Rumpus Blog

Crystal Eaters

Crystal Eaters by Shane Jones


The first thing you notice about Crystal Eaters is the numbers. The book begins with Chapter 40, on page 183. The first line is “It feels good to believe in one hundred.”

After the first page, though, it becomes clear that the numbers are part of a motif of counting down, addiction, a journey, and ultimately death. Crystal Eaters is full of the expectation of death. The book’s primary setting is a village where the residents believe that everyone is born with one hundred crystals inside of them. With each broken bone or illness, they lose some of those crystals, and when the crystals run out, they die. Remy, one of the main characters, is searching for a way to reverse the process, to add crystals to her mother’s life, while others are seeking a way to live forever.

The book lulls you into a false sense of security. Crystal Eaters is described as a sci-fi fable, and it certainly is that. In the first twenty pages we’re shown a city that appears to be autonomously expanding to encompass the village, and this expansion is occurring at the same time as a massive heat wave. The city “lives like it will never die,” and “will bury the village in drywall, coffee shops, and wifi.” The parallels that Jones sets up here are blunt and heavy-handed: the relationship between city and village is a microcosm of civilization’s advancement, complete with global warming and cultural gentrification. Crystal Eaters then dismisses those parallels just as quickly as it draws them. The book’s fable-like, almost YA-dystopian aspects are shattered by Palahniuk-esque bursts of raw, uncomfortable violence. (Palahniuk’s Survivor also uses page numbers as a countdown.) In a jumble of scenes with televisions and vehicles and a nod to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the line between village and city becomes blurry, and this bothered me at first. But as the plot unfolds into a whirlpool of uncertainty, this ambiguity makes sense.

Shane Jones

Shane Jones

Crystal Eaters has two big things going on that allow it to blend fable and postmodern unreliability. The first is Remy, the child who narrates much of the book. Remy’s voice is simultaneously precocious and innocent, an echo of Safran Foer’s Oskar from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, although (thankfully) a little more restrained. Remy asks the reader questions that kind of tear into you, like “What do you name a dog after your first dog dies?” and sets up a perspective where the family dog has a name but Mom and Dad never do. Remy is powerless in the face of the events in the story, but this doesn’t bother her. Instead, what shakes her world upside down is her realization that the adults in the story are just as impotent as she is. Remy’s complement is her brother Adam, a character who has been broken down but still seeks redemption from his cell in the city prison where he goes by the alias “Pants.”

The second thing that makes Crystal Eaters work so well is Jones’ exquisitely accurate command of language and imagery. Whether it’s a spitting cloth being used to “expel the color red,” “dried shit in the shape of a hammered butterfly,” or a boy who “became a little anxious monster waiting for Dad’s anger to liquefy out and onto his body,” Crystal Eaters is full of sentences that jump at you like a pop-up book, painting a world that is at some times painfully real, and at others an exercise in vivid hallucinations.

In an interview (which you should read, by the way, if only for the comparison between publishing giant Penguin and boutique publisher Two Dollar Radio), Jones said he was thinking a lot about video games while writing this book. This makes sense on multiple levels. Several of the characters are on a singular quest throughout the work. Crystals are a surrealistic stand-in for life, blood, and drugs. The villains of the city are mostly faceless, and many. The whole world has a menacing vibe; even the charity organization, a thinly veiled agent of cultural assimilation, is named the “Mob of Mary.”

Crystal Eaters is a dense, high-energy read, despite being fairly short. Its breadth of topics is exhilarating. Jones is pushing genres here, not unlike George Saunders or Karen Russell, but using a harsher lens. Crystal Eaters grabs your face and pushes it up against a fantastic, sprawling, impressionistic painting of death and family.

All the Shades of Black and White


Writing for The New Inquiry, Hannah Black explores race in Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird and the relationship of white, black, and mixed racial identities in modern western culture.

Similarly, race-authenticity does not spring up from the mere fact of certain physical features—it has to be mined from others. Mixed-race identities are fissured only in relation to the lie of integral blackness or whiteness. Still more problematically, white beauty needs its frame of black ugliness, a structural flaw that reveals its guilty origins.

And check out the Rumpus review 0f Boy, Snow, Bird here.

Social Media Year, 2080


In the spirit of Orwell, Saunders, and M.T. Anderson, see here for a glimpse at the future of social media: virtual reality dates, sensory augmentation, robots writing on humans in peer-reviewed journals.  

Sensory augmentations will make possible ever-deeper transports of desire, as we use technology to expand beyond our biological bodies, while machines increasingly anticipate all our needs. First dates on Earth will now occur in full immersion virtual realities.

How to Love a Writer


Writers are not the easiest people to fall in love with. Many of the characteristics of a great writer also make for a horrific companion. Over at PloughsharesAmber Kelly-Anderson explores some of the things to expect when the heart wants a wordsmith.

Loving a writer is like rescuing a pet—it can be trying at times, but it’s worth it. Remember that we are passionate about many things, including our beloved Innocent Bystanders.

National Poetry Month Day 16: “The electric body” by Matthew Siegel


The electric body

changes like a sky bleeding peach,
gray feathers and smoke –

                                               – a body circular as the earth,

water and air,
rivers surging through.


Eight quarts
of blood

run laps inside
my body

arrive, leave
like a Psalm

the chorus
to an electric body-



At sixteen something broke inside me
in the gym locker room. I’d never wear

those shorts again. Breath swept
from me;

mist pulled
from boiling water.


My body is a series of bodies:
now & before

I realize how much blood
moves within me.

I wear this living skin –
wear it in the sunlight,

in the forest, in the city –
wear it like a suit

of metal, a suit of gauze –
my face of abalone, of straw

assembling, trembling
apart in the water.


Dr. Green wore black vests,
had no skull. I could see the folds of his brain.

My mother told me how he kissed with his mouth
open. Waiting in my underpants

in his office I stole gauze pads, tape,
a plastic model of an inflamed colon

to show my mother how I felt inside.
It was hard to make her laugh back then.

His eyes, I really remember, sad like a horse’s eyes,
ringed with dark just the same.


Then came Dr. Chen who quietly examined the surface
of my tongue that day in his California office.

He laid me out on a table, touched my ankles,
wrists, neck with his starfish-hands.

At the bottom of his clear mug,
a bag of green tea bled into hot water.

He marked Chinese characters on a chart.
He told me even in English, I wouldn’t understand.


The first time I take the shot, I jab myself
in the side of the stomach, over an old wound

invisible to me. I shake a little as I pinch the skin
and wait for my body to finish sipping

from the thin needle. The doors to my body swing
open. Air rushes through the hallways

all the lights flickering on.


I want to make music
from what isn’t broken,

make memory disappear
like medicine absorbed

in the blood. I want to whittle a whistle
from my bones. Tenderize the sky.

Smear with my thumb
God’s purple night makeup.

Hello, hidden pain. So strange
how you resemble my old face.

Won’t you come inside?

-Matthew Siegel

The High Cost of Literary Journals


Michael Nye, managing editor of The Missouri Review, explains some of the costs required to start and operate a literary journal. Financial issues are the fastest way to kill a journal, but money also creates a divide between writer and editor:

In small presses and literary magazines, the disconnect between writers and editors often comes down to money. Editors, whether new to publishing or veterans, become aware of the cost of everything…Writers, who paid little for their work, don’t appreciate the constant reminders to subscribe, donate, and buy magazines.


M x T by Sina Queyras


I imagine what it was like to read Adrienne Rich’s books as she published them. Every two or three years, a new collection of poetry; and those salad days of the late 1970s and 1980s when prose collections and non-fiction books fed the soul in alternating years. Of Woman Born. Blood, Bread, and Poetry. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. I read Rich first in collected form: The Fact of a Doorframe. Then I read backward, greedily, all the way to her 1951 award-winning collection, A Change of World. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, I read her collections as they published, but I always wondered, what was it like to read The Dream of a Common Language in its first printing? What was it like to read those poems as they were just beginning to circulate in the world? What was it like to read The Will to Change in 1971 when so many women were affirming their own will to change and declaring the need for our society to change with them?

I may have missed reading Rich as her life work unfolded, but I have the pleasure of reading Sina Queyras as her work unfolds, collection by collection, with, so far, one prose punctuation. Sina Queyras is a poet of extraordinary talent with the same wide-ranging literary interests and the same principled commitments to public life as Rich. If you are not yet reading Queyras, I invite you to join me and read her work with delight and wonder.

Queyras’s sixth collection, M x T meditates on the nature of grief marked indelibly by modernity and technology, two of Queyras’s persistent concerns. The title, M x T, is a mathematical equation, though one not standard to algebra or physics. M stands for memory, T for time. One of the conceits that Queyras explores throughout this collection is how quantify grief. She considers both mathematical statements, as in the title, and diagrams of mechanization, in the frontispieces of each of the eight sections in M x T. Through these diagrams, Queyras considers the mechanics of emotions and the physics of both the physical and the metaphysical. For instance, in the second section, Queyras explains that “Direct Mourning” is “the gold standard of consumer grief. . . .With direct mourning there are no surges of feeling, no outbursts; it is unidirectional, a consistent, even, unconscious current.”(17) This is one way to quantify emotions. In the fourth section, “Emotional Overload Sensor Circuit,” Queyras offers another; she recreates a drawing of an electrical circuit with an “emotion buffer” and “memory detector.” She explains, “The circuit diagram shows how an emotional overload indicator can be built.” The final section of the collection is “Solenoid,” which she defines as “a long strand of memories that wrap around a static core that produces a uniform emotional field in a given pool of space where feeling is carried out.” By the conclusion, the desire for a “uniform emotional field” feels like folly, but, with Queyras, we yearn for the orderliness of mechanization to provide us with a “pool of space where feeling is carried out.” These eight visual poems frame sections within the book. Each section asks provocative questions about grief and modernity. Why do we grieve? Can grief be captured and regulated by a machine? Can mechanization guide us to grieve faster, harder? Can mechanization make grief more manageable? Can a formula guide us through grief in a more efficient way? Queyras invites all of these questions—and more—through the drawing and equations that she proffers in M x T and through the poems.

Yet M x T is not exclusively a book about mechanization, nor about making connections among the brain, human emotions, and electrical circuitry. M x T is a collection of poems, and Queyras demonstrates her formidable poetic talents throughout the collection. In M x T, Queyras affirms her ability to work conceptually, as she did in her previous two collections, Expressway and Unleashed, which explore questions of urban modernity and life mediated by computing, respectively. Like these earlier books, M x T has a central conceptual apparatus that Queyras deftly deploys. She also works effectively as a conceptual poet in individual poems. For example, in poems like “Two Elegies for Grief as Jackson Pollock” and “Elegy for Agnes Martin,” Queyras composes poems that verbally and visually pay homage to artists. The Pollock poem employs tools to invite thinking about the nature of words on the page while the Martin poem uses language and printing techniques to evoke Martin’s abstract artwork. Like the central conceptual apparatus, Queyras is smart and insightful in her work to expand and challenge the nature of language and poetry.

Queyras also has equal facility with poetry that is narrative and lyrical. She works with attention to both big ideas and individual words, demonstrating her poetic prowess at the level of the book, the poem, and individual poetic lines. One section of the book, a single sequence of seven sonnets, titled “Like a Jet,” reveals Queyras’s mastery of form. The first sonnet captures the intensity of grief, opening, “A hole in the sky where softness hung, / A crater where the world was,” and then concluding with this couplet: “The body is fluid: I am leaking, / I no longer care who sees me leak.” Queyras’s turn to form to contain and express grief dialogues powerfully with the larger poetic tradition of the sonnet, and Queyras animates these conversations about sonnets and grief with the dialogues about mechanization. M x T is a rich text for thinking about poetry and emotions in traditional and non-traditional modes.

Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of encountering Queyras’s work is her wide-ranging allusions and homages to other poets. Queyras is a formidable intellect and in dialogue with a host of other poets, writers, artists, and thinkers. Never narrow or myopic, Queyras is ecumenical and expansive in her reading and poetic engagements. I delight in her dialogic relationship with poets like Mary Oliver, Audre Lorde, and Julia Kristeva, but others may delight in her references to Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Frederick Seidel. The poems of M x T are smart in their conversations with poetry writ large.

One conversation where Queyras is a persistent and important voice is feminism. Queyras’s feminist commitments are evident throughout M x T, notably in how she situates women as referents. For instance, in the first poem of the collection, “Water, Water Everywhere,” Queyras balances French theorists Bourdieu and Kristeva in her references, then claims, “I don’t want a theory; I want a poem inside me” (10). She invites our eyes to see Carolee Schneemann and Louise Nevelson, and tells us “The emergency of women is the emergency of the world” (13). Queyras’s style of citation and allusion strategically places women in important conversations, and she is equally concerned with how to support women artists and public intellectuals. In “Of the Hollow,” Queyras writes:

Sina QueyrasWe want to know how to be women artists in the world. We want to know beyond recipes for jam, beyond the thick brush strokes of pre-modernist canvases, we want fleeting and concrete. How to enter the mind of the world? How be a megaphone? How not to think in code? thinking in public terrifies us. We hide, so tentative we think the world might break our bones and yet we come to the clearing, we cannot contain our thoughts. (40)

Queyras asks questions about supporting women artists and draws attention to women artists to support them while simultaneously modeling how to be a woman artist in the world. The simultaneity and the depth and breadth of Queyras’s feminist commitments are breath-taking.

For readers who have not being reading Queyras as her work unfolds, there are two options for intensive communion with Queyras. Begin with Queyras’s beginning, Slip, or begin reading her backwards, starting with her 2011 lyrical novel, Autobiography of Childhood, continuing through the twinned books, Unleashed and Expressway, to her debut. Slip (2001) is an extraordinarily sexy book; inspired in part by Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Season, Slip narrates Queyras’s own story of love, seduction, and infidelity in a way that delight readers seeking smart erotic writing. Whether you begin with Queyras’s beginning or read backward, Lemon Hound sits in the middle, and for me Lemon Hound remains her masterpiece. Like M x T, Lemon Hound is exuberant in its literary references, and, like Slip, it celebrates lesbian life. It is also the book that inspired the website Lemon Hound; Lemon Hound began as Queyras’s blog, but now has evolved into a vibrant literary journal featuring the critical and creative work of a variety of contemporary writers.

M x T has a more sober narrator than the earlier voice in Slip or Lemon Hound. M x T is a book about loss and reconciliation, much like Queyras’s Autobiography of Childhood, which explores some similar elements of grief. In spite of the emotional gravitas of the collection, in spite of the loss and mourning that Queyras explores with care and passion, M x T is a book that fundamentally celebrates life and affirms the joy of interacting with the large world. In the sixth sonnet of “Like a Jet,” Queyras concludes:

Give me a woman with a lens
In her hand. Give me a woman with a will to read.

Give a woman a lost woman, an open vista, a stack of vellum.
Give me Time, give me swagger, give me your ears. (33)

Lend Queyras your ears, your minds, your hearts, your Time. She will reward you, repeatedly.


Rumpus Weekly Fiction: Rebecca Gummere


The next Weekly Rumpus features fiction from Rebecca Gummere. Here’s an excerpt:

Swing your arms, stretch a little. Keep walking and untie the sweater. Think about how much you hate it, how the shade makes you look like you are recovering from flu. Green was never your color. It amazes you all over again that he did not know that. What a moron. Think about how you wish you’d never met him. Think about how good a bagel and bacon sandwich would be. Regulate your breathing and pick up the pace. Throw that motherfucker of a sweater to the side of the path.

Don’t look back. (more…)

We All Contain Multitudes of Tacky


Ever droll, Sadie Stein writes in the Paris Review about the reaction we’re (all) prone to have when people recommend literature based on our professed likes and dislikes:

When someone says I will like something, I tend to assume the something in question will be precious, tedious, and often aggressively eccentric. Sometimes I do like these things, which is the worst outcome of all.

Elizabeth Bishop’s Favorite Island


We know Bishop primarily as the eager traveler who wrote of distant, tropical locations and lived for many years as an expat in Brazil. She was that, of course, but she was also an aficionado of her native landscape and climate. Our canon’s consummate poet of geography, maps, and the mystery of spatial awareness loved the oddly shaped North Haven, which lies about halfway between Boston, where Bishop then lived, and Nova Scotia, one of her childhood homes.

Stephanie Bernhard takes a trip to investigate Elizabeth Bishop’s “North Haven”—the poem, and the place.

National Poetry Month Day 15: “Exercises in Breathing” by Kimberly Southwick


exercises in breathing


knowing the rules is not enough. when it snows,
it doesn’t always mean it. when it snows, sometimes
it snows for the museums and sometimes it snows
for the papers and sometimes it snows for only
her majesty, the sea.


following the rules is not enough. when he breathes—
remember this one please—when he breathes he breathes
for himself. when he breathes he doesn’t breathe for her or
for you or for his son or for his future sons, when he breathes,
he breathes for how it feels to be standing
in the public gardens knee-deep in snow, smoking
a cigarette and watching the statues still and cold
and unbreathing and having it mean something.


breaking the rules is not enough. the sea is his mother.
the sea gives back in fish. the sea tells you: this
is what your voice sounds like. the sea reminds you to breathe.
the sea, the sea. she knows the rules are never enough.

-Kimberly Southwick

The Great G.A.N.


Does the “Great American Novel” actually exist—or is it just the name of a book by Philip Roth? Over at the New Yorker, you can read Adam Gopnik’s review of The Dream of the Great American Novel by Laurence Buell, and you can also listen to Elizabeth Gilbert, Adam Gopnik and Sasha Weiss discuss what the term has evolved to mean.


Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala


If someone were to recommend a novel in which the reader knows, from Page 1—in fact, from the back cover—that the protagonist loses five people she loves in a matter of moments, I would be skeptical. It would be too far-fetched for fiction. But Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala’s devastating memoir about the 2004 tsunami, is not fiction. While on vacation in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park, Deraniyagala lost her two young sons, her husband, and both her parents in a single morning.

We are all drawn to stories of tragedy and trauma, almost always for a sense of comfort—to know that someone else has gone through what we have gone through and survived. Or to know that someone else has gone through something far worse so that we can feel better relatively. Or to experience the pleasures of sadness and pain from a distance. We look for this pleasure in our novels, our movies, our television shows, and even in our comedy. But when we read about a tragedy like Deraniyagala’s, it rewires the way we look at the world. She herself asks, “How is this me? I was safe always. Now I don’t have them, I only have terror, I am alone.” It is far from comforting. It makes us scared.

Because, let us be honest, the person writing is a Person Like Us. She is international—a Sri Lankan woman living in London, married to a British man. We can picture her two sons with their handsome caramel skin and light eyes. We know the sort of resort where the family was vacationing when the tsunami hit. This is not the story of a nameless villager in Sri Lanka who lost everyone in the tsunami. What makes this story particularly terrifying is that it makes us feel vulnerable. It could be you. And so the backstory that Deraniyagala gives us about her family, while poignant, is not what we are reading for. We are already coloring the text with our own stories, and that may be why Deraniyagala gives us a stock photograph of an interracial family. The boys climb into bed with their parents in a home in London. Deraniyagala wraps them in blue towels when they step out of the bath. The family travels to Sri Lanka on holidays. They are flawed but even their flaws are picture-frame-worthy.

Sonali Deraniyagala (photo: Ann Billingsley)

Sonali Deraniyagala (photo: Ann Billingsley)

Much more moving are the flaws Deraniyagala herself exhibits during the aftermath, the mourning. She writes about her own behavior with disarming honesty. Of course she is a victim, but when a Dutch family moves into her parents’ home in Colombo, she calls them at all hours of the night and harasses them. She visits their home under cover of darkness and, often drunk, screams at them through the gates. The loneliness of her experience is vivid. Her relatives and friends check in on her and help her stay alive—they sit with her, they hide the kitchen knives, they ration out her sleeping pills—but the family in her parents’ home has their own life to live. On those dark nights, Deraniyagala is alone and desperate to share her sorrow. She responds to the world the way the tsunami treated her family—with a savage anger—and you share her sadness. You don’t want to live in a world in which any one person can have to face something like this.

This memoir engages the reader more deeply than any piece of fiction. For tragedy fetishists, Wave has every possible permutation and combination of pain. On the one hand, it is so shocking to imagine one person going through this that it is hard to believe you are reading nonfiction. But perhaps because of that, you are constantly aware that you’re reading nonfiction.

Although the content of Wave is heartbreaking and soul-crushing, there is a glimmer of hope, if one is determined to see the bright side of things. It’s amazing that a human being can suffer through a tragedy of this scale and survive and write a beautiful book. Deraniyagala talks about her multiple attempts to end her life after the tsunami, and as readers we should be grateful that she did not succeed. She is testament to what human beings can endure. She does not speak of finding new love or making peace with what happened or discovering happiness again in the smell of cut grass or her friend’s children. But the very fact that the book exists means she survived and can walk and speak and write—beautifully—even though she is permanently tinged by grief.  The book itself is the only object of comfort.

Deraniyagala is an economist by profession but Wave is a book by a writer. The language is powerful in its simplicity and clarity. The book opens as the tsunami is approaching and Deraniyagala and her family attempt to outrun it. The two opening chapters move with the speed and urgency of the water that rushes towards them. We know the result, but those pages are, for lack of a better word, thrilling. We want to hope. We always want to hope. But as reality sets in, the book slows down and meanders through memories and fantasies. Deraniyagala has to keep reminding herself that her family is dead. The second chapter, ends with, “I was terrified that tomorrow the truth would start.”

The next page, just as you feel unprepared for the truth you also already know, we flash back to Deraniyagala’s son, Vikram, eating a bag of crisps. Relief. But the relief is short-lived and the book is relentless. It has no other option. This is much more than a sad book. This is a book that shifts something fundamental inside you. It trivializes the word “sad.”

Fiction is Fiction


What does “realism” mean, anyway? Over at Ploughshares, Rumpus contributor and Gigantic magazine editor Lincoln Michel discusses the problems of the term “realism” when it comes to literature:

I tend to think it is an ill-defined term, not a useful way to think of most fiction, and it spawns some of the worst criticism. “It didn’t feel realistic!” is the go-to complaint for everyone from Amazon reviewers to undergrad workshoppers who didn’t bother to understand what a text was trying to do.

Is There Too Much Translation?


Writing over at Brooklyn Quarterly, Will Evans discusses why he founded a publishing house dedicated to translation:

In addition to being a philosophical problem, literary translation is also a contentious business matter. There are thousands of good to all-time-great books published in the world every year in every language imaginable, but only a couple hundred of those ever get published in English, and that’s in a good year.

Book translations provide a fast way for small presses to build a back catalogue. But does the world need more presses dedicated to translation, or better recognition of existing translated texts? MobyLives (the blog of Melville House, a small publisher with a large catalogue of translated works) considers the question.

Rotten Apples and Other Writerly Customs


Nearly any creative writing course, teacher, or mentor will give you the same advice—writing is a solitary act and is different for every writer. However, some of us writers are a bit more different than others. Brain Pickings shows us the wacky habits of many esteemed writers. We especially enjoy this anecdote about Friedrich Schiller:

[Goethe] had dropped by Schiller’s home and, after finding that his friend was out, decided to wait for him to return. Rather than wasting a few spare moments, the productive poet sat down at Schiller’s desk to jot down a few notes. Then a peculiar stench prompted Goethe to pause. Somehow, an oppressive odor had infiltrated the room. (more…)

Jay Gatsby Invades Poland


Polish language speakers are getting a new translation of The Great Gatsby, but a modern translation raises all sorts of linguistic issues. The primary difference, of course, is that the original translator wrote under the iron curtain and without the aid of Google:

It was, therefore, more difficult for her to track down various details, such as those concerning well-known financiers or popular culture starlets of the 1920s.

Notable Los Angeles: 4/14–4/20


Monday 4/14: Write Club Los Angeles celebrates its 2nd birthday with Chapter 24: Spring loaded! Featuring three rounds of competition with readings by Mike O’Connell, Jeremy Radin, Justin Welborn, Paula Killen, Rachel Kann, and Jefferey Dorchen. Hosted by Paula Killen, Jefferey Dorchen, and Justin Welborn. 7 p.m. at The Bootleg Theater. $5-$20, pay what you can.

Soman Chainani presents and signs The School for Good and Evil #2: A World Without Princes. 7:00 p.m. at Book Soup.

Tuesday 4/15: Gina Frangello has a Q&A with Tod Goldberg, discussing and signing her newest book, A Life In Men. 7:00 p.m. at Book Soup.

An evening with Alice Carbone and David Kukoff. 7:30 p.m. at Stories Books and Cafe.