Archives: April 2016

Interview with Han Kang

Sarah Shin for The White Review

Published by The White Review and translated by Deborah Smith, here’s an excerpt from Sarah Shin’s expansive interview with author of The Vegetarian and Human Acts, Han Kang:

Han Kang is a disquieting storyteller who leads the reader into the very heart of human experience, where the singular crosses the universal. Author of ten books of fiction and poetry in her native Korean, Han’s subversive work has been brought onto the Anglophone stage through close partnership with her award-winning translator Deborah Smith. Smith’s elegant renditions of the novels HUMAN ACTS (2016) and THE VEGETARIAN (2015) form part of a recent blossoming of international interest in Korean literature; Dalkey Archive’s Library of Korean Literature launched in 2013 and consists of 25 translations so far. Originally published as three novellas in South Korea nearly a decade ago, Han has said that THE VEGETARIAN was initially received as ‘very extreme and bizarre’ in Korea. It has since become a cult bestseller, with translation rights sold in twenty countries and its central novella ‘Mongolian Mark’ awarded the prestigious Yi Sang Literary Prize in 2005. HUMAN ACTS, her latest novel, was awarded the Korean Manhae Literary Prize last year, adding to her numerous other accolades.

‘I believe that humans should be plants.’ This line from the great modernist poet Yi Sang, written in the Korean script hangul banned under Japanese rule, reportedly obsessed Han during university and became the seed for THE VEGETARIAN. Yi’s dream-like images evoking the violence of imperialism upon the colonial subject are mirrored in Han’s surrealistic and painterly portrayal of a woman’s personal rebellion. The novel tells the story of Yeong-hye who, haunted by grotesque dreams, first gives up meat, then food altogether in a radical refusal of human cruelty and destruction. In a patriarchal society where vegetarianism is rare, Yeong-hye’s transgression eventually leads to her institutionalisation and force-feeding. Han’s life-long exploration of the themes of violence and humanity are here rooted in the anorexic body forming a provocative psychological portrait of a woman’s body politics.

HUMAN ACTS revisits these themes but pans out to the national stage, excavating the traumatic legacy of the Gwangju massacre in post-war Korean history. Opening in the Gwangju Commune, the action unfurls in the crucible of the 1980s student and worker-led democratic movement. In 1979 when military dictator Park Chung-Hee, the father of current president Park Geun-Hye, was assassinated his ‘protégé’, General Chun Doo-Hwan, succeeded him and extended martial law across the country, closing universities, restricting press freedom and banning political organising. On 18 May 1980 when students gathered in Gwangju to protest these measures, the government responded by sending in soldiers who opened fire on the crowds. A citizen army managed to eject the military presence and in the following days virtually the whole city joined together in creating an autonomous community comparable to the Paris Commune. The uprising endured for a few days until it was crushed by a US-approved military operation on 27 May that killed and injured thousands.

The massacre left a deep imprint in Korea’s cultural memory, in part because the truth around events was suppressed for years afterwards. Conservative accounts painted the incident as a Communist plot driven by North Korean sympathisers, and the death toll remains contested. ‘Gwangju’, Han says, has become another word ‘for all that has been mutilated beyond repair. The radioactive spread is ongoing.’ Thus HUMAN ACTS is a book with a banging door – it is fiction as a form of alternative historiography where the unresolved past pollutes the present. For Han, ‘Gwangju’ functions like a common noun denoting mankind’s capacity for acts of extreme violence in the same instance as acts of great humanity. Indeed, Korea’s tumultuous history has seen a succession of Gwangjus: there has been little closure, for example, for the Korean women forced into sexual slavery under Japanese colonial rule, or for the families separated by the Korean War that left the two Koreas divided by the Demilitarized Zone when the Cold War turned hot on the peninsular.

A language carries its culture on its back and Han deftly transports the myriad complexities of Korean history through her spare prose. Yet HUMAN ACTS, likeTHE VEGETARIAN, is often about the failure of language to adequately convey experience. In a striking scene, a survivor of torture asks, ‘Would you have been able to string together a continuous thread of words, silences, coughs and hesitations, its warp and weft somehow containing all that you wanted to say?’ Han certainly attempts to do so, both in her lyrical work and in this interview, conducted through email and translated by Deborah Smith.

Q. THE WHITE REVIEW — The history of Korea in the twentieth century is rich in trauma – why did you choose to write about the Gwangju Uprising in particular?

A. HAN KANG —  The twentieth century has left deep wounds not only on Korea but on the whole of the human race. Because I was born in 1970 I experienced neither the Japanese occupation, which lasted from 1910 to 1945, nor the Korean War, which began in 1950 and was concluded with a cease-fire in 1953. I began to publish poetry and fiction in 1993, when I was twenty-three; that was the first year since the military coup d’état in 1961 that a president who was not from the army but a civilian came to power. Thanks to that, I and writers of a similar generation felt that we had obtained the freedom to investigate the interior of the human without the guilty sense that we ought instead to be making political pronouncements through our work.

So my writing concentrated on this interior. Humans will not hesitate to lay down their own lives to rescue a child who had fallen onto the train tracks, yet are also perpetrators of appalling violence, like in Auschwitz. The broad spectrum of humanity, which runs from the sublime to the brutal, has for me been like a difficult homework problem ever since I was a child. You could say that my books are variations on this theme of human violence. Wanting to find the root cause of why embracing the human was such a painful thing for me, I groped inside my own interior, and there I encountered Gwangju, which I had experienced indirectly in 1980.


‘David Foster Wallace’s Perfect Game’

John Jeremiah Sullivan for the New Yorker

David Foster Wallace wrote about tennis in fiction, essays, journalism, and reviews; writing for the New Yorker, John Jeremiah Sullivan observes that ‘it may be his most consistent theme at the surface level’:

“Tennis” is a wonderful word in the sense that it never really existed. That is, although the game is French to the core—not one but two of France’s early kings died at the tennis courts, and the Republic was born on one, with the Tennis Court Oath—the French never called it that, tennis. They called it jeu de paume, the “game of the palm,” or “handball,” if we want to be less awkwardly literal about it. (Originally they had played it with the bare hand, then came gloves, then paddles, then rackets.) When the French would go to serve, they often said, Tenez!, the French word for “take it,” meaning “coming at you, heads up.” We preserve this custom of warning the opponent in our less lyrical way by stating the score just before we toss up the ball. It was the Italians who, having overheard the French make these sounds, began calling the game “ten-ez” by association. A lovely detail in that it suggests a scene, a Florentine ear at the fence or the entryway, listening. They often built those early courts in the forest, in clearings. The call in the air. Easy to think of Benjy in “The Sound and the Fury,” hearing the golfers shout “Caddy!” and assuming they mean his sister, only here the word moves between languages, out of France via the transnational culture of the aristocratic court and into Italy. There it enters European literature around the thirteen-fifties, the time of Petrarch’s “Phisicke Against Fortune.” In considering the anxiety that consumes so much of human experience, he writes, “And what is the cause hereof, but only our own lightness & daintiness: for we seem to be good for nothing else, but to be tossed hither & thither like a Tennise bal, being creatures of very short life, of infinite carefulness, & yet ignorant unto what shore to sail with our ship.”

A metaphor for human existence, then, and for fate: “We are merely the stars’ tennis-balls,” in John Webster’s “Duchess of Malfi,” “struck and banded / Which way please them.” That is one tradition. In another, tennis becomes a symbol of frivolity, of a different kind of “lightness.” Grown men playing with balls. The history of the game’s being used that way is twined up with an anecdote from the reign of Henry V, the powerful young king who had once been Shakespeare’s reckless Prince Hal. According to one early chronicler, “The Dauphin, thinking King Henry to be given to such plays and light follies . . . sent to him a tun of tennis-balls.” King Henry’s imagined reply at the battle of Agincourt was rendered into verse, probably by the poet-monk John Lydgate, around 1536:

Some hard tennis balls I have hither brought
Of marble and iron made full round.
I swear, by Jesu that me dear bought,
They shall beat the walls to the ground.

That story flowers into a couplet of Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” circa 1599. The package from the Dauphin arrives. Henry’s uncle, the Duke of Exeter, takes it. “What treasure, uncle?” the king asks. “Tennis-balls, my liege,” Exeter answers. “And we understand him well,” Henry says (a line meant to echo an earlier one, said under very different circumstances, Hal’s equally famous “I know you all and will awhile uphold”):

How he comes o’er us with our wilder days
Not measuring what use we made of them.

A more eccentric instance of tennis-as-metaphor pops up in Shakespeare’s “Pericles,” where the tennis court is compared with the ocean. It occurs in the part of the play that scholars now believe was written by a tavern-keeper named George Wilkins. Pericles has just been tossed half dead onto the Greek shore and is discovered by three fishermen. He says,

A man whom both the waters and the wind,
In that vast tennis-court, hath made the ball
For them to play upon, entreats you pity him.

These lines may cause some modern readers to recall David Foster Wallace’s “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” an essay about learning to play the game in the central Midwest, where extreme winds are an almost constant factor, but where Wallace succeeded, he tells us, in part because of a “weird robotic detachment” from the “unfairnesses of wind and weather.”

David Foster Wallace wrote about tennis because life gave it to him—he had played the game well at the junior level—and because he was a writer who in his own way made use of wilder days, turning relentlessly in his work to the stuff of his own experience. But the fact of the game in his biography came before any thought of its use as material. At least I assume that’s the case. It can be amazing how early in life some writers figure out what they are and start to see their lives as stories that can be controlled. It is perhaps not far-fetched to imagine Wallace’s noticing early on that tennis is a good sport for literary types and purposes. It draws the obsessive and brooding. It is perhaps the most isolating of games. Even boxers have a corner, but in professional tennis it is a rules violation for your coach to communicate with you beyond polite encouragement, and spectators are asked to keep silent while you play. Your opponent is far away, or, if near, is indifferently hostile. It may be as close as we come to physical chess, or a kind of chess in which the mind and body are at one in attacking essentially mathematical problems. So, a good game not just for writers but for philosophers, too. The perfect game for Wallace.


‘Running Away’

An excerpt from a novel by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

We’re very excited to be publishing Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s essay Football on 11 May this year. In anticipation of this, here’s an excerpt from one of his previous stories, Running Away, originally published in English in 2009 by Dalkey Archive Press, and extracted on KCRW’s website:


Would it ever end with Marie? The summer before we broke up I spent a few weeks in Shanghai, but it wasn’t really a business trip, more a pleasure junket, even if Marie had given me a sort of mission (but I don’t feel like going into details). The day I arrived in Shanghai, Zhang Xiangzhi, a business associate of Marie’s, was there to meet me at the airport. I’d only seen him once before, in Paris, at Marie’s office, but I recognized him immediately, he was talking to a uniformed police officer just past customs. He had to be in his forties, round cheeks, facial features swollen, smooth, copper-colored skin, and he wore very dark sunglasses that seemed too big for his small face. We were waiting at the edge of the baggage carousel for my bag and we’d hardly exchanged a few words in broken English before he handed me a cell phone. Present for you, he told me, which plunged me into a state of extreme bewilderment. I didn’t really understand why he felt the need to give me a cell phone, a used cell phone, rather ugly, dull gray, without packaging or instructions. To keep an eye on me, be able to locate me at any time, watch my every move? I don’t know. I followed him silently through the airport terminal, and I felt a sense of unease, heightened by jet lag and the tension that comes with arriving in an unknown city.

On exiting the airport, Zhang Xiangzhi made a quick gesture with his hand and a shiny new gray Mercedes slowly rolled up to us. He got in behind the wheel, sending the driver, a young guy with a fluid, scarcely noticeable presence, to the back seat after having placed my bag in the trunk. Seated at the wheel, Zhang Xiangzhi invited me to join him in the front, and I sat beside him on a comfortable, cream-leather seat with armrests and a new-car scent while he tried to adjust the air conditioning, which, after fiddling with a digital touch pad, began humming softly in the vehicle. I handed him the manila envelope that Marie had asked me to give him (which contained twenty-five thousand dollars cash). He opened it, thumbed quickly through the bundles to count the bills, then resealed the envelope before putting it in his back pocket. He fastened his seat belt and we left the airport slowly to get on the freeway in the direction of Shanghai. We didn’t say a word, he didn’t speak French and his English was poor. He wore a gray short-sleeved shirt and a small gold chain with a pendant in the shape of a stylized claw or dragon’s talon around his neck. I still had the cell phone he had given me, it was on my lap, I didn’t know what to do with it or why it had even been offered to me in the first place (just a Welcome to China gift?). I was aware of the fact that Zhang Xiangzhi had been overseeing Marie’s real-estate investments in China for a few years now, some possibly dishonest and illicit activities, renting out and selling commercial leases, purchasing building space in rundown areas, the whole thing probably tainted by corruption and all sorts of clandestine exchanges of money. Since her first bouts of success in Asia, in Korea and Japan, Marie had set up shop in Hong Kong and Beijing and had been hoping to acquire new storefronts in Shanghai and in the south of China, with plans underway to open branches in Shenzhen and Guangzhou. For the time being, however, I hadn’t heard anything about Zhang Xiangzhi being involved in organized crime.

On arriving at the Hansen Hotel, where a room had been reserved for me, Zhang Xiangzhi parked the Mercedes in the hotel’s private interior courtyard and went to grab my bag from the trunk before ushering me all the way to the front desk. He hadn’t been involved in any way with reserving the room, which was done from Paris by a travel agency (a one-week, fully planned “escapade” with hotel and flight included, to which I added an extra week of vacation for my own enjoyment), but now he was seeing to everything, having me step aside as he took care of the arrangements. He had me wait on a couch while he went alone to the front desk to check me in. I sat there waiting in the lobby, next to a depressing display of dusty plants withering in flowerpots, and I watched him listlessly as he filled out my registration information. At one point he walked over to me, hurried, concerned, his hand reaching out anxiously, to ask me for my passport. He walked back to the front desk and I kept an eye on my passport, watching it with some concern as it passed from hand to hand, worried that I might see it spirited out of the hands of one of the numerous employees shuffling behind the counter. After a few more minutes of waiting, Zhang Xiangzhi came back over to me with the magnetic key card for my room. It was enclosed in a red and white case adorned with carefully formed Chinese characters, but he didn’t give it to me, he kept it in his hand. He grabbed my bag and invited me to follow him, and we headed to the elevators to go up to my room.

It was a three-star hotel, clean and quiet, we didn’t see a single person on our floor, I followed Zhang Xiangzhi down a long deserted hall, an abandoned housekeeping cart blocked our way. Zhang Xiangzhi slid the magnetic card through the lock and we entered my room (very dark, the curtains were drawn). I fiddled with the light at the door but the dimmer switch turned without effect. I tried to turn on the bedside lamp, but there was no electricity in the room. Zhang Xiangzhi pointed at a little receptacle on the wall next to the door in which one was meant to insert the key card in order to turn on the electricity. To demonstrate, he slowly inserted the card into the little slot and all the lights lit up at once, in the closet as well as the bathroom, the air conditioner loudly began to emit cool air, and the bathroom fan turned on. Zhang Xiangzhi went to open the curtains and stood at the window for a moment, pensive, looking at the new Mercedes parked in the courtyard below. Then he turned back around, as if to leave-or so I thought. He sat down in the armchair, crossed his legs, and took out his own cell phone, and, without appearing to be inconvenienced in any way by my presence (I was standing in the middle of the room, exhausted from my trip, I wanted to shower and stretch out on the bed) he began dialing a number, closely following the instructions on a blue phone card that had the letters “IP” written on it, followed by various codes and Chinese characters. He needed to start over a couple of times before getting it right, and then, gesturing emphatically in my direction, he called me over, had me run to his side, so that he could hand me the phone. I didn’t know what to say, where to speak, to whom or in what language I would be speaking, before hearing a female voice say allo, apparently in French, allo, she repeated.Allo, I finally said. Allo, she said. Our confusion was now complete (I was beginning to feel uneasy). Marie? With his sharp and focused eyes aimed at me, Zhang Xiangzhi was prodding me to talk, assuring me that it was Marie on the line-Marie, Marie, he was repeating while pointing at the phone-and I finally understood that he had dialed Marie’s number in Paris (her office number, the only one that he had) and that I was talking to a secretary at the haute-couture house Let’s Go Go Go. But I didn’t feel like talking to Marie right now, not at all, especially in front of Zhang Xiangzhi. Feeling more and more uneasy, I wanted to hang up, but I didn’t know which button to push or how to stop the conversation, so I quickly tossed him the phone as though it were white-hot. He hung it up, brusquely snapped it shut, pensive. He retrieved it from his lap, brushed it on the back of his hand as if to dust it off, and leaned forward to hand it to me without leaving his chair.For you, he told me, and he explained to me in English that, if I wanted to make a call, I should always use this card, dial 17910, then 2 for instructions in English (1 for Mandarin, if I preferred), the card’s number, followed by his PIN, 4447, then 00 for international, 33 for France, and then the number itself, etc. Understand? he asked. I said yes, more or less (maybe not all the details, but I got the gist of it). If I wanted to make a call, I should always use this card-always, he insisted-and, pointing to the room’s old landline phone on the bedside table, he shook his finger, saying no forcefully, like an order or command. No, he said. Understand? No. Never. Very expensive, he said, very very expensive.

In the following days, Zhang Xiangzhi called me only once or twice on the cell phone he had given me to see how I was doing and to invite me to lunch. Since my arrival, I had spent most of my time alone in Shanghai, not doing much, not meeting anyone. I’d walk around the city, eating at random times and places, seasoned kidney skewers on street corners, burning hot bowls of noodles in tiny hole-in-the-wall places packed with people, sometimes more elaborate meals in luxurious hotel restaurants, slowly working my way through the menus in deserted kitsch dining halls. In the afternoon, I’d take a nap in my room, not going back out until nightfall when it would get a little cooler. I’d go for a walk in the mild night, lost in thought, strolling alongside the multicolored neon-lit shops of Nanjing Road, indifferent to the noise and constant activity. Drawn to the river, I’d always end up in the Bund, welcomed by its maritime atmosphere and sea breeze. I’d cross through the underground passageway and amble aimlessly along the river, letting my eyes fall upon the row of old European buildings whose green lights, reflected on the wavy water of the Huangpu, projected emerald halos in the night. From the other bank of the river, beyond the flow littered with vegetable waste stagnating in the darkness, beyond the chunks of mud floating on the surface of the water and the algae magically held in place by an invisible undertow, the skyscrapers of Pudong traced a futuristic line in the sky as fateful as the lines that mark our palms, punctuated by the distinctive sphere of the Oriental Pearl, and, further along on the right, as if in retreat, modest and hardly lit up, the discreet majesty of the Jin Mao Tower. Looking out at the water, pensive, I was captivated by the river’s dark and wavy surface, and in a state of dreamlike melancholy-as often happens when the thought of love is met with the spectacle of dark water in the night-I was thinking about Marie.

Was it already a lost cause with Marie? And what could I have known about it then?


‘Check in with the Velociraptor…’

Gideon Lewis-Kraus for WIRED

Writing for WIRED, Gideon Lewis-Kraus reports from the world’s first robot hotel:

Japan has a national gift for holding in balance the stateliness of tradition and the marvel of novelty. So it ought to come as no surprise that on the western margin of the archipelago, on a serene bay in a remote area of the Nagasaki Prefecture, there is an enormous theme park dedicated to the splendors of imperial Holland. It follows with perfect logic that the historical theme park’s newest lodging place is the world’s first hotel staffed by robots.

The hotel, even before it opened last summer, had received extensive coverage in the international and domestic press for its promise of novel ease and convenience. But when I arrived at the Huis Ten Bosch theme park very late one humid summer night, just days after the fanfare of the robot hotel’s ribbon-cutting, nobody was quite sure where it might be found. Even the employees of the resort’s Hotel Okura, a towering replica of Amsterdam’s Centraal Station replete with stone reliefs and mansard roofs, discovered themselves unable to come to my aid. In rudimentary Japanese I asked where one might find the Henn-na Hotel. The name is an untranslatable double entendre: The literal meaning is “Strange Hotel,” but it’s very close to the word for “evolve”; it’s designed to acknowledge the slight uncanniness that might attend the coming hospitality singularity. The dual meaning, however, seemed lost on the Okura’s concierge, whose rigorous training hadn’t prepared her to counsel swarthy, disreputable-seeming, late-arriving foreigners in search of evolved accommodation. I did a little Kraftwerk automation dance to clear things up, but it only seemed to alarm her further.

My journey had taken 24 hours, and I looked forward to interacting with no more humans en route to a dreamless sleep.

She bowed and looked at her feet, then busied herself at her drawer, eventually withdrawing a map of the park and its environs; at almost 400 acres, Huis Ten Bosch is nearly the size of Monaco. Her pen hovered over the park’s periphery, at the verge of the bosky hills that surround mock Holland.

“Maybe,” she said, “it is here.” Her pen landed on one of the map’s empty green spaces.

Arigatou gozaimasu,” I said, bowing with great weariness. My journey, taxi-flight-walk-flight-taxi-train-train, had taken 24 hours, and I looked forward to interacting with no more humans en route to a dreamless sleep.

But she wasn’t finished. “Maybe,” she continued, “it is here.” Her pen landed on another unoccupied parcel of the park map.

I thanked her again, bowed again.

Before I could back away, she held up one finger, then marked a third place for good measure. “Maybe,” she concluded, “it is here.”

“Can I walk there?” I asked, as if she’d specified with confidence a particular there.

“I’m so sorry,” she said.

“Is there a bus or taxi, then?”

“I’m so sorry,” she said.

The concierge had reddened considerably. She did not know where one might find the hotel; at the same time, it was a source of great shame to her to think she might disappoint a patron. The Japanese language and culture do not distinguish between a guest and a customer—even, as in this case, a customer of somebody else’s hotel—so her inability to assist felt to her like a jagged tear in the social fabric. For my entire tenure at that counter, she was going to mark, with fear and hope, an arbitrary sequence of potential strange hotel locations. I backed away, bowing, to spare her this potentially endless exercise. The Japanese desire to save face makes omnipresent the threat of looping infinite regress, and it wasn’t fair to either of us to let it continue.

This initial exchange was depleting but in an instructive and relevant way. One of the many wonderful contradictions of Japan is that it hosts both the world’s most mature service industry and the world’s most advanced androidal technology. It was, in fact, with that contradiction in mind that I’d set out to visit our service future, to see how nostalgic I’d be, in the face of their summary deletion, for human beings.


‘Immediate Family’

Hilton Als on Maggie Nelson for the New Yorker

Writing for the New Yorker, Hilton Als paints an intimate profile of Maggie Nelson — “the poet who writes prose; the memoirist who considers the truth specious; the essayist whose books amount to a kind of fairy tale” — and the bodies closest to her:

May 5, 2015: that was when Maggie Nelson’s ninth book, “The Argonauts,” came out. Published two months after the author turned forty-two, the slim, intense volume, which tells the philosophical, sometimes comic tale of Nelson’s ever-developing consciousness, combines—like a number of other masterpieces of American autobiography—memoir, literary analysis, humor, and reporting with vivid instances of both the familiar and the strange. Central to “The Argonauts” is the story of Nelson’s great love for Harry Dodge, a West Coast sculptor, writer, and video artist who is fluidly gendered. As Nelson embarks on her intellectual and emotional journey, Harry also goes on various excursions in order to become the person he is now, whom Nelson describes, quoting a character from Harry’s 2001 film, “By Hook or By Crook,” as neither male nor female but “a special—a two for one.”

Sara Marcus, in an elegant and concise review of “The Argonauts,” for the Los Angeles Times, notes the way that Nelson circles “away and back again to central questions about deviance and normalcy, family-making and love.” What Nelson is asking, throughout the book, Marcus says, is “How does anyone decide what’s normal and what’s radical? What kinds of experience do we close ourselves off to when we think we already know?” Last month, the book won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, but long before that it was passed around and praised by any number of readers who knew nothing, or next to nothing, about Nelson’s interest in queerness, let alone lives like the ones her memoir grew out of and embodies. What those fans responded to most viscerally, perhaps, was the fact that it’s a book about becoming, both mentally and physically—about what it takes to shape a self, in all its completeness and disarray.

In “The Argonauts,” at the time that Harry is taking testosterone and having a double mastectomy, Maggie is pregnant with their son, Iggy, who is now four. It’s one of the rare moments in modern literature where the pregnant woman does not stand alone, wondering what will become of her or her child; Papa’s going through some fairly significant shit, too. But before the reader can settle into any kind of cozy acceptance of all that, Nelson shifts course again, asking what family can mean when the body is no longer a body but dust and then a memory. Is memory the tie that binds? Is love?

When Harry talks about his life—as he did, with great affability, one evening last August, at a corner table in a dark Los Angeles restaurant—the diminutive, auburn-haired Nelson listens with quiet seriousness. Her pale face turns nearly as red as her hair when Harry says something about their connection, or when she interrupts him to interject an idea or a detail about his own life which he may have forgotten. Afterward, Nelson may blush again or quickly smooth down her hair or say, even more quickly, “Right, right, right,” as a way of marking time, before continuing on with, or going deeper into, whatever she was talking about.

Speaking freely but thoughtfully is important to Nelson, in part because as a kid she was teased for being a “Chatty Cathy,” and in part because she finds ideas irrepressible and exciting to explore. Not surprisingly, Nelson has a very precise relationship to language—and to the vicissitudes of personal history, including the self-mythologizing that goes into making a transformed self. She has published four volumes of accomplished verse, but it’s her prose works, which cover an array of intellectual and social issues, that have brought her a wider readership: the devastating “The Red Parts” (published in 2007 and reissued this month, by Graywolf), for instance, focusses on the aftermath of the 1969 murder of Nelson’s aunt and the trial, thirty-six years later, of a suspect in the case; in “The Art of Cruelty” (2011), Nelson explores the role of the body in an age of extremity; and in “The Argonauts” she questions what it means to be a lover, a parent, someone’s child—“heteronormative” roles—when you don’t feel heteronormative, let alone comfortable with such traditional labels as “gay,” “straight,” “female,” and “male.”

In all of her books, Nelson picks at the underbelly of certainty and finds scabs—the white-male-patriarchy scab, the smug-female-thinker scab, the academic scab—and yet she gives these voices a place in her work, because, as her friend the novelist Rachel Kushner put it, “she knows exactly what kind of language, at this moment, what kind of views, are important, but she also understands that people are vulnerable and they get things wrong, not through malicious intent. Sometimes it’s just a misstep, or they’re too far from the other person’s subjectivity.” Matthew Barney, an artist known for his high-risk, epic exploration of American masculinity, told me that, for him, “The Art of Cruelty” was “the missing piece of a puzzle,” in terms of analyzing a world saturated with pornography and torture. “Maggie’s voice had a certain level of doubt and a self-reflective vibe that made me trust her, even when she was criticizing stuff that I really love.”

It’s Nelson’s articulation of her many selves—the poet who writes prose; the memoirist who considers the truth specious; the essayist whose books amount to a kind of fairy tale, in which the protagonist goes from darkness to light, and then falls in love with a singular knight—that makes her readers feel hopeful. Her universe is “queer,” fluid, as is Harry’s (tattooed on the fingers of his left and right hands, respectively, are the words “flow” and “form”), but this sense of flux has little to do with the kind of sentimental hippiedom that emerged, say, in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of Maggie and Harry’s home town in the sixties. Nelson is just as critical of the politics of inclusion as of exclusion. What you find in her writing, rather, is a certain ruefulness—an understanding that life is a crapshoot that’s been rigged, but to whose advantage?


‘Death by Gentrification’

Rebecca Solnit in the Guardian

Writing for the Guardian, Rebecca Solnit tells the story of the killing of Alejandro Nieto in March 2014, a death ‘that shamed San Francisco’. (Also available as a podcast.)


On the evening of 21 March 2014, Evan Snow, a thirtysomething “user experience design professional”, according to his LinkedIn profile, who had moved to the neighbourhood about six months earlier (and who has since departed for a more suburban environment), took his young Siberian husky for a walk on Bernal Hill.

As Snow was leaving the park, Nieto was coming up one of the little dirt trails that leads to the park’s ring road, eating chips. In a deposition prior to the trial, Snow said that with his knowledge of the attire of gang members, he “put Nieto in that category of people that I would not mess around with”.

His dog put Nieto in the category of people carrying food, and went after him. Snow never seemed to recognise that his out-of-control dog was the aggressor: “So Luna was, I think, looking to move around the benches or behind me to run up happily to get a chip from Mr Nieto. Mr Nieto became further – what’s the right word? – distressed, moving very quickly and rapidly left to right, trying to keep his chips away from Luna. He ran down to these benches and jumped up on the benches, my dog following. She was at that point vocalising, barking, or kind of howling.”

The dog had Nieto cornered on the bench while its inattentive owner was 40 feet away – in his deposition for the case, under oath, his exact words were that he was distracted by a female “jogger’s butt”. “I can imagine that somebody would – could assume the dog was being aggressive at that point,” Snow said. The dog did not come when he called, but kept barking. Nieto, Snow says, then pulled back his jacket and took his Taser out, briefly pointing at the distant dog-owner before he pointed it at the dog baying at his feet. The two men yelled at each other, and Snow apparently used a racial slur, but would not later give the precise word. As he left the park, he texted a friend about the incident. His text, according to his testimony, said, “in another state like Florida, I would have been justified in shooting Mr Nieto that night” – a reference to that state’s infamous “stand your ground” law, which removes the obligation to retreat before using force in self-defence. In other words, he apparently wished he could have done what George Zimmerman did to Trayvon Martin: execute him without consequences.

Soon after, a couple passed by Nieto. Tim Isgitt, a recent arrival in the area, is the communications director of a nonprofit organisation founded by tech billionaires. He now lives in suburban Marin County, as does his partner Justin Fritz, a self-described “email marketing manager” who had lived in San Francisco about a year. In a picture one of them posted on social media, they are chestnut-haired, clean-cut white men posing with their dogs, a springer spaniel and an old bulldog. They were walking those dogs when they passed Nieto at a distance.

Fritz did not notice anything unusual but Isgitt saw Nieto moving “nervously” and putting his hand on the Taser in its holster. Snow was gone, so Isgitt had no idea that Nieto had just had an ugly altercation and had reason to be disturbed. Isgitt began telling people he encountered to avoid the area. (One witness who did see Nieto shortly after Isgitt and Fritz, longtime Bernal Heights resident Robin Bullard who was walking his own dog in the park, testified that there was nothing alarming about him. “He was just sitting there,” Bullard said.)

At the trial, Fritz testified that he had not seen anything alarming about Nieto. He said that he called 911 because Isgitt urged him to. At about 7.11pm he began talking to the 911 dispatcher, telling her that there was a man with a black handgun. What race, asked the dispatcher, “black, Hispanic?” “Hispanic,” replied Fritz. Later, the dispatcher asked him if the man in question was doing “anything violent”, and Fritz answered, “just pacing, it looks like he might be eating chips or sunflowers, but he’s resting a hand kind of on the gun”. Alex Nieto had about five more minutes to live.


‘Less is Moore’

James Longenbach on Marriane Moore for The Nation

Writing for The Nation, James Longenbach writes around Marriane Moore’s collected poems in various editions but most especially Observations, ‘one of the great verbal works of art of the 20th century’:

On February 29, 1988, John Ashbery gave a poetry reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. The room was packed. Coincidentally, the Folger had mounted “Marianne Moore: Vision Into Verse,” an exhibition including an array of clippings and photographs that Moore includes in her poems—most prominently in “An Octopus,” the longest poem in her 1924 volume Observations. Speaking from the podium, Ashbery called “An Octopus” the most important poem of the 20th century; and while the remark provoked a few titters, he was reiterating a conviction that was neither novel nor idiosyncratic. “Despite the obvious grandeur of her chief competitors,” he’d written two decades earlier, in a 1967 review of Moore’s Complete Poems, “I am tempted simply to call her our greatest modern poet.”

By “chief competitors,” Ashbery meant the usual suspects—Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams—all of whom maintain a permanent claim on our attentions; with the notion that Moore belongs among this company, no 21st-century reader could plausibly disagree. Not only the freewheeling Ashbery but also the fastidious Richard Wilbur reveres her poems, and depending on how one approaches them, the poems themselves seem both freewheeling and fastidious. “She gives us,” said Ashbery, “the feeling that life is softly exploding around us, within easy reach.”

In a sense, this is true of any great poem, which will seem seductively unpredictable, a thrilling journey from first line to last, to the degree to which it is exquisitely constructed. No poet is more formally precise than Walt Whitman at his most expansive, no poet more wildly extravagant than Emily Dickinson at her most curtailed; freedom is not sloppiness, structure is not constriction. But perhaps more clearly than any poet of the 20th century, Moore allows us to see why this is the case. Hence her extraordinary usefulness for other poets, hence her lasting influence even on poets who do not sound like her, much less transform her discoveries into mannerisms.

Moore was born near St. Louis, Missouri, in 1887. Her parents separated before her birth, and subsequently her father, already institutionalized, severed his hand, taking literally the injunction of Matthew 5:30 (“If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off”). To her mother and her brother Warner, who became a Presbyterian minister, Moore remained fiercely, sometimes pathologically close. Though she attended Bryn Mawr College, became a suffragette, moved to a tiny Greenwich Village apartment in 1918, and edited the legendary magazine The Dial from 1925 until its demise in 1929 (an achievement that would ensure our interest in Moore even if she had written no poems), she lived with her mother until her mother’s death in 1947. It’s hard to imagine Marianne Moore sharing a bed with her mother while also composing her fiercely syntax-driven poems—poems in which domestic relations often seem pointedly nightmarish: “the spiked hand / that has affection for one / and proves it to the bone, / impatient to assure you / that impatience is the mark of independence / not of bondage.”

Moore began publishing these poems around 1915, and immediately they were noticed by the poets who became her peers—Pound, Eliot, Stevens, H.D., Williams—poets who would each write admiring essays about her work. Yet Moore remained mysterious. “Does your stuff ‘appear’ in America?” asked Pound after first encountering her poems in England. “Dear Mr. Pound,” replied Moore, “I do not appear.” In 1921, H.D. helped to arrange the appearance of a small collection, called Poems, but Moore was neither involved with the publication nor pleased with the results. She held out as long as she could, finally publishing her first book, Observations, with the Dial Press in 1924; a slightly revised second edition appeared the following year. Though Moore would continue to write superb poems throughout her long life (she died in 1972), she would never surpass the achievement of Observations, which is not merely a collection of discrete poems but a poetic omniverse of Whitmanian proportions.

Moore was a passionate reviser. Prior to being collected in Observations, her poems appeared in little magazines in sometimes drastically different versions, and she continued to revise them for decades to come. Reading a poem from the 1920s in her 1967 Complete Poems, often one is in fact reading a poem from 1935 or 1951; this conundrum was wildly exacerbated by the recent Poems, which reprints (in the words of the volume’s editor, Moore’s friend Grace Schulman) “versions [of the poems] that I liked.” In addition, because Moore’s various selected and collected editions rearrange and omit some of the poems of Observations, the design of this volume has largely been obscured. A facsimile edition appeared in 2002 (Becoming Marianne Moore: The Early Poems, 1907–1924, meticulously edited by Robin Schulze), but it is only now that Moore’sObservations has finally been reprinted as a book that devoted readers might hold in their hands.


‘The Emperor’s Mantle’

An extract from Álvaro Enrigue's novel, Sudden Death

Here’s an extract from an extract of Álvaro Enrigue’s novel Sudden Death, published earlier this year by VICE and described by the magazine’s culture editor, James Yeh, as ‘one of the most engaging, audacious, and flat-out fun works of fiction I’ve read in a while’:

Don Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin, Nahua of noble birth and master featherworker, was at his shop in San José de los Naturales—once a farm of exotic birds under the Emperor Moctezuma—when he met Vasco de Quiroga. They were introduced by Fray Pedro de Gante, who managed what was left of the totocalli (as such farms were called) after the brutal years of the invasion.

The lawyer and the featherworker were soon on a comfortable footing, since both were of noble birth, both had been part of imperial courts in their youth, both had remained—over the 12 most confusing years that their two vast and ancient cultures had known in who knows how many centuries—in the unusual situation of actually being free.

Vasco de Quiroga had no reason to return to Spain and was greatly excited by the idea of building a society on rational principles. The Indian had nowhere to go back to, but he had managed to find a relatively secure and comfortable spot for himself after years of darkness, misery, and fear. His aristocratic rank was respected and his work was so admired that most of the pieces made in his shop were sent immediately to adorn palaces and cathedrals in Spain, Germany, Flanders, and the duchy of Milan.

Unlike most Mexicans, Don Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin did know what this meant: He had been to Europe. He belonged to the select group of highborn artists who were received by the Holy Roman Emperor on Cortés’s first trip back to Spain, and he knew very well that the new lords of Mexico might be eaters of sausage made from the blood of pigs, but they were also capable of rising far above their barbaric ways when it came to building palaces, painting canvases, cooking animals, or—and this impressed him most of all—making shoes.

From the moment that the ship he had been obliged to board (though not herded onto like cattle) sailed out of sight of American lands, Huanitzin realized that in order to survive his new circumstances he would have to learn Spanish. By the time they arrived in Seville, after stops in Cuba and the Canary Islands, he was attempting polite phrases in the language of the conquistadors and was able to say that he and his son would be happy to make a heavy cloak of white feathers for His Majesty: The sailors had told him that Spain was known for being cold.

Cortés loved the idea of the featherworker and his son making a small demonstration of their art in court—he himself had a spectacular feather mantle on his bed at his house in Coyoacán showing the birth of water in springs and its death as rain—and he immediately gave Huanitzin favored status among his entourage. Not only did the featherworker speak Spanish—terrible Spanish, but he could make himself understood—he was the only one who seemed to show any interest in taking stock of his new circumstances.

Once in Toledo, the conquistador arranged for a workshop to be set up next to the palace stables and negotiated unrestricted access to the kitchen, where the preparation of ducks, geese, and hens afforded Huanitzin a sufficient supply of feathers to make a cape for an emperor who, the featherworker was beginning to understand, had defeated the Aztec emperor because he was infinitely more powerful, even though he lived in a dark, drab, and icy city.

After setting him up in his new shop and providing him with satin, glue, paints, brushes, tools, and the assistance of the royal cooks, Cortés asked Huanitzin what else he needed in order to pay tribute to the emperor. Shoes, he replied. What kind, asked the conquistador, imagining that he must be cold and want woolen slippers. Like yours, said Huanitzin—who, being an Aztec noble and a featherworker, considered a provincial squire turned soldier to be of a class beneath his. With cockles. Cockles? asked Cortés. The Indian pointed to the captain’s instep, festooned with a golden buckle and inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Buckles, said the conquistador; shoes with buckles. That’s it.

Naturally, Cortés didn’t buy Huanitzin a pair of shoes stitched with silver thread like his—not only were they monstrously expensive, walking in them was like squeezing one’s toes into a pair of flatirons—but he did buy him good high-heeled boots with tin buckles, and along with them a pair of stockings, a few white shirts, and a pair of black breeches intended for some nobleman’s son that fit the featherworker like a dream.

The Indian accepted the garments as if they were his due—without paying them much attention or thanking him for them—and made one last request of the conquistador before getting to work: Could you also find me some mushrooms? Mushrooms? To see mellifluous things while I’m worrying the king’s drape. It’s called a royal cape, a capón real. I thought that a capon was a bird with its burls cut off. Balls. Not balls, it’s mushrooms I want. Here they would burn us both if they discovered you drunk on mushrooms. I’d hardly be dunked in them, it’s not as if they’re a pond. There are none in Spain. Well then, the royal capón won’t be as mellifluous.

Huanitzin liked his new clothes, though he didn’t think them fitting for a master featherworker who was once again on the grounds of an emperor’s palace, so he used his first Spanish goose feathers to embroider one of the shirts—the one he wore on special occasions—with pineapples that he imagined were the equivalent of the Flanders lions he’d seen worked in gold on Charles V’s cloak. The breeches were sewn down the side seams with bands of white feathers, turning him into a first wild glimpse of mariachi singers to come. The cooks spoiled this tiny man, who inspected their birds’ scrawny necks and armpits in a getup like a saint on parade. When he decided that a fowl was worthy of being plucked, he kneeled over it, took a pair of tiny tweezers from his sash, blew the hair out of his eyes, and defeathered the part of the bird that interested him with maddening care—the cooks knew by now that once he chose a specimen it would have to be moved to the dinner menu because there was no way he’d be done with it before lunch. Hours later, he would return happily to his shop, generally with a harvest of feathers so modest that it hardly filled a soup plate. Sometimes he looked over the birds and found none to be of interest—there was no way to predict which he would judge worthy material for the king’s cape. Other times it happened that there would be no birds cooked that day. When this was the case he still lingered in the kitchen, leaning on the wall so as not to be in the way. He admired the size of the chunks of animal moving on and off the hearth. What is that, he asked every so often. Calf’s liver. He would return to his shop to tell his son that the king was to eat castle adder that night. But what is it? Must be a fat snake that lives in ruined towers, he explained in Nahuatl.


‘The Hypnotic Clamor of Morocco’

Adam Shatz in the New York Review of Books

Years before writing The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles was making sound recordings of traditional music in Morocco. Writing for the New York Review of Books, Adam Shatz tells the story of what happened to those sounds:

In 1931, a twenty-one-year-old American composer in Paris named Paul Bowles visited Morocco at the suggestion of Gertrude Stein. His travel companion was his composition teacher, Aaron Copland. They rented a home in Tangier, where Bowles, a composer of svelte, jazzy music in the Poulenc mould, wrote one of his first scores, an impressionistic piano piece called “Tamamar,” after a village in the Atlas mountains. Copland was unsettled by the clamor of drums during wedding season, and thought Tangier a “madhouse,” but Bowles was enraptured. He collected 78s of local music, just as he had collected old blues recordings back home, and sent copies to Béla Bartók. “When I first heard Arabic music on records,” he recalled later, “I determined to go and live where I could be surrounded by sounds like those, because there seemed to be very little else one could ask for in life.”

By the time Bowles finally moved to Tangier, with his wife, the writer Jane Bowles, in 1947, he had refashioned himself as a novelist, and was busy writing The Sheltering Sky, the tale of American expatriates in Morocco that remains his best-known work. Yet it was in large part the music of Morocco that led him to make his life there. A decade later, on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Bowles travelled throughout Morocco, recording traditional music of a startling variety—Berber, Arabic, Andalusian, and Jewish—for the Library of Congress. For years known mostly to specialists, the recordings from that remarkable project have now been re-edited and re-released in a meticulously prepared box set by Dust to DigitalMusic of Morocco.

Morocco was rich in hypnotic sounds, and in his novels Bowles described them with a composer’s precision. In Let It Come Down (1952), he recreated a scene he had witnessed at a concert in Chefchaouen, where a man went into a trance, slashing his arms with a long knife and covering himself in blood, as he danced in “perfect rhythm with the increasing hysteria of the drums and the low cracked voice of the flute.” John Stenham, the hero of The Spider’s House (1955), imagines that he can find his way blindfolded through the old city of Fez merely by listening to the sounds of footsteps and water:

taut, metallic reverberations…shuddered between the walls like musical pistol shots. There were places where his footfalls were almost silent, places where the sound was strong, single, and compact, died straightaway, or where, as he advanced along the deserted galleries, each succeeding step produced a sound of an imperceptibly higher pitch, so that his passage was like a finely graded ascending scale, until all at once a jutting wall or a sudden tunnel dispersed the pattern and began another section in the long nocturne which in turn would disclose its own design.

As Bowles saw it, Morocco’s sounds were forms of experience that had yet to be contaminated by Western influence. In his 1981 preface to The Spider’s House, Bowles explained that he had naively “imagined that after Independence the old manner of life would be resumed and the country would return to being more or less what it had been before the French presence.” To his horror, the Moroccan government embarked on modernization “with even greater speed” than the French. The Music of Morocco, a double LP featuring twenty-two selections of his recordings, was his attempt to preserve Morocco’s heritage before its inevitable dissolution: “a fight against time and the deculturizing activities of political enthusiasts,” as he wrote in his grant proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation.

To listen to Music of Morocco is to experience the shock of the old: a ritualistic art that casts a spell through repeated, cyclical patterns, rather than the harmonic development typical of Western music. The first track—a Berber dance piece known as an ahmeilou, performed by Maallem Ahmed and his ensemble—immediately throws the listener into a world where music is supremely social. Five of the thirteen men are playing small drums that sound somewhat dry because they were heated before the performance; the other men are clapping. The tempo gradually quickens, the polyrhythms assuming an insistent force as some of the men cry with pleasure. Music of Morocco features a range of singing styles—ululation, ecstatic wailing, drone-like riffs, even a kind of Arabic sprechstimme—as well as an array of indigenous instruments, including the gnbri, an Arabic lute; the kamenja, a violin played in the manner of a viola da gamba; and the rhaita, a reed whose sonorous, almost chewy tonality is somewhere between an oboe and a bagpipe. But the foundation of the music here is percussion. It can be a highly intricate affair, performed by virtuosic drummers, but it can also be as homespun as a brass tea tray being struck by two teaspoons.

In “Hadouk Khail,” a stunning example of the haouziya genre, we hear a group of singers—three women and one man—for nearly thirteen minutes, often in call and response, accompanied by the drone of two kamenjas and a variety of small percussion instruments. The singers repeat their lamentation—the haouziya was famous for expressing despair—but because no drum is struck twice in succession, the performance has an entrancing stop-start quality, a feeling of eternal return, until the final moments, when the drumming accelerates and the singers cry in unison. Bowles wrote in his field notes that “ecstatic expressions” appeared on “the faces of those singing and playing it,” adding that “the performers seemed finally able to reach some unnamable state which the music strives to induce in the group-psyche of those performing it.”

When the Library of Congress released Bowles’s recordings in 1972, only a few hundred copies were printed. One of its early admirers was an aspiring young ethnomusicologist, Philip D. Schuyler, who struck up a friendship with Bowles in Tangier. When Bowles was contacted in the mid-1990s by Bill Nowlin, a co-founder of Rounder Records, about reissuing Music of Morocco, he encouraged Nowlin to talk to Schuyler. As Schuyler immersed himself in the sixty hours of recordings, he decided that Bowles had chosen the best-recorded examples from the sessions, but that in his effort to be encyclopedic he had made misleading cuts, prising excerpts he fancied from longer performances. Schuyler proposed to restore those pieces to their original form, and to include eight additional tracks, roughly doubling the length of the album. In June 1999, he flew to Tangier with a mock-up of the re-release and played his cassettes for Bowles. “He was very frail and nearly blind,” Schuyler told me, but “he was gracious to the end.” A few weeks later he faxed his approval. Bowles died in November of that year, at eighty-eight.

It took another seventeen years for Schuyler to complete the project. As Schuyler told me: “I was having trouble satisfying all the people I thought should be given a fair hearing in the notes—Bowles and the Bowlesians, my colleagues in academia, and Moroccan musicians.” It was worth the wait. Music of Morocco includes not only four hours of arresting music, but a revelatory 120-page booklet, which features a preface by Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth and Schuyler’s erudite overview. Each of the thirty tracks is annotated by three “streams” of text—Bowles’s original liner notes; additional writings by Bowles about his trip; and Schuyler’s commentaries. Throughout the booklet, Schuyler provides a tactful, often witty corrective to Bowles’s assumptions about “primitive” music (a word he used as a term of praise), and to Bowles’s own account of how he made his recordings. Yet Schuyler also defends Bowles against those who have dismissed him as a condescending expatriate, or Orientalist parasite.

Bowles set off on his first recording expedition in mid-July 1959 in a Volkswagen Beetle that belonged to a Canadian expatriate friend, Christopher Wanklyn. He was forty-eight years old, and was making his living as a travel writer, having recently published The Spider’s House, which turned out to be his last novel set in Morocco. His two companions were Wanklyn and a Moroccan assistant, Mohamed Larbi Djilali. Over the next five months, they took four separate trips—covering a distance Bowles estimated at 25,000 miles—returning to Tangier for a few days after each journey so that Bowles could check in on his wife, who was ill. Bowles recorded 250 pieces of music, in twenty-two separate locations, with an unwieldy twenty-eight-pound Ampex 601 tape recorder. “He did it as a marathon,” Schuyler told me. “Bowles like to project this lackadaisical manner but he really worked hard, and he had to have this finished by December 31, under the terms of his grant.”

The logistical difficulties were not small. He spoke French and passable Arabic but no other indigenous languages. Bowles often had to transport musicians to towns along the main road where there was electricity—in one case to a military base. He arrived in the town of Aït Ourir, east of Marrakech, with thirty-two loaves of sugar—one for each of the musicians, an arrangement he had made with the caïd, the local notable who organized the recording—only to discover that a dozen musicians had been added to the ensemble. (The caïd solved the problem by taking all the sugar for himself and dividing it later.) While traveling through the Anti-Atlas mountains, Bowles and his companions were caught in a sandstorm that disabled their car for several days. Then there was the journey through the Rif mountains, along the eastern border with Algeria, where nationalist rebels were fighting the French army. Bowles wrote in his diary: “I don’t relish being ambushed by dissident troops in the Rif or along the Algerian frontier.”




Counternarratives by John Keene

Today is the publication day of John Keene’s CounternarrativesIn honour of this, here is an extract from one of his short stories included in our edition:


Scream I holler to Horatio’s, Nimrod’s and Rosaline’s laughter, then they’re asking me to tell it to them again, though I plead how at this age I can’t hardly even remember my name. Horatio says, “Red, come on, just one more time cause you ain’t fooling us,” and I start with how it began six months before all that happened, round the middle of May, 1861, when I showed up for my job as a steward at the final Saturday of the spring lecture series at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. I had spent that morning toiling under my regular boss, Dameron, helping prepare for a grand dinner party he was catering for a Mr. Albert Linde, president of the Philadelphia Equitable Mutual Insurance Company, and was glancing up at the wall clock so often I nearly cut my thumbs off dicing rhubarbs. Dameron couldn’t afford an accident so he switched me over to kneading the bread and pie doughs, then had me stir the turtle soup stock. Finally he released me a little early with the promise that I’d be back promptly, at four o’clock. Dameron didn’t gainsay me earning a little extra from my side job, but he also had warned me more than once about my tardiness. Although I was no great cook, hated being in kitchens and hated even more ordering anyone around, catering was going be my profession, cause as my daddy used to say, “Anybody can cook a bad meal for theyself but rich folks always welcome help to eat well.”

I ran the eight blocks from Dameron’s to Orators Hall on Broad, where the Academy held its Saturday talks, and almost as soon as I slipped in the back door, I heard Kerney, the head of stewards, ringing his bell, calling us to order because the lecture was about to begin. I was completely out of breath but I immediately shucked off my dingy gingham trousers and brown cooking smock, and crammed myself into my uniform, which had belonged to Old Gabriel Tinsley till he came down stricken on Christmas the year before. The Prussian blue kersey waistcoat and trousers, still carrying his regular scent of wet cinders, were almost too tight on my thighs and backside. I mopped the sweat off my brow, knotted my gray cravat from memory, cause there wasn’t a mirror in the stewards’ dressing room, and hurried out to the main hall.

All of the other stewards, including my older brother Jonathan, were already finishing up their tasks, gliding between the reception room and the main hall. They had emptied and polished the brass bowls of the standing ashtrays, transferred the Amontillado sherry from the glass decanters into the miniature crystal glasses, and brushed the last specks of lint from the main ­serving table’s emerald baize cover. Jonathan nodded to me as several of the stewards began ushering the guests from the alcove to their seats, but I didn’t see Kerney though I had certainly heard that bell. Several gentlemen, members of the Academy and their guests, entered the hall and as I attempted to head over to guide each to one of the other stewards who would be seating them, I felt ­fingers winching round my forearm, like the claws of an ancient bird the Academy would probably exhibit, and sour breath warming my ear: “Boy, if you had walked through that door there even a second later I would thrown you out in the street myself! Late one more time and there won’t be no damn next time.”

I turned to see Kerney fixing me with his red-eyed stare. I could smell he had been tasting, or how he liked to say testing, the sherry, and probably had been tallying every second on the main hall clock’s little hand past the time I was supposed to walk through that door. I eased myself out his grip, his crisped apple face tracking me across the room, and took care not to look in his direction. Soon as I reached my assigned spot Dr. Cassin, the president of the Academy, Dr. Cresson, who ran the Franklin Institute, and the afternoon’s speaker, ­another professor I recalled from a prior lecture, took their seats, the customary hush settled over the room, and the five other stewards and I assumed our places. Shoulder to shoulder we lined up, erect as a row of tin soldiers, facing the lecture hall’s high, windowless, crimson wall. Stock still, thighs against the table edge, chins up, our white cotton-gloved right hands palm-down over the lowest button of our waistcoats, we were so quiet you could forget we were there.

In the front row next to Dr. Cassin, Dr. Cresson, the speaker, and the other Academy dignitaries sat as always almost completely out of my sight. The most recently hired of the crew, I had started only at the beginning of this year’s spring series, in February, through Jonathan’s intercession on my behalf with Kerney, and so I stood last in the row and farthest from the front of the room, though I could spot the dais and lectern. This month’s crowd was noticeably larger than in April. Thirty-six white gentlemen in the room I calculated, from the furthestmost chair in the front row to the nearest one in the last, whereas at the meeting the month before, which had unfortunately fallen on the same weekend as the ­attack on the South Carolina fort, starting the war, only twenty members and their guests showed up to hear the speaker, Professor Benjamin Peirce of Harvard. He had delivered a talk on his discovery that the rings of Saturn were not solid and how he had proved the other researchers wrong, and even if I had not learned enough mathematics or natural science at the Institute to follow him, I enjoyed his lecture, despite his talking so fast that he lullabied most of the audience to sleep.

Afterward as I brought my sherry tray around I passed by Professor Peirce talking to City Councilor Mr. Trego and Dr. Leidy, both members of the Academy; a guest I didn’t know; and Mr. Peter Robins, the son, not his father who ran the bank. As soon as he saw me young Mr. Robins started up the same “game” he had initiated every month since I had worked there, saying to his party, “I think Theodore here pays as much attention as we do,” as if he was expecting me to say something in reply, but I smiled and instead lifted the tray of sherry glasses higher. Mr. Councilor Trego looked around the room, Dr. Leidy whispered something to his guest, while the Harvard professor was looking at me all quizzically, then Mr. Peter Robins again said, “Theodore always pays close attention, don’t you, he’s a very sharp boy,” and I responded with another smile since I noted Kerney’s glares. Professor Peirce turned to the three white men and said very rapidly as he combed his fingers through his gray beard, “Certainly my ­lectures can be a bit dense even for those who have had the benefit of reading them in advance, and my ­astronomical work and other proofs provoke particular challenges,” to which Mr. Robins said, “Theodore, tell our distinguished guest one of the things you heard him speak about today.” At that moment Kerney I could see was turning red as tenderloin and looking like he was about to come slap me if I opened my mouth.

Before Mr. Robins, also reddening in the cheeks, could repeat his request I said, “Well, Sir, the ­professor was talking about the universality of physical laws and the uniformity with spiritual law too, and said at one point that every part of the universe have—has—the same laws of mechanical action as you find in the ­human mind.” Mr. Robins grinned and patted me on the head, and Mr. Councilor Trego and Dr. Leidy nodded approvingly, though Professor Peirce continued to stare at me like I was a puzzle. To break the silence I said, “May I take you gentlemen’s glasses?” After they turned to walk away young Mr. Robins pulled out some coins and placed them in my hand, saying, “A special tip for your far more amusing contribution to our series.” When he caught up to Professor Peirce, who had joined another nearby group, the Professor once again spoke, his words gushing forth, “Isn’t that an articulate and clever little. . . .”

Not that I can truly recall everything unless I am paying attention, and my mother was always warning me about allowing my memory or the past to overmaster me, let things go she would say, just like she would admonish me not to let my mind fly too far, too fast into such things, lest I couldn’t bring it back down to earth, because, as she was fond of saying and my father was too, “Outside the most exalted leaders of our race what sort of life you think there is for us if our heads stay too far up in them clouds?” and if anything has to do with the clouds it’s mathematics and astronomy and so forth, which unlike history or literature I had never disliked, and I wasn’t too bad at figures, plus if you think about it, even I could see from all the preaching I had to sit through that the cloud talk also had to do with religion, which is what I also think Professor Peirce was saying but I couldn’t tell nobody there that, all they were trying to do at those lectures was figure out how things of this world and the next one worked but also to see if, outside of a church, they could reason Him out, and thinking about that reminded me of how when I was little I used to like to spend my Saturday afternoons reading about science and strange places and looking at the maps at the Free Library, which we too were allowed to visit, and I will never forget seeing a book on display there by Mr. Audubon, about whom Dr. Cassin, who was also a famous ornithologist, gave the lecture the month before Professor Pierce’s.



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