Rumpus Blog

Celebrating DIY Ethos


The Brooklyn Zine Fest returns this weekend with a two-day long event and more than 150 writers, artists, and publishers. The festival celebrates self-published chapbooks and includes panel discussions on a variety of topics. Most zines are between $1 and $10, many produced locally.

The free festival is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday at the Brooklyn Historical Society at 128 Pierrepont Street.

Shakespeare’s Women


In honor of the Bard’s 450th birthday, The Millions presents us with an analysis of Women Making Shakespeare, a new anthology from The Arden Shakespeare series edited by Gordon McMullan, Lena Cowen Orlin, and Virginia Mason Vaughan. They have  a few questions about the representations of gender found in Shakespeare’s work:

The anthology contains short essays on anything related to women and Shakespeare — as characters, as actresses, as critics and scholars, as educators, as suffragists and feminists, and as readers — over the past 450 years. I would like to pose some questions that plumb the variety the anthology offers: what does reading Shakespeare mean for women? Was Shakespeare proto-feminist or patriarchal? Has anything changed in 450 years?

Where It All Began


After Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s passing last Thursday, the New Yorker opened its archives to those compelled to get their hands on something from the “voice of Latin America.” One of the more interesting pieces in the archive is “The Challenge,” in which Marquez recalls a forty-two day span during which his first two short stories were published. Marquez was 20 and broke—so broke that he didn’t have the five centavos to purchase the paper in which his first story was printed. It’s natural to celebrate Marquez’s massive and indelible achievements as a writer, but it’s especially poignant to read about how it all started.

Notable Portland: 4/24–4/30


Thursday 4/24: Enjoy a cup of coffee at the Kaplan Storytelling Event, featuring Kaplan students reading from their latest stories. Glyph, 4 p.m., free.

Lewis & Clark hosts its annual release party for The Literary Review, which showcases student writing. The Frank Manor House, 7 p.m., free.

Novelists Dan Berne and Rob Yarkumian share the stage at a double reading. Berne reads from his debut novel, The Gods of Second Chances (January 2014), followed by Yarkumian who will read from his first novel, The Sound of Songs Across the Water (July 2013). Broadway Books, 7 p.m., free.

Fisherwoman, writer, and cast-member of Discovery Channel’s Swords: Life on the Line Linda Greenlaw reads from her memoir, Livesaving Lessons (March 2014). Powell’s City of Books, 7:30 p.m., free.


National Poetry Month Day 24: “After Aftermath” by Cate Marvin


After Aftermath

Orphaned boys plus my mean calculations.
Orphan boys plus desire equals their long
bodies. How they sucked summer-long water
off a garden hose from beside the trailers.
Their mean mothers weary of them sharing
rooms in mental hospitals: I want to meet
them with flowers, thank them for offering
up their sons to this, our glazed plexi-glas
world. What would we do if not for them.

If not for them, how could I breathe. How
would I know what to do, if I did not have
to care for them because they learned how
to not care for themselves because of you.
Orphan boys make mean men. Because of
them, I feel mean. I make my calculations.
Because I love them, am loving how they’re
dropping off the other end of their phones.
You hung up on them. They hang up on me.

I am tired of your ultimatums, Skunk Mom.
My eyes squeeze. I’m unhappy with you, Mom.
You’re not my mom, but I’m calling you Mom
now that I’m his mom, Mom. Your son can’t
say what he thinks because you didn’t teach
him how to articulate himself, Mom. Shhhh,
your beautiful baby’s asleep
. I’m a mom too.
You left him alone in that room that night he
heard you rucking on the sofa, Mom. Said he

saw a ghost. It shooed him from the doorway
so he would not see you fussed up on a sofa.
He was just a little kid, Mom. But I get it. Kids
forget. I’ve got your kid in my bed now, Mom.
It’s inky in here, where you forget him, Mom.
I love him as stars lick our faces with the nose
wet cold of cat kisses. I had thought of men
as flowers. I picked a few. Then I met your son,
Mom. He’s still weeping flowers to that belt’s

swish in your basement. And isn’t it on nights
like this, Mother, the thought of killing yourself
looks you head-on, beautiful in the face, velvety
and faithful in its gaze as that of the violet iris?
This is men, Mom. Your mistake was begetting
one. Mine was letting him in. He’s asleep now.
Shhhh, your son is safe. What about you, Mom?
What about me? We’re only daughters. Who’s
become our father? Your son, Mom, your son.

-Cate Marvin

All the Good Literary Citizens


The idea of literary citizenship suggests writers should belong to a kibbutz of bibliophiles where everyone contributes to the greater good by writing reviews, attending readings, and supporting independent, neighborhood retailers. But all this goodhearted community camaraderie has devalued writing as labor, Becky Tuch claims over at Beyond the Margins. She writes that the concept of “literary citizenship” sounds a lot like the kind of rhetoric employed by major corporations to undermine laborers’ value:

In fact, companies have long employed these kinds of tactics, namely spinning poor working conditions into “enrichment opportunities” for workers.

Tuch isn’t saying all community-oriented programs exploit writers, only that writers should pause a moment for some critical self-reflection.

Astonish Me

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead


There is something endlessly fascinating about the world of professional ballet. We know it to be filled with ruthless competition and occasionally ugly scandals, but we only catch a glimpse of it when it is all dressed up for company. The heightened anxieties of an industry obsessed with youth, perfection and impossible discipline make an excellent stage for drama.

Maggie Shipstead knows this well, and trades on our fascination with dancers in her new novel, Astonish Me. The story opens in 1970s Manhattan, a violent place that is almost unrecognizable today. Joan Joyce is a young ballerina with a quiet routine, which mostly takes her from the New York apartment she shares with a roommate, to rehearsal, to performances, and home again. She is not a star, but a member of the corps; her job is to blend in.

This seems all right by Joan, at least for a while. But she did not end up at the New York City Ballet by accident, and we learn that she is not quite as unambitious as she seems. Her small life becomes fraught with drama when she meets Arslan Ruskov, a young Russian dancer who is already well on his way to international celebrity. The two have a brief encounter in Paris and end up exchanging letters, until Ruskov asks her to help him escape from the Soviet Union. Ruskov is a clear stand-in for Mikhail Baryshnikov, widely considered one of the best dancers in history, more recently of Sex and the City fame. New York audiences love Ruskov, not only because he is extraordinary, but “also for having been born to the enemy, and coming to dance for them instead.”

Joan, on the other hand, is an unremarkable dancer, at least by the standards of the NYCB. Being touched by greatness is always a mixed blessing, and for Joan it confirms that her ambitions exceed her talent. To his surprise and delight, she gets involved with Jacob, her best friend from high school and a longtime admirer. When she becomes pregnant, she decides to retreat from the dance world for good. She marries Jacob and settles down for an ordinary life in a pristine Southern California suburb.

Maggie Shipstead

Maggie Shipstead

Of course, Joan’s story does not end there. We follow her back and forth across the country, the novel toggling between past and present, as we try to piece together exactly what unfolded between her and Ruskov. Joan is tortured by a single unanswered question: why Ruskov chose her to help him defect from the Soviet Union, and to briefly share his spotlight.

Astonish Me is Shipstead’s second novel, and in some ways, it is the opposite of her first. The action of Seating Arrangements, her 2012 debut, inhabited one boozy weekend in Nantucket, while Astonish Me spans continents, decades, and generations: from a theater in Paris to the grit and sweat of New York City in the ’70s; from the neat lawns of the Southern California suburbs in the ’90s to the almost-present day, back in New York. (When Joan returns to the city she feels gentrification “like a betrayal, as though it had purposely waited until she left to undergo a course of self-improvement and was now putting on airs.”) But though it covers immense time and space, this book is not what one would call “sweeping.” It is, like the dancers who populate its pages, small, elegant, and restrained. The novel is more interested in the flaws of its characters than in politics. The Cold War and even ballet are just backdrop for what is ultimately a love story, though not the one that you’re expecting. In the end, the novel is about the choices we make, and how they make us.

What is more familiar from Shipstead’s first novel is her beautiful prose style and incredible knack for social observation. During an awkward moment at a dinner party, most of the characters descend into laughter, and one humorless guest asks if they’ve gotten it out of their systems with “an air of beleaguered dignity, like the only sober one in a room full of drunks.” Shipstead also turns this keen critical eye on ballet itself. She writes, “Love in a ballet is something that does not exist and then suddenly does, its beginning marked by pantomime, faces fixed in rapture, a dance.”

If there is one thing not to like about this novel, it is only that it is perhaps a little too neat. The many story lines eventually converge, the mysteries are solved, and all is tied up with a bow. But that neatness might have been the very thing that made the book such a total pleasure to read. And in the hands of a writer as skilled as Shipstead, one doesn’t mind a happily ever after once in a while.

Lit Fic Is Just Another Genre


Jane Austen wrote for money. She also made readers laugh. So why are her books considered literature rather than genre fiction? Clever marketing, claims Elizabeth Edmondson over at the Guardian. Despite many attempts to define “literary fiction” as something dry and bland, writers have historically written to entertain (and to sell their words)—the importance of categorization comes much later:

Of course, the fact that lit crit types make some absurd claims for lit fic doesn’t mean writers within this category don’t write good books. Or bad books, just as in all the other types of fiction. And categorisation is what it’s all about. Describing books as lit fic may determine whether a book gets reviewed or not. It also determines where it gets shelved in bookstores, although with ebooks and online booksellers we’re moving into more fluid ways of labelling books, so that books which don’t fit neatly into slots find a place and a readership.

Where Betty Byrne Lived


Story is an integral part of the city of Dublin. Bronze statues of beloved writers roam the landscape, immortal: Wilde lounges “languidly on a crag in the park at Merrion Square,” while Joyce is “depicted rather more severely in bronze, leaning on his cane as he strolls down North Earl Street.”

Ever wondered what the tower in the opening scene of Ulysses actually looks like? This Associated Press article not only describes the contemporary lit scene in Joyce’s hometown, but also outlines a book-nerd’s dream tour of the foggy port city.

Girls Write Now NYC Reading This Friday!


Girls Write Now, an awesome organization that works with underserved teenage girls in New York to develop their creative voices, continues their 2014 CHAPTERS reading series with an evening featuring author, reporter, and broadcaster Farai Chideya and original work from Girls Write Now participants. Get your tickets to this great event here—teens get in free!

The Rise of a New Socialist Literary Scene


Facing financial inequality and burdened with debt, millennials have discovered Marxism, writes Timothy Shenk for the Nation. And millennial writers are leveraging technology, rejecting old guard institutions, and constructing new forums for discussion:

Combine all this with some fondness for navel gazing and with the fortunes of geography—politics aside, New York writers are New York writers, and they like to talk about each other—and the pieces are in place for the articles declaring the rebirth of Marxism that have become a minor genre in the last year.

Publications like Jacobin, n+1, and Dissent have embraced Marxist philosophy, and though many of the writings fail to achieve conceptual breakthroughs, that isn’t necessarily the point. The aim of this new socialism is as much advancing progressive politics as it is illuminating new ideas.

National Poetry Month Day 23: “Embers of Smoldering Homes” by Sean Singer


Embers of Smoldering Homes

It is a major war from
a manufacturing plant
near Ciudad Juárez, a concrete
dust smell from the maquiladoras
cools. There is a pool
of liquid forming
on the stone floor.
When Érika Gándara, the only
cop in Guadalupe Distrito Bravos
was killed the buzzards
were fucking in the wind.
See the brown ribs poking
through the side
of the hound, behind
the broken refrigerator.
The dog is looking for a guaco
leaf, or Saint Teresa.
She has not been seen
since two days before
Christmas. A painting
of the black Mary is wrapped
in plastic wrap, next to the rifle.
Who else is wrapped
in plastic, like drug baggies
or a piece of flesh: Praxédis, Leticia,
Esperanza, Hermila, Felicitas,
Lourdes, Elvira, Gabriela, Elsa Luz…
The body has been in the desert
for at least nine days.
A wire chicken coop,
a plaster wall, she vests herself
and waits for you like a hand
stripped of a moving world.
A hand stripped of a moving
world waits for you.
It snaps its fingers
on 2 and 4, a “black snap”
or a sponginess encased
in desire. The fleshy leaves
of the agave bend a white
feather on a girl’s brow.
The goatskin deflates
by the opening where,
lashed to itself, she pulls
back her flat breath,
her brittle and meager
clavicle unscrew the pain.
A niña’s rose black edge
stumps the coroner
who says something is striking
me, my chrome raindrop,
my jacaranda, pouch of bone.
In Dublin, Ohio,
a sortie of jackals
split the scissors behind the mask
mouth and “cut loose”
for a long needle-devouring night
into the rawhide axis
of dawn, of dung and ashes.
If the word Mexico means
“Place at the Center of the Moon”
then these fabric fireflies
and jutting hips are perfumed
honeyed vibrato moans
and the manic cartels
slice their own heads,
cancer-eaten, like a faceless jaw
snapping the desert moon.
We didn’t meet in Mexico’s
dark carbon, stretching palpitations
in black armor but a wooden
column of the archangel
who witnesses casually
the teporochos who eat genitals
and fuck watermelons.
When you take the last bus
to Piedras Negras a bullet
has struck the remaining tissue
not of livestock or bodyguard
but the moon’s own leather aorta.

-Sean Singer


Please, Sir, I Want Some More


Designer, director, and “amateur table-setter” Dinah Fried has recreated a number of iconic meals from famous fiction: tequila, grapefruits, and cigarettes from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; the bowl of chowder from Moby Dick; the cheese sandwich from Catcher in the Rye; the gruel from Oliver Twist. And it’s changed the way she reads:

I notice with greater clarity than ever when anything is consumed in the book,” she said. “I pay more careful attention to the way food is described or cooked or eaten.

See more of Fried’s “Fictitious Dishes” here.

Large White House Speaking by Mark Irwin


A review is not meant to be a personal essay. A review, like a house, has a form, forms walls, walls you into the world of the work. But then, “By whom or by what agency is the behavior of the poem suggested,” writes Barbara Guest, “by what invisible architecture, we ask, is the poem developed?” We are building structures here. So, first:

When I was a kid I spent a lot of time on construction sites with my dad. I watched him lay foundations, frame walls, and install siding, insulation, drywall. For a few summers in high school, my father hired me to do weird jobs like scrape errant putty from newly installed windows or wipe mysterious pee stains out of waterless tubs. Even though I’d watched it go up in real time, each new house felt like a magic trick.

As an adult I bought a house while my father was dying, so late into his dementia that he couldn’t even hammer a nail. I thought without thinking that the house would give me what Gaston Bachelard calls an illusion of stability. I’d bought a house because houses were what I knew—but without my father’s magic tricks, I was still a woman without a home.

Houses are not time machines…

When I picked up Mark Irwin’s Large White House Speaking, I saw that the poet’s memories had been triggered by long afternoons with a kind of writing that meanders back in time. Many of the poems in the collection lead back to houses as locus of emotional intensity. The large white house of memory.

The very fiber of this collection is like the dream of a once-house the poet is always trying to return to, the birthplace of his personal duende, what Bachelard calls our oneirically definitive dwelling place. Even if the houses/spaces he travels back to are not literally Irwin’s first home, they’re imbued with the same power, a means into his past.

Even the shapes of most poems in this collection are bricklike. Only occasionally as in “Tell Me,” an epistolary poem about time undone, do we get the blown-out light of a Turner painting.


Resolution: the act of finding an answer; the answer itself; taking a complexity and breaking it into its simpler notions; determination; the point in a story at which the complication is worked out; the measure of the sharpness of an image. The title poem of Large White House Speaking begins, “—From morning to evening the resolution of light through windows.” Light seeks, light illuminates, light clarifies, light determines to break darkness.

Irwin isn’t interested in one shade of light. His project in “Large White House Speaking,” and in much of this collection, to accrete possibilities, shades of light-and-dark (we know from the demented that memory ain’t strictly black-and-white). Reanimating the past requires flow: In this poem, a resolution of light is also the resolution of time; people are windows through which light pours so that the light of memory filters through our very bodies; evening is also equal to memory.

Bachelard writes, “every corner in a house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination; that is to say, it is the germ of a room, or of a house.” In Irwin’s poem, “A house / is a pocket with many smaller pockets: rooms, closets, drawers. You / are reaching now into darkness.” Irwin isn’t reaching back to find memories; he is reaching back (one might say into his imagination) to find the right words to house the memories.

If resolution is the act of answer-finding, or if it is the answer itself, this collection is more a move toward discovery than the discovery itself. Memory is slippery—structurally and sonically—Irwin’s metaphors morph into new and sometimes perplexing and contradictory metaphors as he follows their trail.


The houses in Large White House Speaking, it turns out, are time machines.

In “Portraits,” an estranged mother and son wash windows together:

She stood outside.
I stood in, and we cleaned each one that way, staring into each other’s eyes,
rubbing the white towel over our faces, rubbing
away hours, years.

The obvious eyes/windows/soul connection. Or the act of working on a house together brings the two characters back, literally face to face, to another time in which either they are not estranged, or she is not dead (this could definitely be a poem about a ghost).

Or in “Elegy,” “Inside / the house we are suddenly weightless, having not seen /each other for years, then touch like lights rehearsing the latitudes / of our names.” It’s as though the air in Irwin’s houses takes on a spaceship immensity.

“Elegy,” is one of those poems that follows a trail of words into the past, where “a carcass of vowels wept.” Memory is both retrieval and failed mission.

Memory resurrects ghosts, and time morphs into one meta-ghost; In the poem “Ghost,” Irwin elides memory, words, and houses into the sound of a bell’s gong:

you come & go through the mansion

of air. How
will I address you, small
weather? Sometimes your name’s

a dress like an iron
bell the years
swing shadows from

longer than home. Can you hear
that word peal? I’m going
there now,

carrying the windows
from inside
all the vowels.

How will I address you, small weather? might be one of the best lines in the book, strange and lovely. Aside from the poem’s lyric intensity, the line breaks enliven its mystery: “of air. How” stands on its own, asking how to breathe? or “longer than home. Can you hear,” imploring us to stop and repeat the word home aloud, to contemplate its significance as both word and recalled place.

Mark IrwinThe extended metaphor—a technique that works often and well in this collection—is in this poem (and a few others) a frustrating buildup of sensory data. How, I ask myself, is a name like a dress which is like an iron bell from which years swing shadows that are longer than the word home (not very long), and then how does home turn into the pealing bell, and how is the speaker going into that bell, carrying the windows that were inside all the vowels?

Colliding disparate things, cement-mixing metaphors at high speed, is a dangerous business. The cascading creates in me a never-grasping or a rabbit hole. Which may be Irwin’s point. I think about the impossibility of returning to my childhood home(s), to those particular places and times, and how we might chase language ad infinitum to never quite find what we’re looking for.

In contrast, in “Poem Beginning with a Line by Milosz,” bodies, too, won’t be defined, are not what they appear, but Irwin’s logic is more traceable. The poem amasses contradictions to Milosz’s assertion that “beautiful bodies are like transparent glass,” where language/memory/vision are slippery and indecisive, but we all know intimately the shape of a body. The poem makes me feel less like I’m in a freefall and more like I’m witnessing real-time contemplation or a proof-building. Take these three phrases:

“What appears transparent is really flame / burning so brightly it appears like glass.”

“The most beautiful bodies / are not transparent, but sometimes the color / of lead”

“The bodies that seem / transparent are made of an ice so pure it appears / to be glass sweating”

Each phrase definitely re-imagines the last, each becomes a new possibility for the body, our version of a turtle shell, versus an unsolvable mystery.


One of the most crystalline pieces in the collection is a short prose poem about a private viewing of the Australopithecus skeleton, Lucy, in 1974, in which the narrator speaks to Lucy’s several hundred pieces of bone: “For the most part you were all there, with the notable exception of right femur, left tibia, and part of the skull. No hands or feet. I guess they were shattered and lost in your swim to the surface of three million years.” The poem concludes with a pregnant woman in the group catching sight of the skeleton’s partial pelvic bone and sacrum, and the two living characters exchange a single moment of awe, the woman’s hand on narrator’s shoulder, as they gaze “into a white fire,” and the woman says she needs to go home.

In many ancient traditions, the sacrum is sacred space, the seat of creation and desire—even the house of the soul. I love how this poem brings ancient and modern woman together even as the glow of such magnitude-of-lineage becomes overwhelming.

Irwin performs a similar sweep in “Sentence,” vastness plus the language that evokes it. The universe doubles as a house:

we lean on earth’s railing, gazing upward at a billion
fires, distant, unsexed, a syntax whose one unraveling subject’s all verb.

Interesting that syntax, the ordering of language, is unraveling; or rather the subject that syntax wants to describe is coming apart. The subject must exist in the doing (all verb). We eat, we sleep, we fuck: all of which are indescribable acts as we gaze, frozen, outward and upward, through the windows of our white houses, that when recalled from years later, feel a lot like home.

Weekly Rumpus Fiction: Jeff Albers


The next Weekly Rumpus features fiction from Jeff Albers. Here’s an excerpt:

These parties normally had a certain rhythm that suited Frank’s style, so relaxed and casual as to lead him to coin his own time signature, Loesserando, which, he explained, should fall somewhere between the slow walking pace of andante moderato and the reduced heart rate of an afternoon nap. This evening’s casualness, however, was already slightly altered, as earlier that afternoon, Frank had negotiated a deal over lunch with Severo Barza, head of MGM, to swap out the song in the key moment of Neptune’s Daughter, the third picture to pair Esther Williams and Ricardo Mantalban and the film Frank was currently under contract to score. (more…)

Joyce Proves as Difficult to Translate as to Read


The first of three parts of a Chinese translation of Finnegans Wake consumed eight years of translator Dai Congrong’s life. The almost unreadable book proves even more difficult to translate because of the many puns and layered meanings, explains MobyLives:

The novel has been deemed “untranslatable” and the translations that are successful tend to be consuming: the Polish version took ten years to finish, the French version thirty years, and the Japanese version took three separate translators after the first disappeared and the second went mad.

Still, if Congrong can keep at her current pace, she’ll finish the translation in less time than the French required.

You Are Invisible


Writing in the New Yorker about the smartphone app Cloak, Mark O’Connell offers a thoroughly beautiful and poetic commentary on the ontology of visibility:

By generating a kind of omnipresence—whereby we are always available, visible, contactable, all of us there all the time—the technologies that mediate our lives also cause us to disappear, to vanish into a fixed position on the timeline or the news feed. (“You are invisible,” runs the weirdly urgent message on my Gmail chat sidebar. “Go visible.”)

Still Writing Like a Motherfucker


An article published in Flavorwire hails Cheryl Strayed (Rumpus’ very own Sugar) as a publishing hero. In Jason Diamond’s words, “Strayed is the rare type of writer who is both critically and commercially embraced, but also keeps her feet firmly planted in the literary world.” But how did this come to be?

Diamond suggests that Strayed’s work ethic is the key. “Strayed has found the success most people will never know, but she working like she still has something to prove. It’s something that keeps readers interested…”

Successful as Strayed may be, she is still writing like a motherfucker.

How the Paperback Saved Civilization


With America gripped by the Great Depression, booksellers found that $2.75 put hardcover books out of reach for most readers. (A movie ticket then cost just 20 cents.) In 1939, with a full-page ad in the New York Times and ten titles, Robert de Graff changed the industry with the introduction of 25-cent paperback books. Mental Floss looks at the history of the paperback book from the introduction of de Graff’s mass-market books to trade paperbacks a few years later.

National Poetry Month Day 22: “The Great Loves of Our Lives” by Julie Enszer


The Great Loves of Our Lives

Begin with the body
desire manifests itself in the body:
the flutter of the heart
the nervous shake of a hand
the dilation of the pupils
hardening of nipples
thickening of mucus
within the vaginal walls.

New lovers celebrate the body
reveling in hungry
explorations of the vast
expanse of skin,
each fold, each gentle
pocket of flesh.

The thick soup of fluids
that lubricate lovemaking—
spit and cum—
everything is sensuous
the body, a palace
of pleasure
for eager explorations.

I cannot imagine
any of this for my parents,
but this is how it began
with my wife.
I still remember
those days of desire,
the musky scent
wafting from every
inch of our skin.

If greedy, hungry
bodily lovers are lucky,
they will spend some inestimable
number of years together,
then, again it will be
all about the body.
The body and its breakdown.

This is where the bodies
of my parents enter:
the proximity of fluids
not the sweet, sticky kinds,
the ones that excrete
a leaky bladder
a lax sphincter.

The day my mother
comes home from the hospital,
after the surgeon amputated
all her left toes,
she cannot bear any weight
on her foot;
her bladder leaks.
Together, mother and father
learn to test her blood sugar
four times a day and
inject two types of insulin.

The body breaks down.
Love does not always remain,
but bodies bind us
their desire
their fallibility
their messy connections
to all that is human.

-Julie Enszer

For Such Magnificence


There have been, and will continue to be, a lot of eulogies for Gabriel García Márquez this week. In the Sunday Times, Salman Rushdie has an especially nice meditation on magical realism:

But if magic realism were just magic, it wouldn’t matter. It would be mere whimsy — writing in which, because anything can happen, nothing has effect. It’s because the magic in magic realism has deep roots in the real, because it grows out of the real and illuminates it in beautiful and unexpected ways, that it works.

The Weight of Blood

The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh


Like many suspense novels, The Weight of Blood starts with a body and a mystery. Buddy Snell, a photographer for the Ozark County paper, is looking for anything interesting to put on his front page when he discovers the dismembered remains of Cheri Stoddard in the hollow of a tree across from the small town’s general store. The discovery sends Lucy Dane, Cheri’s only friend, searching for clues to explain the murder. Unlike her friends and neighbors, Lucy refuses to assume that her friend’s death came at the hands of an unknown outsider, but Lucy does not expect the trail of clues to lead her closer and closer to home.

We soon learn that Lucy’s own mother, Lila, met a similarly mysterious end twenty years earlier, and as Lucy delves deeper into the troubling history of Cheri’s disappearance and death, she begins to uncover more than she wants to know about her own family. Just as Cheri’s severed head was first found tangled in tree roots, Lucy finds herself tangled in the complex roots of her family tree, where she must weigh loyalty to family against her own innate moral code.

Laura McHugh’s debut is a potboiler of a novel, confronting the long-hidden economy of sex trafficking in current day America. McHugh does not flinch as she writes her way into this world. Instead she levels a direct gaze on the scandalous treatment of young women throughout this country—and levels our gaze along with her own.

The plot of McHugh’s novel was inspired by a true story in her hometown of Lebanon, Missouri, where a man was convicted of torturing a mentally impaired young woman whom he had coerced into being a sex slave. The national statistics show that the scope of the problem spreads far larger. Shared Hope International reports that human trafficking has become a $9.8-billion-per-year industry in the United States, with the sex trade accounting for a significant part of that economy. According to Soroptimist, “One overriding factor in the proliferation of trafficking is the fundamental belief that the lives of women and girls are expendable. In societies where women and girls are undervalued or not valued at all, women are at greater risk for being abused, trafficked, and coerced into sex slavery.”

In The Weight of Blood, McHugh shows us the disturbing depth of this belief in female expendability as the disappearances of girls from poor, depressed households repeatedly go under-investigated. Even the girls’ mothers seem unconcerned, believing their daughters to have “run off” of their own free will. The novel’s grisly opening gains added significance as we come to understand that, even when she was alive, Cheri was never seen as anything more than a body. With so few of her neighbors and none of her family invested in her safety or wellbeing, Cheri’s living body was put to work, further compromising her value as a person at the same time that the value of her female body was exploited.

Laura McHugh

Laura McHugh

McHugh explores this core theme from a number of viewpoints. In the opening chapters, she alternates between the present day first-person narrative of Lucy and the twenty-years-earlier first-person narrative of her mother, Lila. By doing so, she puts us directly in the mind of one of the trafficked girls. In the second and third sections of the novel, McHugh further extends the number of viewpoints, rotating third-person perspectives between several different townspeople as the plot grows more complex. With this narrative strategy, McHugh is able to develop startling sympathies with characters who might be easily written off, ranging from a small-time local drug dealer to the head of the trafficking ring itself.

Balancing this tragedy and violence, McHugh also shows us the love and kindness for which small towns are famous. The character of Birdie, Lucy’s elderly neighbor and unofficial grandmother-figure, is particularly wonderful. Like the balms Birdie creates to heal the sick and injured, her presence acts as a powerful antidote, and though she is not enough to heal the darkness infecting the area, she reminds us of the good that comes from seeing past surface prejudices and seeking out the humanity of neighbors and strangers alike.

Its publishers have marketed The Weight of Blood as a novel for fans of Gillian Flynn and Daniel Woodrell. Neither comparison is completely fair. McHugh’s novel is smarter than Flynn’s mindless and misogynistic Gone Girl. Its plot is more plausible and compelling. But McHugh is not quite able to achieve the profound lyricism or the deep sense of place that made Winter’s Bone so riveting. The stylistic risk she takes by shifting points of view throughout the novel is not always justified, which creates unintended moments of confusion and disorientation. In particular, the voices of Lucy and Lila could be better differentiated. Too often they seem like the same character in different plot lines rather than being distinct individuals with unique histories and personalities. Ultimately, the idea of the “weight of blood” becomes less complicated as we learn more about the novel’s villain, and thus the novel’s conclusion is less fraught than its beginning.

Those quibbles aside, McHugh has crafted one hell of a first novel, boldly taking on an issue that is far too often and easily ignored. In a small town like Henbane, where the townspeople know one another intimately, everyone is culpable; but as the sex trafficking network reveals its extent far beyond the county lines, the novel suggests that the blame for this widespread tragedy reaches across the country and into our own living rooms. In fact, perhaps more disturbing than the plot itself is the number of reader reviews questioning whether such stories could happen in the United States. But as those comments are countered with the news stories that confirm the prevalence of sex trafficking, it appears McHugh’s novel has prompted a long overdue discussion. While her novel does not overtly call its readers to action, the narrative of missing women suggests that we must pay attention to the neglected girls around us all. Ultimately The Weight of Blood succeeds not only in being a page-turner but also in shining stark light on the humanity and depravity that coexist in the most unexpected corners of our country.

Gary Shteyngart Won’t Blurb Your Book


A Gary Shteyngart blurb seemed almost a rite of passage in recent years, with the author of Super Sad True Love Story offering his recommendation to more than one hundred books. But Kirsten Reach reports that the author has retired from the art of book blurbing—and offers some of her favorite Shteyngart blurbs—in a reflection of his career as a blurber:

I’ve got a soft spot for Shteyngart’s blurbs, even if he feels he has saturated the marketplace. His words were always a little off-kilter in a way that made you pay attention, and felt more genuine as a result.