blog

Work and Play

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Sixteen female authors tell Susie Schnall about their experiences and struggles with work-life balance, and offer some wonderful advice to us all:

I think it’s unrealistic to max out in every area of your life simultaneously—there’s just not time for everything. But if you’re able to prioritize certain elements of your life during certain periods, you can make everything work over time.

Editions at Play

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Editions at Play, the brainchild of Visual Editions publishers Anna Gerber and Britt Iverson and Google Creative Lab in Sydney, has launched, pushing the boundaries of books so far off that they can no longer be printed. Editions at Play creates interactive storytelling experiences meant for your phone, the justification for which being that digital is a new media aching to be explored by writers with more depth, more sensitivity, and more fun poking around in Google Earth. So far Editions has two titles, both of which are fun and less than $5.

Life in the Historical Novel

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The historical novel describes then what might have happened within what happened; the feeling of being free within the machine of one’s fate, dare I even say the old consciousness.

For The New Republic, Alexander Chee explores historical fiction and whether the genre owes more to literature or historical accuracy. For more from Chee on history and his new novel, The Queen of the Night, check out our recent interview with the author.

John’s Pixie Dream Girls

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Mary Jo Tewes Cramb discusses the perpetuation of the “manic pixie dream girl” stereotype in John Green’s novels:

In Green’s novels, there is considerable tension between the potent appeal of his manic pixie characters, the excitement and fun they bring into the narrators’ lives, and the messages these characters impart about their own lives and identities. It is only through celebrating the quirky charisma of manic pixie dream girls and fully exploring their attraction that he is able to show their accompanying problems.

Beyoncé’s “Formation”

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This Saturday, Beyoncé dropped “Formation,” her first single since 2014. The song came one day before the Queen’s Superbowl 50 appearance and was accompanied by a free download via Tidal, Pitchfork reports.

Like most of the artist’s videos, the video for “Formation” is incredibly visually compelling, moving from an Antebellum House to images protesting police brutality to Beyoncé sinking, atop a cop car, in the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina. Watch it for yourself after the jump. (more…)

Notable Los Angeles: 2/8–2/14

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Monday 2/8: Pierce Brown, with Natasha Polis (aka Tashapolis), discusses and signs Morning Star (Red Rising Trilogy #3). 7 p.m. at Book Soup.

Ben Ratliff discusses his book Every Song Ever with Alex Ross. 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books.

PEN Center USA presents The Emerging Voices Author Evening Series: Charles Yu and Salvador Plascencia. 7:30 p.m. at Chevalier’s Books. Tickets are here.

Tuesday 2/9: John Mack Faragher discusses and signs Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles. 7 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore.

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Weekend Rumpus Roundup

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First, Brandon Hicks unveils a triptych of “Quick-Takes” illustrating his irreverent views on nature, famous trees, and the rapture.

Then, in the Saturday Essay, Ashley Inguanta mourns for her best friend who passed away years ago. The two of them met as children and grew up together in a small town, sharing in the milestones of adolescence. Inguanta revisits her childhood home, wielding place as a tool to dredge up the intimacy of the past: “I write because I don’t know what else to do.”

Meanwhile, novelist Ravi Howard talks to Amina Gautier in the Sunday Interview. Howard explains his process in creating the novels, Like Trees, Walking and Driving the King. The stories feature narrators from families of morticians and taxi cab drivers, respectively. Historical time periods informed both works, Howard says, as did “writing from a space of discomfort.”

Finally, Sunday Editor Zoe Zolbrod shares links from around the web that might offer us something else to think about than the ongoing election primaries.

Black Memoir

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Memoir, the offspring of the slave narrative, is not simply a form within the Black literary tradition; it has thoroughly shaped that tradition.

With the release of smash hit Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, as well as acclaimed releases Negroland, Twin of Blackness, and Remnants, the black memoir is in a veritable golden age. Imani Perry discusses the literary sphere inhabited by slave narratives and James Baldwin as a place to understand individual interpretations of racism in “this vexing, separate, and unequal nation.”

The Lost Time Accidents

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

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The past, Kaspar reasoned, is most accurately conceived of as a continent we’ve emigrated from, or better still as a kind of archipelago: a series of nearly contiguous islands, self-contained and autonomous, that we’re constantly in the process of forsaking, simply by advancing through time. Like all things past, his wife existed in a zone of the continuum that was inaccessible to him now. This by no means meant that she no longer was.

The protagonist of John Wray’s relentlessly engaging new novel, The Lost Time Accidents, traverses the line between brilliance and madness, a locus consistent with that of Wray’s previous work, Lowboy. Like Billy Pilgrim of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five or James Cole, hero of Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, Waldimar Tolliver II (known as “Waldy”) grapples with a sublimely liminal experience at the brink of chronologic time, and of sanity.

Were the tension between eccentric genius and mental illness the novel’s fulcrum, Wray would have been hard put to escape cliché, but this dialectic is at most a refrain throughout. Within the world of the novel, Waldy’s experience in the margins of timespace remains irrefutable. The protagonist is writing the story of his family curse from a way station outside of time but anchored in space—specifically his aunts’ apartment in Harlem. Wray frames the text as an artifact emerging from this timeless space. If Waldy’s manuscript is the fruits of madness, then the reader, like the text’s metafictional author, is too far gone to care, free to navigate the story on its own terms.

Waldy’s imagined voyage into his family’s past breathes life into history. Wray deserves much credit for his transporting descriptions of Znojmo, Moravia, and prewar Vienna, which render the cities in four dimensions and full emotional color. As the story progresses, we discover that Waldy’s namesake was a war criminal, known as “The Black Timekeeper of Czas,” who experimented on prisoners, mostly Jews, in a death camp called Ӓschenwald in eastern Poland. Waldy’s struggle to come to terms with this forebear defines his unsettling arc.

The Lost Time Accidents could be read as a stifled bildungsroman, a response to Mann’s The Magic Mountain in which the Tolliver family curse—an obsession with a missing theorem—equates to a refusal to come of age and conform to “consensus reality.” The curse is nothing but the germ of an idea, a mysterious code about the nature of time that each successive generation of physicists aims to crack. But the curse of the Accidents behaves like a genetically transmitted disease, reducing each infected family member to a life of labor in obscurity, or of fame as a religious icon. Recognition within the scientific community remains wholly out of reach for the Toulas, then the American Tollivers, who find themselves increasingly isolated, unwilling or unable to escape the family curse.

Although the narrator’s witticisms and wry overtones lend it a comedic edge, at its heart, Wray’s novel is a tragedy. It is a book about loss, nostalgia, failure, and complicity in the horrors of history. A poignant question rests at its core: May we go back, to those moments before it all went to seed?

John Wray

John Wray

The Tolliver family’s notion of rotary time, a variation on relativity, contends that we might. But although the arrow of time moves both ways in this universe, the chronospheric traveler cannot move forward while experiencing either the past or Waldy’s purgatorial way station. Wray’s characters may travel through time, in other words, but so long as they choose to do so, the past rules them.

The Lost Time Accidents is highly entertaining and infinitely accessible. Structurally, the novel uses a frame narrative to contain several threads of Tolliver family history. The epistolary nature of Waldy’s text adds a dimension of forward movement to the frame narrative as Waldy discovers secrets of the Tolliver family tree.

The novel loses a bit of steam toward the end of its second act, partly as a result of the frame’s backward movement into Waldy’s memory, but the story provides ample motivation for such a turn when Waldy’s namesake, the war criminal, invades his aunts’ apartment and challenges Waldy to remember how he arrived there. As structural gambits go, the payoff of this backward look merits the risk, creating a sense of inevitability at the denouement. The frame warps and wends toward its own beginning like a Möbius strip, a form wholly in line with the text’s function.

Many literary readers will find this novel’s bold vision a refreshing stroke, but science fiction readers may prove harder to impress. The novel rests on a combination of science, history, pseudoscience, and speculation, not the stuff of hard SF. But, as one character notes, it’s the questions behind the Accidents, not the math, that ultimately distinguish the family curse. Readers who value the genre’s use of the imagination to ask “what if?”—fans of H. G. Wells and Douglas Adams, for example—might appreciate Wray’s novel, not least for the vein of humor that runs through it.

But another vein running through The Lost Time Accidents stands to trouble the speculative fiction reader. Through his characters’ exploits, such as Waldy’s father’s career as a purveyor of “smut” or “pulp”—which is to say, science fiction, albeit of a certain stripe—Wray struggles with the legacy of genre. This paternal character, named Orson Scott Tolliver (a twist of the surname away from one of science fiction’s more bigoted figureheads) writes an opus about rotary time that sparks a new religion: a cult that begs comparison to Scientology. Another character, or caricature, central to the mysteries of the Accidents is a Nazi sympathizer named Menügayan whose dialect, while admittedly entertaining, strays well into satire of a certain fannish type.

Amusing though it may be, this tableau remains less than flattering. One can’t help but note that Wray has written a science fiction novel that lampoons science fiction. Self-effacing though this gesture may be, it can also be read as an attempt to keep The Lost Time Accidents outside of the genre ghetto in terms of its critical reception, while still attracting science fiction readers when it comes to sales. The text exhibits a desire to ally itself with science fiction but also to refute it—to capitulate, perhaps, to the upmarket notion that all genre fiction deserves a thorough ribbing.

Virginia Woolf’s writings on gender in A Room of One’s Own can help trace these symptoms back to the societal pressures that produce such stratified reflections of genre:

One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism; she was saying this by way of aggression, or that by way of conciliation. She was admitting that she was ‘only a woman’, or protesting that she was ‘as good as a man’. She met that criticism as her temperament dictated, with docility and diffidence, or with anger and emphasis. It does not matter which it was; she was thinking of something other than the thing itself. Down comes her book upon our heads. There was a flaw in the centre of it.

If one replaces “woman” with “science fiction writer,” “man” with “literary writer,” and “the thing itself” with “the heart of this work,” Woolf’s passage applies to John Wray’s The Lost Time Accidents quite aptly. It would be a stronger book if it embraced its genre more and satirized it somewhat less, foregrounding the important questions at its core.

The Lives of Unfamous Women

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Anne Boyd Rioux reviews a new biography on the wife of Lord Byron, Anne Isabella Milbanke. In her review, Rioux evaluates the still-too-high standard set for women’s biographies, particularly when those women lived in the shadow of famous men:

Insisting that the female relatives of famous men be accomplished players on the world stage in their own right in order to warrant biographical treatment is perhaps asking too much. Telling silenced women’s stories from their own points of view is justification enough.

Sunday Links

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This week I found myself reading way too much about the Democratic primary. To what extent is the expressed dislike of Hillary rooted in sexism? Is being the first woman to win a primary contest in the United States giving a big f-you to the establishment, or is someone who’s been paid big bucks by Goldman Sachs by definition as establishment as you can get? Could a president determined to remain outside the establishment get anything done in this country, anyway? What does this pundit say? And that one? And…. (more…)

Notable NYC: 2/6–2/12

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Saturday 2/6: John Wray and Will Sheff celebrate the launch of The Lost Time Accidents, Wray’s new novel. BookCourt, 6 p.m., free.

Liz Howard and Lanny Jordan Jackson join the Segue Series. Zinc Bar, 4:30 p.m., $5.

Monday 2/8: Robert Lopez, Mira Ptacin, Tony Tulathimutte, Robin Beth Schaer, and Tommy Pico join the Franklin Park Reading series. Franklin Park, 8 p.m., free.

Peter Carlaftes, Steve Dalachinsk, Maggie Dubris, Ron Kolm, David Lawton, Tantra-zawadi, Angelo Verga, and George Wallace celebrate rabbit-ear television antenna. Le Poisson Rouge, 7 p.m., $8.

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The Library, and Step on It

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Four days ago, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest turned twenty; if you had been reading a page a day since it came out, by now you could have read it over 6.5 times. Despite its age and length, the novel still enjoys massive cultural relevance. Tom Bissell has a Sierpinski-triangle-shaped appraisal of Jest’s legacy:

“It wasn’t until I was writing letters to my girlfriend, and describing to her my fellow Peace Corps volunteers and host-family members and long walks home through old Soviet collectivized farmland in what I would categorize as yellow-belt Wallaceian prose, that I realized how completely the book had rewired me.”

Next Letter in the Mail: Summer Pierre

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We’re getting ready to send out our next Letter in the Mail, and it’s from Summer Pierre! Summer sends us a beautifully illustrated letter about leaving her family to take a solo road trip to visit a friend. She shares the she has thoughts along the way, as well as her memories of road trips from her youth.

Don’t miss out on this gorgeous letter! Subscribe to Letters in the Mail today! And, Letters in the Mail is on Facebook, so visit us there, too! (more…)

This Week in Short Fiction

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When you think of romance, you probably think Romeo and Juliet, Pride and Prejudice, Gone With the Wind, Wuthering Heights—or anything by Nicholas Sparks if you’re into more modern fare. These famous love stories, spread across centuries, have one thing in common: they’re all about heterosexual couples. Matthew Griffin’s debut novel, Hide, is helping change that narrative with a rich and tender tale of a life-long love between two men. The novel isn’t out till February 16th, but this week Electric Literature gives us a first taste with a stand-alone excerpt titled “The First Summer,” which is a powerful story all by itself.

Wendell and Frank first met when Frank, freshly home from World War II, walked into Wendell’s taxidermy shop in a small North Carolina town. Needless to say, it wasn’t an era or a place that accepted two men in love, and Frank and Wendell retreated to a sparsely populated island to spend their first summer together, away from prying eyes. (more…)

PJ Harvey on Kosovo, Refugees, and Crisis

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PJ Harvey has released another video from her upcoming album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, which will come out April 15th on Vagrant. The video for “The Wheel” was filmed in Kosovo and London, as NPR reports, and documents the singer’s work with her collaborator, Irish director Seamus Murphy, examining Europe’s recurring crises of war, ethnic conflict, and refugees. Watch the video after the jump. (more…)

Building a Black Literary Movement

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The New York Times Magazine profiles editor Chris Jackson and how he’s building a literary movement for writers of color:

‘‘The great tradition of black art, generally,’’ he started again, ‘‘is the ability—unlike American art in general—to tell the truth. Because it was formed around the great American poison, the thing that poisoned American consciousness and behavior: racism. And black culture, such as it is, was formed around a necessary resistance to this fundamental lie. That’s the obligation. And this is the power that black art has.’’

Notable Chicago: 2/5–2/11

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Friday 2/5: Women & Children First welcomes poets Loma, Fatimah Asghar, Richie Hofmann, and Erika L. Sánchez on their Tour to End Queer Youth Homelessness. 7:30 p.m.

Saturday 2/6: Alessandro Bosetti’s immersive sound work Plane/Taléa “expands and exposes a single voice within a granular polyphony.” Co-sponsored by Lampo at the Poetry Foundation, 7 p.m. 

Tuesday 2/9: Jonah Kruvant talks about The Last Book Ever Written. City Lit Books, 6:30 p.m.

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Next Letter for Kids: Lois Sepahban

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We’re sending our next Letter for Kids from Lois Sepahban! Lois writes about all the animals that have shared her life with her, including a very special dog named Strider, an Australian Shepherd that walked her to the bus stop each morning and met her there every day when she came home from school.

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

Collectors Might Be Surprised That Rare Books Are Rare

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Rare books are harder to find than many amateur collectors think, and its more probable that buying old books leads to hoarding rather than a big payday. Its highly unlikely, for instance, for a library to accidentally sell off an expensive treasure, since most institutions check books against databases before selling off their stock. Most books just aren’t worth very much except as personal nostalgia. Ann Connery Frantz recommends readers interested in rare books stick with dealers instead of hoping for the best at thrift shops.