Rumpus Blog

A Really Strange Story


“I have a kind of weird story related to death. Something my father told me. He said it was an actual experience he had when he was in his early twenties. Just the age I am now. I’ve heard the story so many times I can remember every detail. It’s a really strange story—it’s hard even now for me to believe it actually happened— but my father isn’t the type to lie about something like that.”

“Haida’s Story” is a stunning folk tale from Haruki Murakami’s forthcoming novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Read the excerpt now over at Slate.

Keep Failing


Don’t let that stack of rejection letters get you down. For writers of all kinds—would-be, struggling, under-appreciated, even critically acclaimed—failure is part of the job description. At the New York Times, Stephen Marche describes a writing profession riddled with disappointment and missed connections, from the ever-frustrating publishing world to a reader’s power of interpretation.

A Fictionalized Betrayal


This was my first experience of being fictionalized. I still recall the yellow-white flash of queasiness, the mortification: a sense of powerlessness and an utter lack of recourse.

What if a writer friend—or, worse, relative—of yours turned you into one of his characters, maybe in an unflattering way? Over at the Paris Review, Michelle Huneven writes about being fictionalized and taking it personally.

The Neverending Story


For years, film buffs have been devouring companion material to the original works that captured their interest—deleted scenes, commentary, bloopers, most eagerly that much-loved paean to auteurism, the director’s cut. To accept this practice is to acknowledge the impossibility of artistic perfection; as the saying goes, “art is never finished, only abandoned.” The New Republic wonders why the literary world is so hesitant to make the same admission.


California by Edan Lepucki


Edan Lepucki’s California was destined for greatness. It’s the debut novel from a brilliant, funny writer. It’s a literary novel full of gorgeous prose. And it’s an apocalyptic thriller. It’s got all the right stuff. But California has received more attention than anyone probably expected. On the June 4th episode of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert and his guest, Sherman Alexie, railed against Amazon’s “scorched-Earth tactics” in its ongoing battle with Hachette. In particular, they criticized the way Hachette’s debut authors’ sales are being stifled now that their books can’t be pre-ordered on Amazon, something Colbert called a “death sentence for a new book.” So, based on Alexie’s glowing recommendation, Colbert worked out a deal with Powell’s Books to allow pre-orders of one debut novel directly from his website—and that book is California. This is incredibly good news for Edan Lepucki, and for many players in the publishing industry. It’s also great news for the reading public because California is a debut that genuinely deserves this spotlight.

The novel is set approximately forty years in the future, after a string of environmental and pandemic disasters have wreaked havoc on the United States—earthquakes in California, snowstorms in the Midwest, and a flu epidemic that cut the population of the Northeast in half, just to name a few. Though the novel’s promotional copy calls it “postapocalyptic,” I agree with Sherman Alexie that it is more accurately “mid-apocalyptic.” In cities overrun with violence, those with enough wealth have begun fleeing to exclusive, corporate-sponsored Communities where amenities and luxuries are hoarded to keep life comfortable for a select few.

Outside the Communities, gas prices have skyrocketed, no one has access to medicine, and the crime rate continues to increase. A revolutionary faction known as the Group—initially composed of college students with insurmountable debt—has set up their own encampment in Los Angeles, staging increasingly dangerous demonstrations to bring attention to their beliefs: “that money only poisoned people, that government was just bureaucracy, corruption, and oppression, that working wouldn’t save them, only engagement would.” Left with few options, but a decent amount of hope and a great deal of love between them, California’s young married protagonists, Cal and Frida, have packed up their belongings and left L.A., aiming to make a new home for themselves as far from human civilization as they can get.

Two difficult years later, living alone in their house in the woods, Cal and Frida exist in a space that they sometimes refer to as the “afterlife.” They’ve survived, but the extreme isolation has left its mark on each of them in different ways. Cal appreciates the “space to consider questions… the silence, the time,” but Frida longs for a connection to the outside world—a yearning that is heightened, we soon learn, because she is pregnant. Based on rumors they’ve heard about a heavily protected camp within a two-day walk, Frida convinces Cal that they must make the journey to find and connect with other people—no matter how much they might be risking.

Edan Lepucki

Edan Lepucki

By showing how characters relate to everyday objects in this “afterlife,” Lepucki fashions a strange, startling new world out of the mundane and familiar. Seemingly innocuous items turn out to hold great significance, like the brand-new turkey baster that Frida keeps hidden in a suitcase under her bed. It’s described in covetous detail—from its sleek, glass neck to the price tag still dangling from its butter-yellow bulb—and has clearly become a sort of talisman to her. The baster, like many other human-made objects, has been decontextualized in this wilderness. Its value resides not in its usefulness as a tool, but in its concealment—as something hidden, and therefore powerful. As Frida admires it, she thinks, “the secret of it had become as precious as the object itself.”

This tight focus, Lepucki’s exacting eye for detail, makes California a satisfying apocalyptic narrative. Throughout the novel, pedestrian objects take on grave importance to characters who have lost most of their possessions and have limited access to new ones—a plastic, butterfly-shaped child’s toy indicates a massive betrayal; a slim blue volume of Kant becomes the signifier of authority and power. In one beautifully written scene, Frida marvels at a simple box of Band-Aids:

Frida flipped open the tin’s lid. Inside, the Band-Aids behaved so well, lined up like school children. Already she was imagining plucking one out. It’s white wrapper thin as rice paper, and those tiny blue arrows at the top, OPEN HERE. How it would peel back so easily to reveal the Band-Aid itself, nestled flat inside. Frida’s stomach fluttered. She could have sucked on it. The salty, pretzel taste of wounds.

The transition into survival mode hasn’t been easy or comfortable for Frida, a feminist who “thought that the worse things got, the more women lost what they’d worked so hard to gain. No one cared about voting rights and equal pay because everyone was too busy lighting fires to stay warm and looking for food to stay alive.” In the woods, tasks are divided by gender: Frida forages for mushrooms and washes clothes in the nearby creek, while Cal does the heavy lifting and sets snares and traps for small animals. Roughing it comes a bit easier to Cal, who attended a two-year college that taught him useful survival skills. His desire to keep Frida and their unborn child safe outweighs any willingness he may have otherwise had to divide tasks fairly. “Yes,” he thinks, “they had to rely on an antiquated division of labor. And yes, she would be rescued first from a sinking ship. Wasn’t that a relief?” Later, Cal’s compulsion to protect his family intensifies in unexpected ways, threatening to unsettle the foundations of his relationship with Frida.

Lepucki’s touch is incredibly subtle in these moments, allowing us to alternately sympathize and become irritated with each character. She explores both Cal and Frida’s feelings about approaching parenthood with honesty, as they weigh the consequences of bringing a child into a world fraught with violence and hardship. She also knows the importance of a good secret—how even the tiniest bit of withheld information can cause a formidable rift between two people—and California is magnificently layered with them. In many ways, the heart of the novel resides in these large questions surrounding Cal and Frida’s relationship: whether you’re living alone in a shed in the woods, or in a comfortable apartment in a bustling city, is it ever easy to be in love? To be married? To spend your life with one other person? And can you (or should you) ever trust that person more than you trust yourself?

The strategic revelation of secrets is so important to California that it’s challenging to write a review without giving too much away. In my opinion, even the book’s jacket copy includes too many disclosures, but I’m a nut about avoiding spoilers. Much of its appeal resides in its ability to surprise. It is slightly unfortunate that, dependent on its structure, many secrets are revealed through dialogue rather than out-and-out action. But there’s enough suspenseful drama in the last fifty pages of the book to make up for its relatively quiet beginning. Whether you’re a fan of apocalyptic narratives, literary fiction, or both, California is much more than just a way to stick it to Amazon—it’s a skillfully-written, carefully-crafted, gasp-inducing novel that was set for the stars even before its “Colbert bump.”

Getting Personal for Better Narratives


Personal narratives offer writers an important source of inspiration for their writing. Writers edit out the dull portions of their lives to create a version that is both interesting and representative of a kind of universal experience. Kim Triedman writes at Beyond the Margins:

It is a symbiotic relationship to the core. Our personal narratives prop us up by allowing us to make sense of a senseless world. We, in turn, perpetuate these stories by elaborating them — cherry-picking and molding the constant influx of experience to fit our existing assumptions about ourselves.

Away, But Not Away


How can writers get a room of their own, literally or figuratively? In Awayan essay in the summer issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, Roxana Robinson writes about carving out private space in the midst of being over-saturated by the world around you:

You can call it a blessing, I suppose: You’re never bored. You’re always interested in what’s around you. Or you can call it a curse: Writers get no time off. There’s never a moment in which we’re not measuring experience against knowledge, searching for something new. For me it’s simply how it is: I don’t know another way to move through the world.

Never Left Behind


In an interview with Daniel Olivas for the Los Angeles Review of Books, debut novelist Natalia Sylvester talks about growing up in Peru, learning characters’ secrets, and what happens when you set aside a story for nearly six years. “Our pasts are never left behind,” she concludes ominously. Chasing the Sun has just been released from New Harvest. 

Honest Reviews, Better Literature


Good literature demands strong criticism, but today’s culture of niceness has limited critics. Lee Klein, writing in 3:AM Magazine, points out that writers’ interest in receiving positive feedback often leads them to forgo standards and slant reviews positively:

Literary citizenship is about buying books, subscribing to lit mags, going to readings. It isn’t about offering superficial, promiscuous support. It isn’t about honesty. It’s not about standing on the side of what’s right when it comes to what matters most. Literature is a tiny cocktail umbrella under which we take refuge from the storm of shit. The first question we literary fundamentalists should ask ourselves is something like this: if we don’t reinforce our tiny cocktail umbrella so it’s as sturdy as can be, how will we keep the shit off our shoulders?

Honesty is not synonymous with meanness, and truthful reviews can still be nice, but good literary citizens should be less concerned about bolstering their own reputations by sugar-coating criticism.

Meet Our New Rumpus Essays Editor!


We’re beyond bummed to let you know that Roxane Gay is leaving the Rumpus to focus on other endeavors (like her two new books, the recent novel An Untamed State and the imminently forthcoming essay collection Bad Feminist). Roxane is as much a part of the site as anyone, and we hope she won’t be stranger around here.

Luckily, she’s leaving us in good hands. We’re happy to welcome Mary-Kim Arnold as our new Essays Editor! You can get to know Mary-Kim on tumblr, twitter, facebook, and instagram—and of course, here on the Rumpus.

Notable Los Angeles: 7/28–8/3


Monday 7/28: DTLAB presented by Writ Large Press presents A reading curated and hosted by Will Wright. 7 p.m. at Traxx.

Will Chancellor presents and signs A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, with live music from Noah Lit. 7 p.m. at Stories Books and Cafe.

Deborah Harkness discusses and signs The Book of Life. 7 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore.

Tuesday 7/29: Red Hen Press presents readings by Garrett Hongo, David Mason, and Andrea Scarpino. Moderated by Alice Quinn. 6:30 p.m. at the Annenberg Beach House. The event is free, but parking is $3/hour or $12/day.

Jón Gnarr reads from and signs Gnarr: How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World. 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books.

Storytelling Tuesday presents The Past. Featuring readings by Amber D. Garza, Aurora Pringle, Brenna Cheyney, Brodie Foster Hubbard, Eryca M. Sender, Jen Venegas, Kelli J. Williams, Tori Holder, Rhea Tepp, and Jesse Marie Dicarlo Wagner. This event is also an open mic reading event—so long as your piece is either from the past or written about the past, you can read whatever you want. Sign-ups start at 7:45 p.m., readings begin at 8 p.m. at the Echo Chamber Creative Headquarters.


Weekend Rumpus Roundup


In the Sunday Interview, Anna March talks with Robin Black about her debut novel, Life Drawing. Black—who also received acclaim for her short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This—begins by discussing her approach to writing character. Stress, difficulties, and tragedies are unavoidable parts of life that play a part in shaping our identities, for better or worse. Black addresses the salient point that fiction is not always about interrogating stereotypes, and that sometimes characters must be allowed to exist on their own terms. She comments on the erroneous term “domestic fiction” and the role of Life Drawing in relation to the “genre:” (more…)

And the Winner of Best Premise Award Goes to…


Debuting what is surely one of the longer titles in literary history, Bethany Billman has published a piece called, “Lost Scenes from Generic Hipster Indie Romance Films Found in 2076 During a Museum Restoration of an Old MacBook Air and Subsequently Adapted for the Stage During Heritage Week at a Camp for 7th and 8th Graders Later That Summer.” It may not tell us much about 2076, but we are always grateful for the chance to refine our definition of “hipster. You can read it here.

Black Cloud

Black Cloud by Juliet Escoria


Black Cloud by Juliet Escoria is a book about drugs that is not a Drug Book. Although each first-person story cycles through a litany of mind-altering substances—coke, meth, weed, ketamine, cutting, and antidepressants, to name a few—the deeper stories take place in between lines, hits, and swigs.

The main characters—who in many ways feels like the main character, since each narrative is so similar in tone—flit against this chemical backdrop, battered but unyielding. By taking Kava, the narrator of “I Do Not Question It” feels “like the burden of being troubled, of being human, has been lifted.” It is this burden that connects each story, infusing the book with tension as the characters struggle to get out from under it.

With the exceptions of a piece about growing up with an addict mother and a piece that chronicles a journey to sobriety with a platonic friend (jealous of her success, he threatens to send her heroin in the mail), the relationships in this collection focus mostly on the romantic and the would-be romantic. In a high-end club in lower Manhattan, a young coat-check girl becomes involved with a predatory manager. A girl in a 12-step program is picked up by a man fifteen years sober. A drug-addled lover takes his girlfriend to get an abortion, but it turns out she’s already miscarried.

Juliet Escoria

Juliet Escoria

These relationships are disappointing but unsurprising. “Like with most good men, the sex was unremarkable,” the narrator says. Nestled inside a narrative of poppers and overdoses, Escoria examines the agency of young women in modern times. They succeed at school, at work, and in rehab; they score and self-medicate without fail. But in a way that may remind readers of Mary Gaitskill, their lives are frequently circumscribed by the men that they love. “It was always him kissing me, and me just being there,” says the narrator in “Reduction.”

The book is short, with each story printed under both a title and an emotion: Resentment, Confusion, Apathy, Guilt, Disgust, Spite, Revenge, Fear, Powerlessness, Self-Loathing, Envy, and Shame. The fact that there are twelve of these “steps” cannot be a coincidence, but the tone of the pieces spirals down and not up. Near the end of the last one, the narrator can’t “stop doing coke all the time” and although she admits she’s on the path to sobriety, the book ends in darkness, not in light. This realism imbues the work with gravity and power.

But the book is not the end. On a Vimeo channel of the same name, Escoria has posted ten companion videos to be watched alongside the fiction. After she’d finished reading from the collection at the Franklin Park Reading Series in Brooklyn, I approached her to ask how she envisioned them integrating into the reader’s experience. Escoria she said she hoped readers would watch each one twice, before and after reading the corresponding short stories. “But maybe that’s too much to ask,” she admitted.

It’s an interesting medium: some of the videos incorporate text from the stories, some are more like the director’s cut scenes from a finished movie, some provide a counterbalance to the stories they represent with journalistic snippets. My favorite, Heroin Stories, complements its fiction counterpart perfectly. In the prose version (“Heroin Story”), the main character talks about a couple she knew who got addicted, got clean, and got back into it after many years. It’s the most removed she is as a narrator, almost Nick Carraway-like, but the compassion she shows for this couple is immediate and tender. As she chronicles their downfall, it’s clear that she sees herself in their story. In the video counterpart, an offscreen cameraperson asks a dozen people about their own experience with heroin. Like in the prose piece, the narrator doesn’t focus on her own story, but it comes out plain enough, heartbreaking and true.

Disappearing Act


Invisibility has a long literary history, from science fiction, like in H.G. Wells’s Invisible Man, to fantasy, like in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Often, the difference is between methodology and motive. Wells focused on scientific accuracy to illustrate “the messy outcome of this collision between science and myth.” Tolkien employs invisibility as metaphor; the magic behind it is unimportant. Philip Ball explains further in the Guardian:

Fairytale invisibility is often an agency of seduction and voyeurism (see the Grimms’ The Twelve Dancing Princesses), or a gateway to Faerie and other liminal realms. It’s precisely because children don’t ask “How is that possible?” that we shouldn’t fret about filling their heads with such allegedly irrational ideas.

Notable NYC: 7/26–8/1


Saturday 7/26: Fourth Annual New York City Poetry Festival. Governor’s Island, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., free.

Sunday 7/27: Diana Hamilton, Leopoldine Core, R. Erica Dolye, Betsy Fagin, Brenda Lijima, and Krystal Languell join the Poets in the Garden series. Elizabeth Street Garden, 5:30 p.m., free.

Fourth Annual New York City Poetry Festival. Governor’s Island, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., free.

Kelly Forsythe, Jay Deshpande, Stacey Balkun, and Robert Balun read with Bodega (NY Poetry Festival). Governor’s Island, 1:10 p.m., free.

Vanessa Jimenez Gabb, Katy Didden, and Danniel Schoonebeek join the Brooklyn Poets series (NY Poetry Festival). Governor’s Island, 2:30 p.m., free.


House and Fire

House and Fire by Maria Hummel


In her stunning first collection House and Fire, Maria Hummel (a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford) explores the harrowing, surreal world of a new mother, whose toddler son has been felled by a mysterious, life-threatening illness. The poet finds herself thrust into a parallel reality, where markers of a normal childhood, like puzzles, crayons, and carousels co-exist with sickbed vigils, IVs, and transfusions.

The opening poem, “Station,” starts us off in medias res– and is worth quoting in its entirety:

Days you are sick, we get dressed slow,
find our hats and ride the train.
We pass a junkyard and the bay,
then a dark tunnel, then a dark tunnel.

You lose your hat. I find it. The train
sighs open at Burlingame,
past dark tons of scrap and water.
I carry you down the black steps.

Burlingame is the size of joy:
a race past bakeries, gold rings
in open black cases. I don’t care
who sees my crooked smile

or what erases it, past the bakery,
when you tire. We ride the blades again
beside the crooked bay. You smile.
I hold you like a hole holds light.

We wear our hats and ride the knives.
They cannot fix you. They try and try.
Tunnel! Into the dark open we go.
Days you are sick, we get dressed slow.

Throughout this collection, Hummel skillfully uses poetic forms to both contain and give order to a terrible, overwhelming experience. Her particular knack is choosing the formal device that best serves a poem’s topic. Here, though the unrhymed quatrains of “Station” are orderly, and sonically dense with repeated sounds, words, and phrases, they remain free verse– until that final heroic couplet.

The tension between her often unspeakably painful subject matter and these plain-spoken, sometimes singsongy poems is effective, creating an overall tone of a dark, sad fairy tale. Hummel’s lyricism and sonic beauty urge the reader to enter this dense forest, rather than skirt its edges.

Particular poetic forms also deliver specific effects; such as the ABA rhyme scheme and repeated lines of the villanelle– mimetic of both the repetitive nature of hospital routines and the stalled/circular thinking inherent to trauma:

“Today your arm eats strawberries.
Tomorrow, birthday cake and toast.
The tubes go in, their liquid clear.

As our life at home grows far
and faint, food becomes a ghost.
Today your arm ate strawberries.

I read you books on dinosaurs,
their lost hungers, fallen bones.
The tubes go in, their liquid clear…”

There is an exquisite and sure-footed balance in House and Fire: between formal and free verse, terror and love, past and present, realism and magic realism. The most surreal and least formal piece, “Unicorn,” a prose poem about a desperate father delivering a bloody, dying unicorn to the nurses’ station, is a gut-punch depiction of a father’s battered, desperate hope.

With deft slant rhymes, assonance ‘rhymes’, and other slight rule-break variations, Hummel’s formal poems feel smooth and uncontrived; indeed in a few cases, it took me a second reading to notice a rhyme scheme at work. Metaphors too can be subtle, accurate, and devastating, as in the conclusion of “714 B”:

“…I don’t envy the nurses their jobs;
they avert their faces from mine:

smiling at this small limp boy,
lifting a rattle for him,
setting it down,
turning the pages of a book for him,
saying where’s the baby? show me the baby.”

When serious illness strikes a child, it strikes his parents too– so the poet is both a witness and a fellow abductee; the suffering is both hers and not hers. Hummel skillfully explores her own pain while never losing sight of whose crisis this really is: “She has a hole in her side/ she probes when no one is looking/ to feel if it still pains her. It does. It will/ not heal. It will not kill her./ Her boy is beautiful and ill…”

A brutal blow can make a person two beings simultaneously– the old self, and a new, vivid, crisis-made self. The poet struggles to integrate her pre-crisis and post-crisis notions of safety, reality, sufficiency. The chasm between the two is impossible to bridge, yet must be bridged.

This one-sentence poem, a pithy meditation on dual realities and transformation, gives the collection its title:

The Tree

which was

in equal parts
earth and sky

is now in equal parts

house and fire

Of course a mother is a house for her child– first literally, as a womb; later figuratively, as a protection, a shelter. Faulty-house and tree images recur in several other poems, such as in one untitled piece about a miscarriage that happens in the same time-frame as her son’s illness: “ultrasound static/ hundreds of gray leaves/ twitching around you/ and my first thought:/ how safe.”

Maria HummelParallel/ dual lives and impossible contradictions permeate this collection– the well and the sick, the pre-crisis and post-crisis selves. The poet’s son is both a baby at the beginning of his life and a potentially fatal medical case. The mother is joyfully in love with her child while also suffering and terrified. Even the sorority of other mothers on the ward is divided between those whose children will get better and those whose children won’t.

In “Children’s Ward,” a pair of linked villanelles, we meet the baby roommate of the poet’s son, another gravely ill boy whose own twin brother lives at home, thriving and perfectly well:

In the bed beside yours, the child is so small
he could fit in a lady’s purse, a shoebox.
He smiles but doesn’t say anything at all.

You fall in love with him, wake up calling
Baby! Baby! pull our curtain back, knock
the reeds of his crib. The child is so small

he barely sees you, or the picture on the wall
you drew for him, of rain and broken robots.
He smiles but doesn’t say anything at all.

He’s one year old, cannot walk or crawl,
and floats alone all day while we play and talk.
The room around us is so small.

When his mother comes, she is beautiful,
her dark hair a sail, her face made of knots.
She smiles but doesn’t say anything at all

as we sit, holding our sons until they fall
asleep. Then she goes, the room closing like water
after a passing boat. The child is so small.

He smiles and says nothing at all.

Lyrical and elegant, simple and deep, brimming with love and pain, House and Fire is a gorgeous book that holds the dualities it explores in a tender, careful embrace.

Interview with Guy Who Robs Drug Dealers


Peter Madsen: So where does this start?

Brian: It starts with my moving from Long Island to Orlando, Florida. I wasn’t getting along with my immediate family, so I moved in with my grandpa and I started going to college. Then I met this guy at school. He pulls up in a Benz and he’s smoking some nice piff.

Peter Madsen: Some nice what?

Here’s to Peter Madsen, still at it: New York underbelly interviewer. A guy who goes and interviews drug dealers. Also, people who rob drug dealers. Also also, cops who bust drug dealers.

Think (and Think Some More) Before You Speak


Notably, there are a few verbal tics that we mistakenly think index insecurity, even though they don’t. These (mostly feminine) quirks—uptalk, vocal fry—are often subtle expressions of power, innovativeness, or upward mobility. In fact, Adam Gopnik recently wrote about how verbal fillers like “um” and “you know” underscore a speaker’s conscientiousness, her sensitivity to the details she must, for reasons of economy, leave unsaid. So, uh, if you want to come across as confident, don’t shy away from a little gravel in your voice, or from lilting upward at the end of your sentences? But you should stick to second- and third-person pronouns (and the imperative mode!).

The ways people speak can tell you a lot about their insecurities. Make sure you read this article, by Katy Waldman for Slate, before everyone else does so you can hide yours before others figure out how to spot them.