Archives: November 2014

The Dark Arts

A short story by Ben Marcus

Ben Marcus is a contemporary writer everyone should be reading. ‘The Dark Arts’, first published in the New Yorker in 2013, forms part of his latest book, the superb collection Leaving the Sea (published by Granta Books in the UK).

On a dark winter morning at the Müllerhaus men’s hostel, Julian Bledstein reached for his Dopp kit. At home, he could medicate himself blindfolded, but here, across the ocean, it wasn’t so easy. The room stank, and more than one young man was snoring. The beds in the old gymnasium were singles, which didn’t keep certain of the guests from coupling when the lights went out. Sometimes Julian could hear them going at it, fornicating as if with silencers on. He studied the sounds when he couldn’t sleep, picturing the worst: animals strapped to breathing machines, children smothered under blankets. In the morning he could never tell just who had been making love. The men dressed and left for the day, avoiding eye contact, mesmerized in the glow of their cell phones.

Julian held his breath and squeezed the syringe, draining untold dollars’ worth of questionable medicine into the flesh of his thigh. He clipped a bag holding the last of his money to the metal underside of his bed. His father’s hard-earned money. Not enough euros left. Not nearly enough. He’d have to make a call, poor-mouth into the phone until his father’s wallet spit out more bills.

He left the hostel and took the stone path down to nothing good. This morning he was on his way, yet again, to meet Hayley’s train. Sweet, sweet Hayley. She would fail to appear today, no doubt, as she had failed to appear every day for the past two weeks. It seemed more and more likely that his lovely, explosively angry girlfriend wouldn’t be joining him in Germany—even though they’d spent months planning the trip, Julian Googling deep into his unemployed afternoons back home, Hayley pinging him sexy links from work whenever she could. A food-truck map, day treks along the Königsallee. First they’d destroy England and France, lay waste to the Old World, then drop into freaking Düsseldorf for the last, broken leg of the journey.

It was meant to be a romantic medical-tourist getaway, a young invalid and his lady friend sampling the experimental medicine of the Rhine. But they’d fought in France, and he’d come to Düsseldorf ahead of her. Now he waited not so hopefully, not so patiently—dragging himself between the hostel, the train station, and the Internet café, checking vainly for messages from Hayley—while seeking treatment at the clinic up on the hill.

Treatment—well, that perhaps wasn’t the word for it. His was one of the incurable conditions. An allergy to his own blood, as he not so scientifically thought of it. An allergy to himself was more like it. His immune system was confused, fighting against the home team. Or his immune system knew exactly what it was doing. These days, autoimmune diseases were the most sophisticated way to undermine yourself, to be your own worst enemy.

Back home, he’d tried it all—the steroids, the nerve blocks, the premium plasma—and felt no different. He’d eaten only green food until it ran down his legs. Then for a long time he’d tried nothing. He’d tried school, then tried dropping out, living, in his mid-twenties, in his old room in his father’s house. Through it all, though, he had mostly tried Hayley, as in really, really tried her, and he could see how very tried she’d become.

It was Hayley who’d pushed for this trip, so that Julian could finally have a shot at the new medical approach they’d read so much about, a possible breakthrough with rare autoimmune disorders. In Germany, a shining outpost on the medical frontier, doctors tried what was forbidden or unconscionable elsewhere. And for a fee they’d try it on you. Massive doses of it. You could bathe in its miracle waters. You could practically get stem-cell Jell-O shooters at the bar on Thursday nights. So long as, you know, you waived—yes, waived—goodbye to your rights, your family, your life. It was not such a terrible trade.

On Julian’s first day, the clinic staff had brandished a very fine needle. It had gleamed in the cold fluorescent light of the guinea-pig room. From Julian’s wheezing torso, the doctors had drawn blood and marrow, his deep, private syrup—which they then boiled and spoon-fed back to him until he sizzled, until he just about glowed. Of course, the whole thing was more complicated than that, particularly the dark arts they conjured on his marrow once they’d smuggled it out of him. They spun it, purified it, damn near weaponized it, then sold it back to him for cash. Zero-sum medicine, since he’d grown it himself, in what Hayley, digging into his ribs, had called “the Julian Farm.” Except that the sum was a good deal larger than zero.

And after a few weeks, or so the idea was, you’d be better. In his wellness fantasies, Julian always pictured himself scrubbed clean, nicely dressed, suddenly funny and charming. Better in every goddam way. But, of course, throughout these treatments, as he’d discovered, the frowning doctors hedged and balked and shat caveats, until the promise of recovery was off the table, out of the room, nowhere near the building.


The War of the Words

Keith Gessen on Amazon vs. Publishers

Interesting piece in Vanity Fair by n+1 editor Keith Gessen on the Amazon vs. Hachette dispute, and how perceptions of the ‘online mega-store’ are evolving: 

This past year has seen hostilities between Amazon and the publishers, which had been simmering for years, come out into the open, filling many column inches in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, not to mention numerous online forums. The focal point of the dispute has been a tough negotiation between Amazon and the publisher Hachette, with some public sniping between the companies’ executives (who have otherwise kept out of view). Hachette, it should be said, is no slouch: it is owned by the large French media conglomerate Lagardère. The other big publishers are similarly well backed. HarperCollins is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Simon & Schuster is a part of CBS. Macmillan and Penguin Random House are owned, or co-owned, by hefty German corporations. Nonetheless, all the publishers feel bullied by Amazon, and Amazon, in turn, feels misunderstood.

It wasn’t always this way. When Amazon first appeared, in the mid-90s, mailing books out of the Seattle garage of its founder, Jeff Bezos, it was greeted with enthusiasm. The company seemed like a useful counterweight to the big bookstore chains that had come to dominate the book-retailing landscape. In the late 1990s, the large chains, led by Borders and Barnes & Noble, controlled about a quarter of the adult-book market. Their stores were good. They may have lacked individuality, but they made up for it in inventory—a typical Barnes & Noble superstore carried 150,000 titles, making it as alluring, in its way, as the biggest and most famous independent bookstores in America, like Tattered Cover, in Denver, or City Lights, in San Francisco. Now a person on a desolate highway in upstate New York could access all those books, too.

The big chains were good for publishers because they sold so many books, but they were bad for publishers because they used their market power to dictate tough terms and also because they sometimes returned a lot of stock. People also worried about the power of the chains to determine whether a book did well or badly. Barnes & Noble’s lone literary-fiction buyer, Sessalee Hensley, could make (or break) a book with a large order (or a disappointingly small one). If you talked to a publisher in the early 2000s, chances are they would complain to you about the tyranny of Sessalee. No one used her last name; the most influential woman in the book trade did not need one.

The success of Amazon changed all that. It has been said that Amazon got into the book business accidentally—that it might as well have been selling widgets. This isn’t quite right. Books were ideal as an early e-commerce product precisely because when people wanted particular books they knew already what they were getting into. The vast variety of books also allowed an enterprising online retailer to leverage the fact that there was no physical store in a single fixed location to limit its inventory. If a big Barnes & Noble had 150,000 books in stock, Amazon had a million! And if Barnes & Noble had taken its books to lonely highways where previously there had been no bookstores, Amazon was taking books to places where there weren’t even highways. As long as you had a credit card, and the postal service could reach you, you suddenly had the world’s largest bookstore at your fingertips.

Amazon grew quickly. Within a decade, it had become a worthy rival to the chains. As the company sold more books, it sent book publishers more money. What was there not to like?

Karl Ove Knausgaard on becoming a cultural influence

Interview in Hazlitt

There’s a new English-language interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard in Hazlitt, in which he talks about becoming a cultural influence.

Also, there are so many pictures of him on the internet. He looks like he enjoys author pics.

My Struggle has now earned a certain stature in contemporary world literature, as it did in Norwegian culture upon its original publication. It’s spoken of as a necessary text for people to read, to contend with, in our contemporary moment. Do you think about the fact that you are now an influence? That you are a cultural influence, you’re not just documenting things.

Hmm, no. I don’t think about that. I remember, I didn’t read David Shields until I was done with these books because I knew there were some relations there. He was writing about much of the same things, but I read it afterwards and I liked it very much. I related to his views in many ways. But no, I can’t really think in those terms whatsoever, and it is, you know, it’s just some books. You have to be lucky for them to be translated in the first place, and then someone well-placed has to say, I like them, they are very good, and if you don’t have that then it’s too risky for people to go for the book. But James Woods said, I like it, this is an important book. Then you have some other people, well-placed, saying this is very good. Zadie Smith did. Then it just opens up and it’s established as a good book or an important book. But you could imagine, in a parallel universe, this wouldn’t happen and then it would just be a book, and it wouldn’t have any influence.

So it’s been very interesting to see that process, because it first happened in Norway and then in Scandinavia, and then in England and the U.S. I think maybe it just has something to do with the zeitgeist and being a contemporary, I don’t know. There was a Norwegian writer who said he really hated these books, and he hated the hysteria surrounding them, so he wrote a piece and said, Just wait until they’re translated and you’ll see how provincial they are. And in a way he could have been right, I don’t know. But I think everything this book has exists in other places. I think my books have a few catch lines in their 3,600 pages, and a title, and controversy, and that’s it. That’s the way I explain it, at least.

Voices from Chernobyl

by Svetlana Alexievich

In 2004, the Paris Review ran an extract from Svetlana Alexievich’s last book to be translated into English (by Keith Gessen), Voices from Chernobyl. It’s an oral history – like all of her books – of the worst nuclear reactor accident in history. 

Philip Gourevitch, who went on to edit the magazine, is a fan:  

Alexievich builds her narratives about Russian national traumas—the Soviet-Afghan war, for instance, or the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe—by interviewing those who lived them, and immersing herself deeply in their testimonies. But her voice is much more than the sum of their voices. The first time many English readers may have encountered her was in the quarterly Granta, under the editorship of Bill Buford, where a piece called “Boys in Zinc” appeared in 1990. (An eponymous book soon followed.) The title is a reference to the zinc coffins in which the Soviet military returned its Afghan war dead to their mothers, and the piece, told from the mothers’ point of view, made that war as all-encompassingly present and personal—as real—as any fictional account ever did for any other war, and with the same singularity and originality of style and passion, of political intelligence and tragic vision.

The extract is available in full on the Paris Review website:  

On April 26, 1986, at 1:23:58 a. m., a series of explosions destroyed the reactor in the building that housed Energy Block #4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. The catastrophe at Chernobyl became the largest technical disaster of the twentieth century. . . . For tiny Belarus (population: ten million), it was a national disaster. . . . Today, one out of every five Belarussians lives on contaminated land. This amounts to 2.1 million people, of whom seven hundred thousand are children. In the Gomel and Mogilev regions, which suffered the most from Chernobyl, mortality rates exceed birthrates by twenty percent.
—Belaruskaya entsiklopedia, 1996, s.v. “Chernobyl,” pg. 24

On April 29, 1986, instruments recorded high levels of radiation in Poland, Germany, Austria, and Romania. On April 30, in Switzerland and northern Italy. On May 1 and second, in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and northern Greece. On May 3, in Israel, Kuwait, and Turkey. . . . Gaseous airborne particles traveled around the globe: on May 2 they were registered in Japan, on May 5 in India, on May 5 and sixth in the U.S. and Canada.
—“The Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident in Belarus”
The Sakharov International College on Radioecology, Minsk, 1992

Lyudmilla Ignatenko Wife of deceased Fireman Vasily Ignatenko

We were newlyweds. We still walked around holding hands, even if we were just going to the store. I would say to him, “I love you.” But I didn’t know then how much. I had no idea . . . We lived in the dormitory of the fire station where he worked. I always knew what was happening—where he was, how he was.

One night I heard a noise. I looked out the window. He saw me. “Close the window and go back to sleep. There’s a fire at the reactor. I’ll be back soon.”

I didn’t see the explosion itself. Just the flames. Everything was radiant. The whole sky. A tall flame. And smoke. The heat was awful. And he still hadn’t come back.

They went off just as they were, in their shirtsleeves. No one told them. They had been called for a fire, that was it.

Seven o’clock in the morning. At seven I was told he was in the hospital. I ran over there‚ but the police had already encircled it, and they weren’t letting anyone through. Only ambulances. The policemen shouted: “The ambulances are radioactive‚ stay away!” I started looking for a friend, she was a doctor at that hospital. I grabbed her white coat when she came out of an ambulance. “Get me inside!” “I can’t. He’s bad. They all are.” I held onto her. “Just to see him!” “All right‚” she said. “Come with me. Just for fifteen or twenty minutes.”

I saw him. He was all swollen and puffed up. You could barely see his eyes.

“He needs milk. Lots of milk‚” my friend said. “They should drink at least three liters each.”

“But he doesn’t like milk.”

“He’ll drink it now.”

Many of the doctors and nurses in that hospital‚ and especially the orderlies‚ would get sick themselves and die. But we didn’t know that then.

At ten‚ the cameraman Shishenok died. He was the first.

I said to my husband, “Vasenka, what should I do?” “Get out of here! Go! You have our child.” I was pregnant. But how could I leave him? He was saying to me: “Go! Leave! Save the baby.” “First I need to bring you some milk, then we’ll decide what to do.” My friend Tanya Kibenok came running in—her husband was in the same room. Her father was with her, he had a car. We got in and drove to the nearest village. We bought a bunch of three-liter bottles, six, so there was enough for everyone. But they started throwing up terribly from the milk.

They kept passing out, they got put on iv. The doctors kept telling them they’d been poisoned by gas, for some reason. No one said anything about radiation.

I couldn’t get into the hospital that evening. There was a sea of people. I stood under his window, he came over and yelled something to me. It was so desperate! Someone in the crowd heard him—they were being taken to Moscow that night. All the wives got together in one group. We decided we’d go with them. “Let us go with our husbands! You have no right!” We punched and we clawed. The soldiers—there were already soldiers—they pushed us back. Then the doctor came out and said they were flying to Moscow, but we needed to bring them their clothing. The clothes they’d worn at the station had been burned. The buses had stopped running already and we ran across the city. We came running back with the bags, but the plane was already gone. They tricked us. So that we wouldn’t be there yelling and crying.

Later in the day I started throwing up. I was six months pregnant, but I had to get to Moscow.


Roberto Bolaño

by Carmen Boullosa

In 2001, Carmen Boullosa (whose novel Texas is nearly out with Deep Vellum) interviewed Roberto Bolaño by email. BOMB Magazine published it in 2002.  Bolaño died in 2003, the year his first novel appeared in English (one of his best, By Night in Chile). So BOMB was ahead of the curve.

RB The truth is, I don’t believe all that much in writing. Starting with my own. Being a writer is pleasant—no, pleasant isn’t the word—it’s an activity that has its share of amusing moments, but I know of other things that are even more amusing, amusing in the same way that literature is for me. Holding up banks, for example. Or directing movies. Or being a gigolo. Or being a child again and playing on a more or less apocalyptic soccer team. Unfortunately, the child grows up, the bank robber is killed, the director runs out of money, the gigolo gets sick and then there’s no other choice but to write. For me, the word writingis the exact opposite of the word waiting. Instead of waiting, there is writing. Well, I’m probably wrong—it’s possible that writing is another form of waiting, of delaying things. I’d like to think otherwise. But, as I said, I’m probably wrong. As to my idea of a canon, I don’t know, it’s like everyone else’s—I’m almost embarrassed to tell you, it’s so obvious: Francisco de Aldana, Jorge Manrique, Cervantes, the chroniclers of the Indies, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, Pedro Henríquez Ureña, Rubén Darío, Alfonso Reyes, Borges, just to name a few and without going beyond the realm of the Spanish language. Of course, I’d love to claim a literary past, a tradition, a very brief one, made up of only two or three writers (and maybe one single book), a dazzling tradition prone to amnesia, but on the one hand, I’m much too modest about my work and on the other, I’ve read too much (and too many books have made me happy) to indulge in such a ridiculous notion.

The Wallcreeper

by Nell Zink

Over at Electric Literature, an excerpt from Nell Zink’s excellent debut novel, The Wallcreeper, originally published by Dorothy Project, a small American publishing house ‘dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women’:

Elvis said he wanted to go dancing, which would involve staying out very late. Going dancing was his reason for being, and he wanted to share it with me. I wasn’t sure I could get that past Stephen, but I agreed to try. Stephen said, “That sounds like a date.”

“It totally is a date. Obviously this guy wants in my pants. But I mean, when’s the last time you went dancing? For me I think it was my sophomore year. And I wouldn’t know where to go. He’s a nice guy. I’m sure you know him. The guy with the beard at the gas station. He’s totally harmless. He’s a disciple of Slavoj Žižek.”

Stephen snapped the International Herald Tribune tight to turn the page. “That is the tiredest line in Christendom,” he said.

“I know. It’s not his fault he’s a tragic figure. It’s never a tragic figure’s fault. That’s what makes them tragic. But he says he knows this really fun place to go dancing, not a disco but, like, a bar where they play all kind of ‘mixed music.’”

“Do you need a chaperone?”

“Would you please?” I said. I couldn’t really say no. We picked Elvis up at his place. I had never been there. It was farther out of town, up at the edge of the woods. An old house. He came out as soon as the car pulled up. The street obviously didn’t get much traffic late at night. Elvis directed us to the most pitiful bar I ever saw. Young men unlikely to be in the possession of Swiss passports danced with eyes half-closed, snapping their fingers, while women in various states of disrepair jockeyed into their axes of attention. Lumpy, lantern-jawed, pockmarked, bucktoothed, short, tall, or simply drunken women, here to pick up devil-may-care subaltern gigolos for a night of horror.

I saw Elvis through new eyes. “You are so much beautiful,” he would often say charmingly as he worshipped at the altar of my body. Looking around, I could only think that a bar where I am the best-looking woman by a factor of ten is not a bar where I want to be, and that beauty is apparently relative. I felt both better- and worse-looking than before. Better because I was suddenly reminded that the world is not all college girls and secretaries and trophy wives, and worse because everything in the whole universe is contagious if you look at it long enough. Just opening your eyes puts you in front of a mirror, psychologically speaking. Garbage in, garbage out. Or rather, garbage goes in, but you never get rid of it. It just lies there turning to dust and slowly wafting a thin layer of grime on to every other object in your brain. Scraping the gunk off is not only a major challenge, but the chief burden of human existence. That’s why I keep things so clean. Otherwise I would see little flecks of Rudolf-shit everywhere I looked, from Fragonard to the Duino Elegies.

“I am not staying here,” Stephen said. “Do you want to stay?”

Elvis asked if he knew another place. Our next stop was called Mancuso’s Loft. It was running drum ’n’ bass. The proprietor waved us in. Here I saw Stephen through new eyes. Then I ran to the ladies’ room and stuffed my ears with toilet paper. Stephen led me to the floor and yelled, “I’m going to dance a little bit!” He then proceeded to dance as if he had never seen me, or any other human being, before in his life. Cranes came to mind.

Touching my elbow, Elvis remarked, “This club is so much beautiful,” and headed for the bar. Elvis was right. In Mancuso’s Loft, I felt below average-looking and quite conspicuously ill-dressed. My pants revealed nothing whatever. My shoes were comfy. My shirt had long sleeves so thick I was soon terribly hot.

“I like your husband,” Elvis said. I said that was not really his assigned task. “No, he has something. Un certain je ne sais quoi. You know what I need? A girlfriend. By myself, I am never getting into this place. You think they let me in? A brown man alone, with a beard? Ha!”

“You’re not brown! You’re lily-white anywhere but Denmark!”

“Many times, I am standing in the queue outside clubs like this. And all the time, I think I am living in Berne. But I am not living in Berne. I am living in the Berne that reveals itself to me, okay, a white ‘Yugo’ if you please but with no connections, with nothing. A cashier in the petrol station, with nothing to his account but a few women. Yes, I say it openly. I have nothing to offer this town but my body. My body to strike the keys of the cash register, my body to find other bodies and search for warmth. My body is my capital. You, this beautiful woman, are my social capital. And then I was taking you, you particularly, to this horrible bar. I see now it is so very horrible, this bar.”

“Elvis, calm down,” I said. “You’re a model of successful integration. You even speak Berndeutsch, and you’ve only been here eleven years!”

“Are they speaking Berndeutsch in this club? No, they speak French!” I didn’t know how he had decided on that one, because I could barely hear even him, much less other people. “I speak the language of the gas station! I have shamed myself. I hoped to leverage one woman to meet another. Not to earn a woman with the honest work and the natural beauty of my body! This crazy Swiss language has made me a capitalist of women! And what is my wages? I insult you, the most beautiful woman in Switzerland. This town has made of me a body without a brain. I will leave this place and go to Geneva,” he concluded, taking both my hands.

“Don’t do that,” I said.

“No, I won’t if you don’t permit it!” he cried ecstatically, throwing his arms around me.

Stephen drifted over, bouncing on the tips of his toes, and beckoned to me. “You need ketamine?” he whispered.

“Umm, no?” I said.

“I got three,” he said. “I think I might stay here. You want the car keys? I’ll take a taxi.”

“Don’t give Elvis any drugs.”

“I don’t take drugs,” Elvis volunteered. He had never been in a band, so he could hear much better than we could. Stephen and I were always stage-whispering about people sitting near us in cafés and drawing stares.

“That’s dandy,” I said. I pocketed the keys and took Elvis’s hand. “Let’s blow this joint. That okay with you?”

Stephen mouthed the word, “Arrivederci.”

Fitz Carraldo Editions