Rumpus Blog

This Week in Short Fiction

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Remember Elizabeth Strout’s 2008 Pulitzer-prize winning novel in stories Olive Kitteridge? What if Olive could come to life in a film adaptation? Man. In a perfect world, probably Frances McDormand would play Olive, right? In fact, maybe we could just give McDormand creative control of the whole project, yeah? Probably if that happened, McDormand would maybe talk to Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) about playing Olive’s charming pharmacist husband, and she might also ask Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) to direct. Maybe she’d see if Martha Wainwright wants to do a cover of Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic” for the theme song? Oh. And just for fun, maybe she’d find a way to give some airtime to, oh, I don’t know, Bill Murray.

You guys. This is all happening. Or has happened and is all ready to go. If you don’t believe us, watch the trailer for the two-night miniseries called Olive Kitteridge that will air November 2nd and 3rd on HBO. Still don’t believe us? Here is Frank Bruni interviewing McDormand about the project for the New York Times. See? (more…)

Notable Chicago: 10/24–10/30

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Friday 10/24: David Bell is at The Book Cellar to promote his novel The Forgotten Girl. 7 p.m.

Saturday 10/25: The Chicago Humanities Festival kicks off today in celebration of its 25th anniversary. These are some of the best literary events you’ll attend all year. Today, Jamaica Kincaid talks to Lawrence Weschler about the breadth of her distinguished work. Go to the website for tickets. Cahn Auditorium, Northwestern University, 600 Emerson St., Evanston, 11 a.m.

Eula Biss continues a great day of distinguished writers at Northwestern University’s Leverone Hall, where she’ll discuss her new book On Immunity. 2001 Sheridan Rd., Evanston, 2:30 p.m.

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If We Don’t Tell Our Stories, We Become Sick

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I’ve always been writing about the same thing: that truth and stories are inextricably linked, that stories are truer than fact because they are fact organized into meaning. If we don’t tell our stories, if we don’t remember, and if we don’t leave stories, then our world becomes sick and we become sick. Only the truth will heal you, and that doesn’t mean the facts. That means the truth.

Follow this to Hazlitt, where Kelli Korducki interviews Anne-Marie MacDonald about her newest novel Adult Onset, Freud, and parallel universes.

Antique Doodles

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The owner of another fabulous volume, the Book of St Albans – a gentleman’s guide to heraldry, hawking and hunting that, in the 1480s, was the first colour printed book in English – did worse and with much less shame: he added a little drawing to the bottom of a page showing an enthusiastic couple having sex.

A new exhibition at the Cambridge University Library features some rare books that have had less-than-courteous owners. The Guardian has more details.

The Marquis de Sade’s Executive MBA

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For The Baffler, Kurt Newman analyzes Tom DeMarco’s 1997 novel, The Deadline: A Novel of Project Management, comparing the work to that of the Marquis de Sade and explaining why a seemingly irrelevant book highlights “our economic order’s sadomasochistic core.” The Deadline differs from other sadomasochistic fiction (American Psycho, Fight Club, and 24) in that it is distinguishable for “its illumination of the role of sadist and masochistic fantasies—not in the psychopathologies of day traders, not in the hollow rituals of postmodern consumption and therapy, and not in the torture chambers of late-capitalist militarism—but in the world of industrial relations.”

The Year of Magical Filming

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A documentary about Joan Didion is in the works! Didion’s nephew, Griffin Dunne, and documentarian Susanne Rostock are setting out to tell her story through accounts from family and friends, colleagues and critics, and passages of Didion’s writing that she will choose and read herself. According to the film’s fundraising page:

Storytelling was a way of enduring the potent rawness Joan experienced through life, and through loss. Now we must be the ones to preserve this. To preserve her legacy.

Just Do the Hard Things

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Sara Benincasa has some inspiring words over at Medium:

You must tell people exactly what you want from them if you have any hope that they will give it to you. I asked people to review my book (well, my publisher asked them to review my book) in the hopes that everyone would love it and write glowing reviews. As it turned out, there were good reviews and bad reviews and okay reviews and great reviews and awful reviews. BUT. Those good ones and great ones stood out to me, and I never would have gotten them if I had not asked people to read my book in the first place.

Song of the Day: “Fool”

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Perfume Genius is the stage moniker of Seattle-based artist Mike Hadreas, whose buzz-worthy new album reeks of deliberate, inspired songwriting and technical ability. Hadreas showcases his impressive vocal range on this beautiful track from the record, Too Bright, titled “Fool.” The deceptively flippant lyrics mask a melodic complexity that rewards us more and more with each subsequent listen. Check out the live version of “Fool” here.

Notable Portland: 10/23–10/29

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Thursday 10/23: The Late Night Library reading series welcomes Leslie Jamison and her musical guest Timmy Straw. Literary Arts, 7 p.m., $5 suggested donation.

David Kukoff reads from his latest book, Children of the Canyon. Powell’s on Hawthorne, 7:30 p.m., free.

Friday 10/24: The IPRC welcomes students of their certificate program to share from their work in progress. IPRC, 7 p.m., free.

Blue Skirt Productions welcomes Gayle Towell and Jonathan Oak to read for the Them’s Fightin’ Words reading series. St. Johns Booksellers, 7 p.m., free.

Karen Karbo reads from her new novel, Diamond Lane. Powell’s City of Books, 7:30 p.m., free.

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Sex and the Honest Girl

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At The Millions, Brooke Hauser compares Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl with Helen Gurley Brown’s seminal Sex and the Single Girl and finds, distressingly, that not much has changed when it comes to the critical reception of women writing about sex:

A lot has happened since 1962 when Sex and the Single Girl came out. Lena is able to write about subjects that Helen wasn’t, including what constitutes “rape” . . . And yet, as two women who wrote memoir-manuals more than a half a century apart, they have been treated very similarly in the press. They weren’t honest enough. They were too honest—narcissistic navel-gazers.

The Children Act

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

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Ian McEwan has a weak spot for characters who have a weak spot for words. Many of his fictions (his künstlerromans, to use the technical definition) slice through the peculiarities of writers in their different incarnations. Like the HBO series The Wire, in which each season deals with another aspect of the city of Baltimore, McEwan’s literary corpus has a continuous focus on different facets of writing and those who perform it. Not all of McEwan’s writer characters are professional authors, but an important percentage of them are. Enduring Love‘s lead character is a science writer who witnesses a balloon accident that changes his orderly, writerly life. Among Amsterdam‘s cast of characters are newspaper editors and hacks on the lookout for the latest scoop. Atonement‘s narrator and protagonist is a dreamy-eyed, 13-year-old-girl whose habit of plotting fictional stories for people around her leads to real catastrophe. Solar‘s comic protagonist is a Nobel Prize–winning physicist who has devoted a significant portion of his life to writing research papers. Sweet Tooth is based on the experiences of an up-and-coming novelist with an eerie resemblance to the author who has conceived him. In The Children Act, a novella written in the tradition of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” and “Tonio Kröger”, McEwan’s protagonist is yet another writerly figure: a high court judge whose obsession with producing lucid prose for her judgments reflects the deadened state of her emotions.

Death, youth and music are the subjects of this beautifully compact novel. They provide an antidote to the orderly existence of the 59-year-old Fiona Maye, who lives in a comfortable apartment around Gray’s Inn Square in London. We watch her spend her Sunday evening on a chaise lounge with a glass of Scotch in her hand. The moment seems peaceful from outside, but once we get into Fiona’s thoughts it appears that she is in pain, and is dealing with intense emotions she had forgotten about, thanks to her disciplined, law-oriented life. Earlier in the day she shouts at her husband, in a language she has not used in a long time: “You idiot! You fucking idiot!” Like Marlon Brando’s “Fucking God!”, the legendary roar that opens Last Tango in Paris, Fiona’s shout heralds an emotional crisis that she will need to come to terms with.

Rather like a public automaton serving the legal needs of discontented customers, Fiona has to respond instantly to cases brought to the Family Division of the High Court and provide detailed judgments about them. The private case that is being formed in her own apartment demands judgment of a different, more emotional kind. “I need it. I’m fifty-nine. This is my last shot. I’ve yet to hear evidence for an afterlife,” her husband Jack tells her. He is a handsome bloke (“lopsidedly square-jawed, a toothy game-for-anything expression that charmed his students”) who works as a history professor, writing and lecturing about ancient philosophers. His epically unsuccessful sales pitch for an open marriage includes the following sentences: “I’ve become your brother. It’s cozy and sweet and I love you, but before I drop dead, I want one big passionate affair.”

Although Fiona immediately rejects his proposal, it is understandable that Jack should make it: in their thirty-five-year marriage, things have been good and cozy between husband and wife, but a too-heavy workload on both sides, coupled with the regret of never finding the time to have a child, have proved consequential. From Jack’s perspective, being married to Fiona must seem a bit like being married to Gustave Flaubert’s objective, nameless, invisible narrators. She disappears into nothingness in her determination to do justice to the High Court. As a partner and a lover, she appears a bit lifeless. Jack’s prospective affair with a twenty-eight-year-old statistician named Melanie (a name “not so remote from the name of a fatal form of skin cancer”) is partly a reaction to living with a person who feels she needs to be perfectly selfless to do her job right.

Ian McEwan (photo by Joost van den Broek)

Ian McEwan (photo by Joost van den Broek)

Even after learning about the affair Fiona continues to be preoccupied with her judgments, her arguments and her prose. Authoring is a never-ending activity. She needs to approve a judgment before its publication the next day: the “prose needed to be smoothed, as did the respect owed to piety in order to be proof against an appeal.” A tireless producer of drafts and letters, Fiona finds it difficult to compose a judgment about her own situation. This will necessarily be more difficult than the impersonal judgment she has produced recently: “The draft of Fiona’s judgment was twenty-one pages long, spread in a wide fan facedown on the floor, waiting for her to take it up, a sheet at a time, to mark with soft pencil.” Her strategy about Jack’s proposal for an open marriage resembles those drafts, in that she modifies parts of her plan as she goes along.

The next day, a Monday, Fiona changes the lock on her apartment to keep Jack out. She also learns about a case concerning a seventeen-year-old boy named Adam. Talented and beautiful, Adam has leukemia but refuses blood transfusion because of his religious beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. Thus begins Adam’s symbolic role in the novel: just like the protagonist’s refusal to allow Jack back into her life, he refuses the blood of another person inside his body.

Fiona and Adam struggle with the emotionally challenging prospects of adultery and death in dramatically different ways. She is too mature, while he is too childish. McEwan places them in the same room (in the hospital where Adam is treated) and the resultant scene has an epiphanic quality. With more than a passing resemblance to James Joyce’s “The Dead” (also about the death of a marriage and the effect a dying boy has on it), McEwan reveals the emotional state of Fiona and Adam through a moment that crystallizes their concerns. In his state of decay and in his romantic acceptance of death, Adam ends up representing life and passion for Fiona, just as the bedridden young lad Michael Furey does for Gretta Conroy in Joyce’s story.

Adam is an exceptional child: he had won a poetry competition and can recite odes by Horace. His brightness creates an immediate bond with Fiona, who was also a poet at his age. She remembers her “quatrains daringly unrhymed,” one of which is “about death by drowning, of sinking deliciously backward among the river weeds, an improbably fantasy inspired by the Millais painting of Ophelia.” This is followed by other memories from her younger years: finally she is occupied with images and feelings from her own life. She remembers making “flowcharts of possible lives” as “a concert pianist, a vet, a journalist, a singer.” Being a high court judge was not among those.

Because of the leukemia and his refusal to treat it, Adam does not have the chance to make similar flowcharts. His refusal of blood also means, for Fiona, that he can’t be Fiona-like. She reads one of his poems that is decorated with Biblical references (“My fortunes sank into the darkest hole / When Satan took his hammer to my soul”), and listens to him play the violin. This newly acquired skill creates another bond between the two, as Fiona is an amateur piano player. She invites him play the violin, and accompanies him by singing the lyrics of Yeats’s “Down by the Salley Gardens,” whose words she knows by heart. The scene ends this way: “As they finished, the lad in the brown jacket was rolling his trolley into the room and the brushed-steel plate-covers made a cheerful tinkling sound.” Here, the intervention of the mundane, through the tinkling sound of the plate-covers, gives us a hint of Fiona’s decision.

The Children Act in the book’s title orders that “when a court determines any question with respect to… the upbringing of a child… the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration”. Not allowing Adam the life choices she has had would be to work against his welfare. She arranges a secular intervention aimed to rescue Adam from his own beliefs. The tinkling sound also hints at Fiona’s wish for an intervention in her own problems— perhaps a courtly authority can solve her problems as if by magic.

The second half of The Children Act is about the consequences of Fiona’s intervention in Adam’s life, and the lack of intervention in hers. Her judgment on Adam has the unanticipated result of making him fall in love with his saviour. Having left his religious beliefs and his family behind, Adam comes after her, ready to sacrifice everything, like a passionate lover. In contrast, Fiona’s relationship with her husband continues with the same civility and coolness, with both sides making concessions so as to avoid a divorce. No decisive intervention is made by either wife or husband; they take a more moderate, mature and boring path. Adam, on the other hand, is keen to change things.

McEwan’s controlled prose, which incorporates music and poetry towards the operatic finale of the book, seems to imply two things about writers. One: a preoccupation with giving perfect judgments (and producing good prose) carries with it the danger of destroying life’s sensuousness and excitement. Two: one should open her ears to the forces of music and poetry, because in their uncontrollability they have the power to change our lives.

“Without music, life would be a mistake,” Nietzsche famously wrote. Writers or not, we can easily lose the sense of being alive, until something reminds us of music, sickness, and death.

Surveillance in the Stacks

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Librarians have hard-won reputations as defenders of open information and patron privacy, but what about third-party providers of library services? Slate’s Future Tense explores some recent revelations from companies like Adobe, whose Digital Editions e-book software has been criticized for transmitting reader data in plain text—making it an easy target for surveillance by the government, and other private companies. It’s not hard to imagine nefarious uses for information about what people are reading, especially when they believe they’re safe from prying eyes; helping libraries take strong stands with their vendors is a key precaution to preserve the legacy of reading free of cost, and of fear.

Leaving Lebanon

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Lebanese author Rabih Alameddine gets the profile treatment at NYRB:

Many of the funniest moments in Alameddine’s work—and he is essentially a comic writer—revolve around the difficulties of trying to escape the past. The heroes of his fiction are all misfits of one sort or another. They rebel against what they take to be the tyrannical conventions of Lebanese society—its patriarchy, its sexual norms, its sectarianism. In most of his novels this revolt takes the form of flight to America, what one character calls an escape “from the land of conformism to the land of individualism.”

 

The New New Testament

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For NPR Books, Craig Morgan Teicher finds a fantastic reimagining of the black, Southern, gay experience in his review of Jericho Brown’s The New Testament. Drawing from the gospels, as well as the poet’s own rich landscape of rhythm and American mythology, Brown’s new collection attempts to articulate some kind of hope for a community in which tragedies like the fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager are, sadly, not without precedent. Teicher commends the collection’s vision and artistry, singing the praises of a poet who writes about spirituality and racism with the courage of “someone making fun of thunder.”