Rumpus Blog

Notable Los Angeles: 3/2–3/8

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Monday 3/2: It’s the first Monday of the month, which means Speakeasy is here for you to practice that thing you’ve been working on to someone other than your cats friends. Signups start at 7:45 p.m., readings begin at 8 p.m. at The Last Bookstore.

Tuesday 3/3: Literary Death Match‘s 9-year anniversary show presents readings by Baratunde Thurston, Kseniya Melnik, Carson Mell, and M.G. Lord. They will be judged by Jason Reitman and Whitney Cummings. Hosted by Adrian Todd Zuniga. Doors at 7 p.m., show at 8:35 p.m. at Largo at the Coronet. $30 online.

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Weekend Rumpus Roundup

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First, sacrifice is the key to artistic growth in Grant Snider’s “Creative Processor.”

And in the Saturday Essay, Amanda Miska realizes she is making the object of her love into a “myth,” into “the version of the story that [she] wanted to believe.” Framed by the constant presence of social media, Miska analyzes the motivation behind Internet “stalking”—the desire to win. She writes of past lovers:

“We see their Twitter feeds as lines of dialogue, their Instagram photos as setting, their Facebook connections or passive-aggressive status updates as the plot lines.”

Meanwhile, the fantastic and the real blur together in Jeannine Hall Gailey’s fourth poetry collection, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter. (more…)

Girl Not in Your MFA

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That Guy in Your MFA is neither a guy nor a student in an MFA program. He’s actually a woman, Dana Schwartz, a Brown University undergraduate. Schwartz also runs the twitter Dystopian YA Novel that satirizes series like Divergent. She tells Chicago Reader that she invented the alter egos because her writing workshops had too many stories about guys on trains:

“They all had trains,” she says, “and a man leaving his family because he is too complicated and deep. It was this wannabe sophomore lit writing that could be Jonathan Franzen, except not quite as good.”

40,000 twitter followers later, Schwartz is finding literary agents have taken an interest and editors want the YA manuscript she’s been writing. As Guy In Your MFA once said: “the only form of art lower than YA fiction is parody.

The First Bad Man

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

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In a recent interview with the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Miranda July explained that the “common theme” among her favorite childhood books was “orphaned girls who make secret, special places for themselves. That’s my core identity; everything is built upon that.” It’s not a stretch to understand this “everything built” to include her work as an artist, filmmaker, and writer.

Throughout her multimedia work, July’s characters invent “secret, special places,” both physical and psychological, to mediate their emotional experiences of the world. In these fantasies, games, and daydreams they bury vulnerabilities, escape from sorrow, play with new personas, imagine better lives. It often seems that the more her narrators retreat into their peculiar and particular interior worlds, the less in touch they are with “the real world.” Some critics contend that this makes her characters difficult to connect with. But as the therapist in July’s first novel, The First Bad Man, puts it: “Real comes and goes and isn’t very interesting.”

Those who find fault with the unreality of July’s new book would be well advised to take its fictional therapist’s advice––advice that also serves as an aesthetic rationale for its elaborate, unpredictable, frustrating and occasionally implausible plot. To mistake the novel’s realistic trappings (office life, romance, grocery shopping) for an attempt at self-serious realism is to miss its underlying spirit of play. These intricate, vulnerable fantasies are what keep the novel––and its protagonist-narrator Cheryl Glickman––alive.

Cheryl begins the novel by referencing the cinematic fantasy of perfection: “I drove to the doctor’s office as if starring in a movie Phillip was watching––windows down, hair blowing, just one hand on the wheel.” As she rides the elevator up to her doctor’s office, she practices a casual look of non-surprise in the mirror, in case she runs into Phillip, her crush. But Cheryl’s not the only one daydreaming. Everybody in The First Bad Man is living out a fantasy, whether the source material is a pornographic stereotype, strange dream, childhood memory, or Hollywood movie.

Miranda July

Miranda July

As with July’s Somebody app, where an anonymous stranger delivers your SMS to a friend, communication in The First Bad Man is constantly constructed and complicated by the presence of a third-party mediator. Philip routinely sexts Cheryl for permission to perform sexual acts with a teenager; Cheryl’s bosses insist that Cheryl and her co-workers stiffly reenact a decontextualized office ritual, brought back from their trip to Japan; Cheryl and her roommate Clee communicate through reenacting the clichéd dialogue and violent choreography of her company’s self-defense workout videos.

Cheryl and Clee’s ersatz violence––they perform “a re-creation of a simulation of the kind of thing that might happen to a woman if she didn’t keep her wits about her”––forms the core of the novel’s action. (Its title comes from a scene where Clee and Cheryl discuss whether Clee should play “the first bad man” in the self-defense routine, or the second). But you don’t have to identify with these games July’s characters play in order to understand their emotional reasons for playing them. Office workers need secret gardens too.

What makes Cheryl’s concern with performance––the fantasy through which our ideas of “normal” operates––ultimately compelling, in addition to laugh-out-loud funny and cry-in-public sad, is the emotional clarity of her observations. On anticipating bad news from a doctor: “Whatever he told me would be the new reality and we’d just have to accept it.” On transforming into a mother: “I hoped to retain a tiny corner of the old me, just enough to warn other women with. But I knew this was unlikely; when the process was complete I wouldn’t have anything left to complain with, it wouldn’t hurt anymore, I wouldn’t remember.” On love: “We all think we might be terrible people. But we only reveal this before we ask someone to love us.”

As in J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, July’s First Bad Man uses the constructs of fiction to reveal the conventions of representation that guide everyday life. But unlike those stories, where the protagonist ends up further alienated by narcissism, The First Bad Man uses the artifice of the performance in the service of intimacy. In the place of meta-fiction’s infinitely regressive hall-of-mirrors, July depicts a meaningful and messy portrait of our all-too-human relationships. As a long short story, a piece of absurd theater, and a memoir of new motherhood, The First Bad Man is also, somehow, (in Cheryl’s words) “a great American love story for our time.”

At the end of The First Bad Man (spoiler), a sly meta-fictional gesture closes out a short vignette about familial love: Cheryl’s reunion with her teenage son is followed by “Applause like rain.” It’s almost as if an ending credit was slapped onto the book. And yet, it works. July infuses her self-conscious structures of mediation with the throbbing, immediacy of heartfelt feeling. Playing a game and falling in love aren’t mutually exclusive in July’s world; in the end, they might even be the same thing.

The Most I Can Do

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A.N. Denver geeks out on Kelly Link over at Longreads:

Be assured, serious readers, that there is no more successful writer at walking the edge of speculation and genre. She’s so good at what she does, that it makes her work nearly impossible to describe without sounding soft or even silly. No one is more gifted at dipping into a darker kind of wonder, an emotion for most readers that sadly belongs to the realm of childhood, than Link is. She bewilders the reader with wonder.

Notable NYC: 2/28–3/6

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Saturday 2/28: Tom McCarthy reads Satin Island, a novel about writing the Great Report. 192 Books, 7 p.m., free.

Claudia Rankine and Elizabeth Alexander read from their latest works. McNally Jackson, 7 p.m., free.

Sunday 3/1: Joanna Fuhrman, Shelley Marlow, and Elissa Ball celebrate new books by Fuhrman and Marlow. Molasses Books, 8 p.m., free.

Paul Beatty, Ann Hodgman, and Mitchell S. Jackson celebrate the Rejection issue of Tin House. KGB, 7 p.m., free. (more…)

The Robot Scientists Daughter

The Robot Scientist’s Daughter by Jeannine Hall Gailey

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Jeannine Hall Gailey’s fourth poetry collection, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, reanimates the haunting world of 1970s Oak Ridge Valley, Tennessee, where residents lived in the shadow of both the Smoky Mountains and a government nuclear research facility once known as “America’s Secret City.” In an author’s note, Gailey describes her childhood as the daughter of a robotics professor who consulted at the classified Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL) and introduces the fictional Robot Scientist’s Daughter of her collection, who she calls “fantastic” but admits shares many of her traits. The poems that make up this collection move in a controlled way between fact and fiction, autobiography and fantasy, giving readers glimpses into the secret world surrounding ORNL in which Gailey grew up, at the same time as they tell the story of a fictional Robot Scientist’s Daughter who was transformed by that world into something other, something monstrous.

I first encountered Jeannine Hall Gailey’s poetry in The Los Angeles Review and Phantom Drift: A Journal of New Fabulism, and quickly read all three of her full-length collections. What I enjoy most about Gailey’s work is her feminist interrogation of speculative archetypes – such as female fairy tale characters and superheroes in her first book, Becoming the Villainess, or female characters from Japanese folklore in her second book, Unexplained Fevers – which she accomplishes in deceptively simple and beautiful language. The poems in this book are no different, except they do appear at first glance to be more autobiographical than is usual for Gailey. Many of the poems allude to the world Gailey describes in her author’s note, referring to actual historical events that occurred at Oak Ridge. Yet the world of Oak Ridge is strange enough that the resultant poems retain the fantastical elements readers have come to expect in Gailey’s work. In “Cesium Burns Blue,” for example, the lyric poem that opens the collection, the speaker sings,

In my back yard in Oak Ridge,
they lit cesium
to measure the glow.

The speaker goes on to describe how cesium “lights the rain,” is “absorbed in skin,” and is “unstable, unstable.” Her warning song seems intended to caution readers, as well as residents of Oak Ridge where the element was used in experiments, about the dangerous and beautiful element. The Oak Ridge Valley described in Gailey’s poems is a haunting, often almost fantastical place, populated with neon fungi and foxfire, toxic snow and the “tick of radioactive dirt” clueless insects have used to build nests. And yet despite these strange details, or perhaps because of them, the portrait of Oak Ridge Valley in the 1970s that emerges from these poems is particular and real. In “The Foxfire Books: In Case of Emergency, Learn to Make Glass,” the speaker explains how “[i]t seemed natural, then, that our woods/ would grow glowing mushrooms.” Many of these poems carry the tone of exposé, of reportage, as Gailey documents Oak Ridge’s history, testifying to deaths that went unreported and accidents that were kept secret, as well as to the natural beauty of a place which has since been paved over with concrete.

Such testimonial, or documentary, poems are interrupted and complicated by the series of “Robot Scientist’s Daughter” poems, which describe the fictional title character’s childhood in Oak Ridge, then go on to chronicle her mutation. In “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter [one of us],” the first poem in this series, the townspeople gossip that there was something wrong with the Robot Scientist’s Daughter from the start. They say “[s]he ran around in circles, meowing or mooing,” and gossip about the safe that “was kept/ locked at all times in her house”:

The basement glowed and ticked, and the children
there emerged damaged. The furniture was cracked
and pasted back together—even the flowers in their blooms
knew soon they would be plowed under, left as rubble.

In “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter [morbid],” we see the girl “hid[ing] underground, pretending/to be a troll or a witch.” In “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter [villainess],” the townspeople tell us she “grew up with a string of undifferentiated dogs,/ each slightly smarter than the last… They all looked exactly/ like TV’s Lassie, and they were all named Lassie. We suspected them to be prototypes.” As the collection progresses, the Robot Scientist’s Daughter becomes ill from contact with her radioactive environment, and her story becomes more and more fantastical. In “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter [medical wonder],” the title character has built herself “a new body, one/ that worked better this time, silver and shiny and smooth/ as mirrored glass.” In “How Not To Be a Robot Scientist’s Daughter,” we are told that opening her up would reveal “a mass of wires instead of a heart… neural networks nothing/ but artificial intelligence.” The story that emerges from these details is weirdly empowering; it is the story of a girl whose body has been damaged by her environment, but who has managed to overcome it by using the technical knowledge she gleaned from that environment to her advantage.

Jeannine Hall GaileyBy the end of the collection, the story of the Robot Scientist’s Daughter’s transformation becomes a metaphor not only for the effect of nuclear research on the individual residents of Oak Ridge, but also for the effects of nuclear power on the world as a whole. Poems like “Morning of Sunflowers (for Fukushima)” chronicle in startling and lyric language other cities’ attempts to recover from nuclear accidents: “Two hundred thousand sunflowers/ drink the cesium from the grounds of the temple/ where they burn the names of the dead.” In “Fukushima in Fall: A Field of Sunflowers,” the inability of those sunflowers to draw all the poison from the earth seems to mirror, at first, the inability of Oak Ridge Valley and the Robot Scientist’s Daughter to recover fully from their radiation exposure. Yet this collection is not bleak; the metaphor is complex. By the end of the collection, the “Robot Scientist’s Daughter” has resurrected herself as a “machine who believes/ she is human… perfect, full of light and joy/ she never knew when she was flesh.” Images of light, of course, are hardly innocent in a collection so aware of radiation and nuclear disaster. I cannot read this poem without thinking of the Ray Bradbury story, “2026: And There Will Come Soft Rains.” Yet Gailey describes the resurrected Robot Scientist’s Daughter’s tongue as “alive with lasers.” Her “song attracts/ thousands. She will stop bullets with her steel skin./ She will breathe new life into the species.” In “Advice from the Robot Scientist’s Daughter,” the title character speaks directly to the reader, describing human beings the way she now sees them: “so friable, so prone to overgrowth/ and imbalance.” She reminds the reader “that your atoms right now are smashing against/ the atoms of your chair. What is keeping you together?” In the end, these are the central concerns of Gailey’s newest collection, her most haunting and masterful book yet. In addition to documenting the terrible secrets of Oak Ridge that might otherwise be forgotten, these poems ask how we can “[k]eep from being broken apart./ Keep things from being broken apart. Gather together: thyroid, womb, heart. Build a nest.”

The Post-Apocalyptic Present

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For a smart writer, a ravaged future world also offers something like a perfect literary playground, a cleared field where everything from language to human psychology to social convention can be reconsidered and reframed, critiqued or reimagined.

The Millions reviews Quan Barry’s She Weeps Each Time You’re Born and looks at how it finds the post-apocalyptic future in the present of Vietnam.

This Week in Short Fiction

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Leave it to The Toast to give us a story told by a mermaid as opposed to a story about one. And leave it to The Toast to find a very good mermaid storyteller indeed. On Wednesday, they released “Mermaids at the End of the Universe: A Short Story” by Kendra Fortmeyer, featuring illustrations by Stephanie Monohan.

The opening lines poke fun at the ways others have traditionally told the stories of mermaids: “Deploy your imagery of choice… You may mix metaphors. You will be forgiven.” And after giving a brief history of mermaid life across the ages—in particular, a council meeting where several mermaids express disgruntlement at being immortal and in turn gain the option to end their lives of their own volition—the voice shifts from a first-person plural “we,” the voice of all mermaids, to a single voice in that group, Bahari.

Centuries have passed at this point, and Bahari is one of only two remaining mermaids in all the world. Bahari relays this information in cool tones, largely unaffected by the passing of her sisters. Soon after, when the only other remaining mermaid Oleana makes the decision to leave, Bahari remains distant, shrugging off Oleana’s concern for her impending aloneness saying, “Someone’s got to do it.”

At this halfway point where Bahari is finally alone, it becomes clear that mermaids aren’t the only species going extinct and that the world itself is ending. And here, finally, Bahari begins to feel the weight and sadness of her situation:

I swim for days in the freezing, disembodying darkness, sometimes diving, sometimes surfacing. I follow thin veins of heat to where I think the cities must have been, looking for survivors. I am accustomed to being lonely, but not entirely alone.

I have visions of the Greater Powers, and of Oleana. Of Mazu, the long-ago prophet, telling us that things would get worse. I realize, in my darkest moment, that with the world gone black, I cannot find a smooth pink pebble in the middle of the ocean. There are no stars for me to whisper to. There is no way for me to let go.

This is where Fortmeyer ascends to that bigger-than-us voice the likes of which we saw in Jim Jarmusch’s vampiric Only Lovers Left Alive. From her timeless perch, Fortmeyer’s Bahari gazes upon the three-dimensional ocean world largely unknown to most of us. And, like an older immortal sister, she helps us see it and ache for it in a way we didn’t know we could.

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On Tuesday, Doubleday released Jonathan Lethem’s newest story collection, Lucky Alan And Other Stories. NPR discusses the whole collection at length, noting it for its signature Lethem elements: genre-bending, surrealism, and a dark, sometimes heartbreaking humor.

In 2011, the Paris Review published, “The Empty Room,” one of the more realistic, raw stories from Lucky Alan. The story documents a family over many years, and the father’s odd, but weirdly comforting crusade to keep one room in the family’s house completely empty of stuff. This room, which his children at first resisted, goes on to become something of family lore as well as an anchoring site to the family’s members as they gradually unmoor from one another. The result makes you crave such an empty room for sitting and self, to which the father attributes lung-like qualities: “a living organ in our family’s house” with the ability to fill and empty “the stuff of the world.”

Meanwhile, Lethem recently spoke with The Huffington Post about the difference between writing a novel and a short story collection, coming up with the following explanation:

Novels take a while, and in their way they’re like these accidental documentaries of your life in the years it takes to write them, but story collections are even more like a kind of weird photo album. They really capture different little pinhole moments in a writer’s time and attention, and for me, my different interests.

The Queen of Steam

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“I was like, Either I’m a sexual deviant, which is always a possibility, or they’re wrong,” says Engler of publishers’ reluctance to print raunchy material. She sips from a can of Grapeade. “Turned out they were wrong.”

At Vulture, Phoebe Reilly tells the story of the meteoric rise and slow fall of Ellora’s Cave, a digital women’s erotica publishing company, and the woman who founded it. The story has drama, intrigue, a muscular manservant, and a nefarious villain: Amazon.

Notable Chicago: 2/27–3/5

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Friday 2/27: Poets, musicians, storytellers, and comedians perform at Opaque Reading, a monthly live-lit series at Uncharted Books. 7 p.m., free.

Jeff Phillips and Daniel Gerald Mac Rae have joined forces to create Zizobotchi Papers, a journal dedicated to the novella. Attend a reading of the first volume by Phillips and actor Jordan Hoisington at Quimby’s. 7 p.m., free.

Women & Children First hosts a launch party for Principles of Navigation, Lynn Sloan’s first novel. Festivities—including author reading and book signing—begin at 7:30 p.m.

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Exploring Secret Spaces

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The inscription—the handwriting of a person to whom I’m related, but who has always been, for me, unreachable, unknowable—wrapped an additional layer of mystery around this book about mystery. I wonder if that’s part of why I loved the story so much.

At the Ploughshares blog, Clare Beamsin talks about exploring the secret spaces in fiction as well as the secret spaces of her own life.

Trigger Warning

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Neil Gaiman talks with The Daily Beast about his new story collection, Trigger Warning, why he chose the controversial title, and why he’s become obsessed with the conversation around trigger warnings:

It seemed to me that so much of it was about content, about where do we stand on fiction and stories that upset you deeply, and go further, that send you into a breath-clutching, heart beating faster, messed-up person plunged into your bath because of something you’ve read in a story. I think the answer has to be that it’s all about what you take on as an adult, and it’s all about choice.

Joan Didion on White People

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Politics are not widely considered a legitimate source of amusement in Hollywood, where the borrowed rhetoric by which political ideas are reduced to choices between the good (equality is good) and the bad (genocide is bad) tends to make even the most casual political small talk resemble a rally.

Years ago, Didion wrote about race and Hollywood and her comments still ring true today.

Writing in the Age of Social Networks

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[W]anting to make a career in letters and not being on Twitter and Facebook — that is, not wanting to share your work constantly with the strangers you met on airplanes and in restaurants and people you hadn’t seen since seventh grade — became the equivalent of not actually wanting to be a writer at all. For extroverts and writers with surplus self-assurance this didn’t pose a problem. For those of us drawn to writing because it was the one job that wouldn’t require us to talk to people regularly, it was a nightmare.

Over at The Millions, Sarah Labrie investigates the relationship between contemporary writers and social media.

Song of the Day: “Mickey Mouse Boarding House”

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Mardi Gras may have been last week, but the good times keep on rolling. New Orleans-based soul artist Walter “Wolfman” Washington knows a thing or two about good times—in his good-humored single “Mickey Mouse Boarding House,” the silky R&B crooner complains about his lodgings in the funkiest way possible. A thick beat nicely complements the bluesy piano behind him as Washington sings:

“By the time I got ready to eat
Believe me man, I was really beat
Runnin’ grits
A little bit of grease
And one cup of coffee, and no kinda meat”

Notable Portland: 2/26–3/4

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Thursday 2/26: Mark Pomeroy reads from his debut novel, The Brightwood Stillness. Broadway Books, 7 p.m., free.

Nicole Kear reads from her memoir, Now I See You. Annie Bloom’s Books, 7 p.m., free.

John Benditt reads from his latest book, The Boatman. Powell’s City of Books, 7:30 p.m., free.

Ander Monson‘s Letter to a Future Lover collects several dozen brief pieces written in response to library ephemera. Powell’s on Hawthorne, 7:30 p.m., free.

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Kink Positive Therapists Endorsed by The Rumpus

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In New York, Dulcinea Pitagora. She holds a Master of Arts in Psychology from the New School for Social Research and a Master of Social Work from New York University, and is pursuing a PhD in Human Sexuality at Widener University. Pitagora is an LMSW working towards LCSW licensure, and has a practice in New York City that includes individual and group therapy. Pitagora’s practice is person-centered and strengths-based, focuses on self-determination and empowerment, and is kink, poly, trans*, and LGBQ affirmative.

In San Francisco, Dr. Morgana Maye. Dr. Maye does relationship counseling for kinky people. “I teach people how to better understand and express their kinky desires without shame, and empower them with the language and skills necessary to negotiate loving and lasting kink-positive relationships.”

Therapy and counseling have some commonalities but they are not the same. Read through the websites first before contacting.

Bonus content: Dulcinea Pitagora on 50 Shades Of Grey.

The Importance of Being Satire

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There is, in fact, a widespread view that humor abandons its true purpose when it ceases to punch upward from below, when it ceases to play David to the great Goliath of state or society, and instead punches down, targeting the weak and the downtrodden, the suckers and the yokels. But we would have to scrap a good deal of history’s most treasured works of humor if we were to apply this criterion rigorously. If Thomas Hobbes is correct that humor is an expression of one’s own superiority, to the humiliation of the inferior party, then we would have to scrap all of it.

The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the history and importance of satire.