Oleg Woolf - Reminiscent of Bruno Schulz, a vivid, surreal evocation of a liminal world. The characters follow the trajectories of elementary particles, disappearing in one dimension only to reappear in another.”

Oleg Woolf, Bessarabian Stamps: Stories, Trans.

by Boris Dralyuk, Phoneme Media, 2015.

Reminiscent of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, Oleg Woolf’s Bessarabian Stamps — a cycle of 16 stories set mostly in the village of Sanduleni — is a vivid, surreal evocation of a liminal world. Sanduleni’s denizens are in permanent flux, forever shifting languages, cultures, and states (in every sense of the word). Woolf has relocated magical realism to Moldova. With the turmoil in current Russia and the post-Soviet world, Bessarabian Stamps emphasizes the absurdity of the mundane.

Imagine a novel, written as a series of vignettes, where thirty-three characters come to life over the course of sixteen chapters. Not so out of the ordinary? It’s only eighty-five pages long.

Bessarabian Stamps, written by the late Oleg Woolf (1954 – 2011), a Russian born in a former shtetl in Moldova, and translated by Boris Dralyuk, is a kind of tiny miracle. Set in the fictional Central European town of Sanduleni, each vignette/chapter is a vivid, postage-stamp-sized stage upon which characters appear, disappear, and reappear, escorted off finally by the author via a portal called “entry zero.” Among the cast are Feodasi, the village clairvoyant, who is “carefully reading and rereading an old book on the role of birds in Odessan seafaring;” Mariuta Dumbrava, wife of Julian Florescu, whose fatal beauty “was more akin to fate than to the random bullet which shattered the Union’s window and struck the water pitcher placed before her grandfather thirty years ago by a cloakroom attendant;” and Ivan Markov, “an unfettered Gypsy scribe who has penned two or three grandiose abandoned volumes on love.” Each character seems to come with his or her own trail of Woolf-esque language that begins in one place and ends in quite another:

A conversation between a man and a woman is a conspiracy of rich men at midnight. Day begins with a man extending his hand to another, and a woman—to another woman.

[…] they were looking at each other so intently, ad infinitum, that their heads began to spin—until they saw the vague contours of their fates emerge, like the corners of their lips in the darkness.

Despite being set in the named town of Sanduleni, this extraordinarily economical book is never tethered to any one place or time. Place, space, and time, are in fact elusive. This mutability may have been encoded in Woolf’s psyche through his experiences on geophysical expeditions: trained as a physicist, he had participated in projects led by the Institute of Earth Physics throughout the former Soviet Union. In fact, the penultimate chapter of the book, “Thirteen Billion Years Since Speed-of-Light Day,” seems to address particular landscape features:

“Entry zero’s somewhere around here, that’s already clear,” the girl Efrosina suddenly said. “There have always been limestone boulders, here. The whole place is pitted with abandoned mine shafts. Two of them lead to a monastery. The other—zero speed. Everyone knows that.”

“All in a land align along a line. That’s all we know of the world and of ourselves,” said the philosopher Gogeni.

I had a lot of ideas about this tiny book, and was especially curious about “entry zero.” So I contacted Woolf’s translator, Boris Dralyuk, and Woolf’s widow, Irina Mashinski, about how “entry zero” might relate to Woolf’s concept of time/space. I wondered whether the movements of the characters through the vignettes toward this point were a nod to (or a recapitulation of) the motion of matter through time and space.

“In the last year of his life,” Dralyuk and Mashinski said in an email, “Oleg was very interested in [Russian mathematician] Grigory Perelman’s work on the Poincaré conjecture. According to Henri Poincaré [19th century French theoretical physicist and mathematician], the theorem concerns a space that looks like ordinary three-dimensional space but is connected, finite in size, and lacks any boundary (a closed 3-manifold). These ideas are very close to the world of Bessarabian Stamps: topology and its connection to continuous deformation, convergence, continuity, and the whole concept of a manifold … In Bessarabian Stamps, the characters follow the trajectories of elementary particles, disappearing in one dimension only to reappear in another.”

Like a black hole? I wondered.

“‘Entry zero’ is one of the warped passages of the universe, and of memory. It is also the wormhole of creation, the tunnel between the creator and his characters; in the end, Oleg’s characters return into the literary “clay” of pre-creation. There are infinitely many other projections of the same memory, of the same soul’s experience. That is why there are so many stars in Bessarabian Stamps. The characters are recyclable, like star matter.”

Mashinksi extended the connection to the act of translation itself:

In one of his first letters to Boris, Oleg used a term borrowed from physics: “resetting”—[in Russian] perezagruzka: the system changes because the witness (i.e. translator) becomes a part of it.

To me, there was also a feeling of accretion/accumulation as the characters appear, reappear, and disappear again. This “action” reminded me of the tell settlements of Old Europe, specifically the Cucuteni-Tripol’ye culture (roughly fifth to third millennia BCE) that grew up where present-day Moldova is. In those tells, people lived in the same place as their ancestors and built huge mounds with the remains of torn down and rebuilt houses and old household goods—an accretion/accumulation of histories, objects, stories, and energies. I asked Mashinski and Dralyuk if Woolf had ever embedded any archeological ideas in his these characters, and the village of Sanduleni.

“As far as I know, the connection is indirect, but—in some mysterious way—it must be there! The world of Bessarabian Stamps, and of literature itself, is like the alluvium of a river that flows in the same valley for millions of years. But Oleg’s book is not anchored in the region in which it is set any more than it is in any other place on Earth. As Oleg says in one of the Stamps, “Writing is finding the general in the unique, not the other way around.”

In this fantastic little book, even the archangel Gabriel has a say about life’s minutiae, and the mystery of existence:

What need have you of desires […] ? Don’t be clever with me. This isn’t a desire, but a stamp, a mark, a scar on the heart […] Much of what can be is not, and will never be. - Sharon Mesmer


The poetic proclivity of Moldovan-born Oleg Woolf is everywhere present in his Bessarabian Stamps, a prose work written in a lyrical style, unrestrained in its use of alliteration and allegory (see WLT, Nov. 2011, 52). The book consists of sixteen darkly whimsical “stamps” (most of which are nearly short enough to fit on the back of a postcard) that feel more akin to fables than short stories, each one joined to the next through common characters and thematic concerns rather than storyline or chronology.

While the colorful residents of the Moldovan village of Sănduleni are central to these stories, each remains largely inscrutable. In lieu of standard character development, Woolf details their superficial traits—physical features, occupations, and habits. The clairvoyant Feodasi, with eyes each a different shade of blue, is consulted for advice “as a soothsayer, interpreter, and miracle worker . . . or just in case.” Day after day he sits under a plum tree rereading a treatise on the role of birds in Odessan seafaring. Like the other villagers, Feodasi’s thoughts and feelings remain intentionally obscured, which makes reading Bessarabian Stamps a bit like viewing the negative of a photograph—the negative’s inverted exposure obscures those very parts of the image that would facilitate recognition and understanding of it.

There is an uninhibited joy in Woolf’s writing, and translator Boris Dralyuk impresses with his ability to capture this quality in translation. Invented words are playfully scattered about: “morning’s morninger than evening; . . . . details were separated from the happenchaff along with the wheat”; as are sensory-laden descriptions: stars that “burst, crunched, and crackled over Sănduleni, like a barrel of fermented cucumbers”; and a tempestuous bride who is “like an apple orchard in a May thunderstorm.” Woolf cleverly pairs opposing concepts to convey ironies that are absurd and at the same time hold traces of meaning: “Ever since he grew fat, he’s lost a little weight, and when we meet him, he might tell us that the ailment’s primary symptom is death; and, [t]he firstborn had entered the world so old that knowledgeable people, shaking their heads, tried to reassure her: nothing to it, they said, he’ll fall right into childhood as he ages.” Woolf’s alchemy with words compels rereading to better appreciate his intentional nuances, and I succumbed to it by reading the book straight through a second time as soon as I finished it.

Bessarabian Stamps is not all whimsy and lightness. The cruel, arbitrary grip of fate, which takes the form of a metaphorical, northbound train that transports the villagers into the next world, casts a shadow on Sănduleni. Only Feodasi is immune: “They say a sage has no fate, but the average person receives one along with a name. . . . Feodasi had no fate. His own father couldn’t surmise the meaning of his mysterious name.” As for the fate of Feodasi’s neighbors, only these “stamps” of their lives remain, posted at Sănduleni’s single mailbox and collected in the darkest hours of the night by a guy on a bicycle. - Lori Feathers


Oleg Woolf was born in 1954 in Moldova, and passed away in 2011 in the United States. A physicist by training, he spent a number of years on geophysical expeditions throughout the former Soviet Union. Along with his wife, Irina Mashinski, he was the founder and editor of the bilingual press Stosvet and its journal Cardinal Points.


Rä di Martino takes the viewer into a suspended and indefinite time, an unspecified and unreferenced space, portraying fictional characters, homeless people of the future and small bewildered divinities immersed in both real and virtual landscapes.

Afterall (A Space Mambo) | NERO Editions

Rä di Martino, Afterall (A Space Mambo), Nero 

Editions, 2020.


A deserted landscape and a sky without atmosphere, a world inhabited by either small communities or isolated hermits, the only survivors of an environmental disaster. Objects, images and sounds of the past have become the symbols by which new tribes identify themselves. In Afterall, Rä di Martino takes the viewer into a suspended and indefinite time, an unspecified and unreferenced space, portraying fictional characters, homeless people of the future and small bewildered divinities immersed in both real and virtual landscapes.

The book can be imagined as a single long film shot that brings to life an overall disharmony, containing and revealing the imaginary landscapes built which the artists have constructed. The images are accompanied by a sci-fi novel by the American fiction writer Catherine M. Valente.

Afterall is a project by the artist Rä Di Martino, winner of the 4th Edition of ‘Italian Council’ (2018), a competition organized by the Directorate General for Contemporary Art and Architecture and Urban Peripheries (DGAAP).

AFTERALL ( a space mambo) – Alessandro Chiodo


Pergentino José - Magical realism meets Greek mythology in this collection of short stories spun as folk tales

Amazon.com: Red Ants (9781646050192): Pergentino, José, Bunstead, Thomas:  Books
Pergentino José, Red Ants, Trans. by Thomas Bunstead, Bilingual ed., Deep Vellum, 2020.

A literary triumph by one of Mexico's most promising young authors, Red Ants is the first ever literary translation into English from the Sierra Zapotec. This vibrant collection of short stories by Pergentino José updates magical realism for the 21st century. Red Ants paints a candid picture of indigenous Mexican life -- an essential counterpoint to cultural products of the colonial gaze. José's fantastical stories tackle themes of family, love, and independence in his signature style: unapologetically personal, coolly emotional, and always surprising. 

"José is a rising star in Mexican literature, and this collection of short fiction, which examines indigenous life in the U.S.’s southern neighbor through the lens of a contemporary magic realism, should only further his acclaim. Veteran Spanish translator Bunstead... takes José’s clean, punchy lines and makes them sing―and stick with you." ―John Maher, Publishers Weekly

"Undoubted resonances of the stories of Kafka and Rulfo." ––Leonardo Videla

"A set of short stories in which the peculiarity and the fantasy of Zapotec popular legends are brought to life by the imaginative and powerful pen of a great author in the making – what is perhaps a true breath of fresh and original air that does our national literature much good." – Mónica Maristain, Sin Embargo

"These stories are situated within an imaginary (of Pergentino José's making) that is consistent from one story to the next… but it is an imaginary that is not reflected in the rest of Mexican literature. This collection is poised to become a new and encouraging contribution." – Alantl Molina, Marvin Magazine

In many ways, the term magical realism seems to be the literary equivalent of “here be dragons”—a catchall for an understanding of the universe and an experience with reality that North Americans and Europeans simply don’t have the cultural context for. I’ll admit that this collection of short stories was a challenge for me as someone who has always struggled with magical realism: not the genre itself, but the academic and critical discussions of it.

What I think magical realism requires, and what the stories in Red Ants encourage, is something far more mentally taxing than rationalization. It requires the reader to suspend disbelief, to take the author at his word and get utterly lost in a complex new world, held together by the poetic. This is not a book to approach with suspicion or attempts at interpretation; rather it requires a state of inquisitive wonder, and an acceptance that just because something doesn’t make sense, does not mean it isn’t real.

Magical realism represents a way of seeing the world in which the unexplainable and incomprehensible are embraced. Stone and moss and dirt and insects shape and fill the stories’ spaces, but even these physicalities are unreliable. Stone turns to dust and blows away; steam buries a man like earth. The very nature of things, like time, is questioned. The schizophrenic timeline and multitudinous existence of characters in some stories proved challenging to follow; in one, the narrator is searching desperately for a friend, but in the next sentence, the friend is speaking. Is this memory? Is this resolution? Is this the friend’s reality? In other instances, characters encounter duplicates of themselves, with seemingly no line or logic between the sacred and the mundane.

These stories are teeming with life and crawling with movement. They are, like magical realism itself, the articulation of a lived experience that is inexplicable without the fantastic. In the titular story, coffee pickers are like ants, trundling back and forth: “. . . the red ants go on working. So busy, nothing else registers with them.” A similar image is seen by the urban dweller looking through the sights of his rifle, aimed at the throng of early morning commuters in the story “Departure”: “I look at the clock on the wall. 7:09 a.m. People crowd along the sidewalk. So many lives out there, getting up, going out, hurrying down a street. A simple detail that, to me, seems magical.”

Thomas Bunstead’s translation is lyrical and poetic despite José’s short punchy sentences, and certain stories, like “Heart of Birds,” retain a King James biblical quality. The language is full of life, alliterations, patterns, rhythms.

The collection is held together by consistent themes and a nocturnal atmosphere. Most of the stories are dark and damp and claustrophobic; the images they conjure up are black and white, lit by moon or candle light, populated by silhouettes. A number of the stories take place in subterranean tunnels or foggy paths, but even in the ones featuring broad daylight there is a murkiness—as one character in “Heart of Birds” says, “I move forward as though inside a dark room, though the sun streams down still.”

Loss is one dominating theme. In many of these stories there is a search for someone missing: men waiting for women, women looking for children, kids whose parents have disappeared. Some seem to have been kidnapped, or are under the threat of it. In “Threads of Steam,” the protagonist is himself a professional kidnapper tragically contemplating the memory of his mother. These stories are inhabited by people who are lost in every sense of the word; sometimes, they don’t even seem real at all, at least not to the natural world. “The people here cast no shadows,” she says, “and their footsteps make no sound.” (“Red Ants”).

Another theme that appears in several of these stories is an unnamed sickness that, though it seems to be killing people in and around the characters’ communities, is talked about with a cool nonchalance. Despite this, and all the other occurrences of the uncanny, their realities do not faze the characters. As the stories unfold, it seems that these are not strange occurrences. They are normal, and the inhabitants’ responses are simply matter-of -fact.

There’s also a palpable sense of weariness in many of these characters—not resignation, mind you, they are still strong, still themselves, but worn and weathered. None of them have much in the way of physical characteristics (facial features go undescribed), but their words and conversations convey that they are hemmed in by their surroundings. Even their mental escapes are under siege. As a passage from “Room of Worms” describes:

You’re not free yet. You’re still a very fearful person, and those fears manifest in the people around you. All you can do is listen to that terrible sound of the machete and watch as they burn down the bamboo forest. They sense this when you approach, and they act accordingly. I know what you’re thinking. You heard the bridge of dreams breaking, somewhere.” She is quiet for a few moments. Then, in a steady voice, she says: “Nza nja mend tub do nit to? Can you hold back the sea? The bridge of dreams broke, but this world does not belong to you.”

About halfway through the collection, the stories shift in tone. There is more light, more fauna, and more urbanity. Violence and the imagery of blood begin to appear more regularly. The language shifts from recognizable dialogue, to biblical proclamations, to poetic narration, and back again.

I will fully admit that there were some stories in this collection that lost me completely, with language so prophetic that I, a heathen in this narrative world, simply couldn’t track. But isn’t that the real joy of reading translated literature? As the first literary translation into English from Sierra Zapotec, this effect is compounded. Not only are we, as English readers, getting a unique articulation of a lived experience from a world away, we are also sharing in the very first glimpse of how a language—unknown to the vast majority of us—builds and articulates a world inhabited by thousands of its speakers. It is moments like these when my reservations about elucidative readings and academic critiques feel most justified. With Red Ants, the best thing for the foreign reader to do is listen and take the author at his word.

Gabriel García Márquez, the godfather of magical realism, famously detested the moniker and the academics that were constantly reading all sorts of new meanings into his work, writing in El Pais in 1981 that “the interpretive mania eventually ends up being a new form of fiction that sometimes gets stranded on a foolish remark.” As if what he originally wrote wasn’t true to begin with, wasn’t sufficiently full of meaning, or wasn’t meant to be anything other than what it was.

Reading Red Ants is a visceral experience, at once exhausting and exhilarating, captivating and confounding. But I implore you, do not overanalyze this book. Check your suspicions and theories at the door. To open this book with those preconceptions would break the spell. Instead, look, listen, and feel the universe conjured by these stories—that’s where the real magic is. - Samuel Miller


Magical realism meets Greek mythology in this collection of short stories spun as folk tales by Mexican writer Pergentino José from Oaxaca. Red Ants, the first published English translation from the Sierra Zapotec language, came out in Spanish eight years ago in Mexico.

Legends come alive through the imaginative pen of José, one of the Mexico20 authors selected by the Hay Festival in a 2015 project at the London Book Fair to highlight new young voices in Mexican literature.

While Red Ants is arguably a book that resounds far beyond Mexico, Pergentino José grounded it there for good reason. By constructing these stories initially in the Zapotec tone language (which has a large number of dialects and is spoken by only 400,000 people out of a world population of 7.8 billion), he paid homage to this indigenous pre-Columbian civilization of Oaxaca that was invaded by the Aztecs and decimated by the Spanish conquistadors.

That he framed this concept from so many disparate angles is fascinating. Not only did he delve into antiquity for myths, but he also suggested modern evolutionary biology studies of red ant behavior, such as slavemaking tendencies by which a certain species might create a larger workforce by snatching recruits from another.

Here are seventeen tales varying in length from two to fifteen pages, narrated in first person as if being passed down through oral memory. The emotions underlying these restrained portraits of indigenous life echo loudly José’s tacit themes of colonialism, family connections, and freedom. The author’s leitmotif of nature employs biomimicry as he gives marching orders to different creatures in each story, conscripting red ants, worms, butterflies, squirrels, beetles, fireflies, white vultures, moths, crows, moles, crane flies, bulls, or cockroaches.

While at times in folklore some of these can be symbols of death, at others they may be good omens. In Pergentino José’s tales, they can be both—destructive and benevolent. He encapsulates three types of characters in Zapotec society: “commoners, priests, and nobility.”

People wait for others who are missing. Characters try to find a way out when there is no exit. Handles turn to dust in worm-eaten doors. Plantation owners interact with those of lesser importance cutting down bamboo to grow coffee. Soldiers come to take people away. Some are in mountainside prison cells. Water flows in many stories. There’s a river with rapids.

Widespread sickness keeps recurring and the pox is mentioned. An artist paints bamboo and also depicts the border, with a wall “still not completely built.” Mushrooms produce visions during ancient rituals. People walk across bamboo bridges. One character says in Zapotec “the bridge of dreams is broken.” Are these waking dreams? Pox-fevered dreams? Hallucinogenic dreams? There are feelings of being pursued and a need to “stay hidden while walking.”

When a priestess loses her powers of vision after giving birth, she cannot bond with her baby so she turns into a mountain lion. While this story, “The Priestess on the Mountain,” explores the mother/daughter connection, it also brings to mind worker matricide of a colony’s queen by various ant, wasp, and bee societies. Ants march single file following a leader’s scent until, well, they rise up and do away with the commander.

The idea of ants as humans goes all the way back to the race of the Myrmidons in Greek mythology, when a plague sent by jealous Hera wiped out the inhabitants of Aegina—until Zeus turned the ants into humans. The island, named after the daughter of a river god, had cliffs surrounding it for protection. In Book 16 of Homer’s Iliad, Patroclus “wept warm tears like a dark spring running down some desolate rock face, its shaded currents flowing,” as he begged Achilles: ““Let the whole Myrmidon army follow my command.” In fact, there’s an entire ant subfamily whose name echoes the mythical Myrmidons: Myrmicinae (named by Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau in 1835).

Pergentino José’s scenes in Red Ants resonate with such age-old settings. Ants have long been part of folktales around the world, from Japan (“The Dream of Akinosuke”) and China (“The Ant and the Grasshopper,” adapted into a fable by Aesop) to various native tribes such as the Salish along Puget Sound (“The Story of Ant and Bear”) and the Hopi of the American Southwest (whose creation myth expresses how the Ant People saved them from destruction).

Pergentino José develops his ant images so broadly with figurative language the symbols cross borders, flying around the globe in implicit comparisons. Certainly the color red can symbolize many things, from blood shed during war to iconic military designations. The Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, later known by other names, began in both Russia and China.

Think, for example, of Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese poet unable to collect his Nobel Peace Prize because he was a political prisoner. He wrote about Tiananmen Square in June Fourth Elegies: Poems:

“Life is priceless

even to an ant”

The ant metaphor is also reminiscent of the children’s song “The Ants Go Marching,” which was set to an American Civil War melody “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” sung by both sides and based on old Irish folk tunes. The theme of ants trooping and people anxious for loved ones to return takes on poetic meaning in José’s stories, couched in such minimalistic sentences as: “Insects, protectors of the earth, shuffled along.”

Pergentino José himself perhaps summarizes his imaginative work the best when he writes: “The earth shakes when this many people are in pain.” The Zapotecs employed hieroglyphics to record their history, and José’s brief stories in a way resemble pictographs. At one point, he speaks of “the red ant and the way it frees the spirits of any person buried underground.”

In Red Ants, that’s just what Pergentino José has done—freed the spirits of his Zapotec ancestors.

- Lanie Tankard



Collected Voices in the Expanded Field - a collectively written novel composed of 34 unique voices from the expanded field. It doesn’t quite read like a collection of short stories but one, long loosely linked set of weirdness.

Collected Voices in the Expanded Field, 11:11 

Press, 2020.


Collected Voices in the Expanded Field is a collectively written novel composed of 34 unique voices from the expanded field.


Chapter One: Mike Corrao

Chapter Two: Grant Maierhofer

Chapter Three: B.R. Yeager

Chapter Four: Elisa Taber

Chapter Five: Garett Strickland

Chapter Six: Mónica Belevan

Chapter Seven: Germán Sierra

Chapter Eight: Judson Hamilton

Chapter Nine: Rosie Šnajdr

Chapter Ten: Tatiana Ryckman

Chapter Eleven: Joshua Rothes

Chapter Twelve: Ryan Napier

Chapter Thirteen: Joshua Young

Chapter Fourteen: Benjamin DeVos

Chapter Fifteen: A.S. Coomer

Chapter Sixteen: Nathan Dragon

Chapter Seventeen: James Tadd Adcox

Chapter Eighteen: Sean Kilpatrick

Chapter Nineteen: Garrett Dennert

Chapter Twenty: James Nulick

Chapter Twenty-One: Christina Tudor-Sideri

Chapter Twenty-Two: Ali Raz

Chapter Twenty-Three: Vincent James Perrone

Chapter Twenty-Four: Evan Isoline

Chapter Twenty-Five: David Leo Rice

Chapter Twenty-Six: Kenny Mooney

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Tyler Crumrine

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Arielle Tipa

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Gary J Shipley

Chapter Thirty: Adam Tedesco

Chapter Thirty-One: Mike Kleine

Chapter Thirty-Two: Jake Reber

Chapter Thirty-Three: Candice Wuehle

Chapter Thirty-Four: Andrew J. Wilt

Coordinated and designed by Mike Corrao, Collected Voices in the Expanded Field (11:11 Press, 2020) contains 34 chapters, each by a different author, all opening with the two 11-word lines, “You see a watering hole. Reprieve from the old dusty path.” Publisher Andrew Wilt compares and contrasts the book to the inexpensive compilations punk labels used to put out. It’s like them in that it’s a good way both for his 11:11 imprint to publish a bunch of authors at once and for readers to find them. It’s different in that though they all have books out, a lot of these authors are not published elsewhere by 11:11. Wilt and Corrao wanted to showcase members of “this weird writing scene” they’re a part of.

The book represents an experiment on several different levels. Outside of the launching lines, the chapters are set in conversation with the chapters around them. That is, this doesn’t quite read like a collection of short stories but one, long loosely linked set of weirdness. There are also whole chapters of script pages, word art, and glitchy layouts. The 34 voices here include Arielle Tipa, Evan Isoline, Candice Wuehle, Ali Raz, Sean Kilpatrick, Tatiane Ryckman, Jake Reber, Mike Kleine, Rosie Šnajdr, and my friends B.R. Yeager and Gary J. Shipley, as well as Wilt and Corrao themselves. It’s one hell of a line-up. - Roy Christopher



Sara Magenheimer - Narrative is always under construction. The preferred medium for X's peregrinations: a sentence, as capacious as a three-second video, a ten-year nap, or an unexplored hard drive. In this suspended world, X's sensorium is curious and alert, but also anguished, hesitant, and precarious

Beige Pursuit: Magenheimer, Sara: 9781732708631: Amazon.com: Books

Sara Magenheimer, Beige Pursuit, Wendy’s 

Subway, 2019.

but also anguished, hesitant, and precarious: she feels around for sympathetic energies and familiar faces along the way. Along what way? A book like a body might be a room for waiting, a machine for memory, a sensuous thing, an image quickly glimpsed, a performance still ongoing...

A character called X journeys through a present that is neither here nor there, but feels oddly proximate. She moves through landscapes of words, ever-shifting to host the groundless present, a place and time driven by her motivated, yet contextless pursuit. Narrative is always under construction. The preferred medium for X's peregrinations: a sentence, as capacious as a three-second video, a ten-year nap, or an unexplored hard drive. In this suspended world, X's sensorium is curious and alert, but also anguished, hesitant, and precarious: she feels around for sympathetic energies and familiar faces along the way. Along what way? A book like a body might be a room for waiting, a machine for memory, a sensuous thing, an image quickly glimpsed, a performance still ongoing...

‘You can change your rhythm in order not to panic I learned from Beige Pursuit, a marvel of a book that fuses and transforms various overlapping wildernesses—that of the body subject to transformation, that of the anxiety of our current shared predicaments & the ways that anxiety is fueled to deaden response, & that of the imagination, prone to serious irreverent examination, having to constantly move within its own unfolding in words. X, pregnant, and our guide, is told by talking peonies describing the intimacy gradient that she can’t enter her own home, & so it goes—it being the ordinary blasted bureaucratic temperament of the present. A present Sara Magenheimer illuminates by amplifying and grounding its absurdities in the daily chaotic filters of refusal and admission.’—Anselm Berrigan

Sara Magenheimer’s videos are talkative, associative jaunts, joining together all manner of images and sounds, found and made. Details of a 16th century oil painting are interspersed with a broadcast journalist’s botched takes, or a tubist’s treeline recital paired with a letter home from an early computer programmer, the friction of disparate elements producing a strange resonance. In the course of the narration, soliloquy may divide into dialogue, but the voice of the piece maintains a singular aspect. It can be characterized by both a defiant certainty and a boundless curiosity. Text-to-speech irregularities are sought out and on-screen type is used alternately as abstraction and signifier, relishing the possibilities of the misspoken and the illegible. The videos, like songs, condense distinct images on their surfaces and play cunning, rhythmic games underneath. Theirs is the kind of deadly serious playtime in which our subconscious minds are often engaged.

Magenheimer’s first book-length text, Beige Pursuit, is the second entry in Wendy’s Subway’s Document Series, an invitation for artists working in time-based media to publish in print. The book reads alternately like a screenplay and a long poem, its sparsely populated pages asking to be consumed slowly. The central figure, X, is a sort of Alice in the Waiting Room, navigating (among other things) the vagaries of the American healthcare system as she prepares to give birth. X appears variously as character, number, and mark; as redaction, percussive notation, and placeholder for a former name—traded then forgotten. Biographical similarities between author and character abound—both are filmmakers and expectant mothers—but Magenheimer has her fun with plausible deniability.

Unlike Lewis Carroll’s apprehensive Alice, X is “wishing to be absorbed and lost,” though—as in Wonderland—her encounters are often frustrating and sometimes traumatic. “Chesty, blooming peonies” yell her away from her own home, citing the architectural concept of an “intimacy gradient,” in which privacy can be inferred from design cues. A talking mushroom blows smoke letters that drift across these pages and proves to be a friend from whom X will grow apart even as they remain in touch. A case of the munchies shrinks X to one-quarter size. After drinks, she expands five-fold, becoming “the Big Woman” on the dance floor until she is “touched out.” At the book’s midpoint, she falls down an open manhole into Reagan’s America: full-color images from 1982 issues of Architectural Digest, the wallpaper’s millefleur pattern proceeding unimpeded onto the upholstery and the bedclothes.

From airplane cabins and food courts to hedge mazes and parking lots, X constantly finds herself at the gates of purgatory. We are whirled quickly through these palaces of time, however, seldom spending more than a page or so in any one. At the museum, X accidentally summons a genie from an ancient vase and successfully wishes for more wishes. Their discourse segues into another with a “socratic voice assistant” she calls “Mom,” and finally unfurls an eight-page litany of queries—some ponderous, some practical.

Motifs from Magenheimer’s videos reappear: mirrors, manholes, fallen fruits and vegetables, songs delivered from the bath. In the most direct moment of transference between screen and page, the author describes the production of an image from Slow Zoom Long Pause (2015), a pink suitcase emerging face-down on the return carousel: “Its pinkness makes her think of a newborn being conveyed into the world in the calmest way imaginable. This thought horrifies her. Stillborn, she shudders.” There is the sense throughout of an author struggling with a perceived sense of responsibility for the world as they bring new life into it; a moment of reckoning with the self as it produces an other, with history as we demand a future.

In her acknowledgments, Magenheimer thanks Wayne Koestenbaum for writing “In Defense of Nuance” (2010), an essay on Roland Barthes’s “gentle mission,” in which Koestenbaum describes “the fight against received wisdom, obviousness, stereotype.” One can easily apprehend how nuance (“a trace, like dust on plush”) must appeal to Magenheimer, in concept as well as form. For starters, the word contains much the same sound as “noon,”—“the softest time of day;” as “Nonna”—an Italian grandmother who wonders if X is eating enough; as “no one”—the erasure X both dreads and desires to become; and as “Nuno”—Magenheimer’s child, who appears at the end of the acknowledgments. These near-rhymes carry new resonance in the mood of Magenheimer’s prose, in which all coincidence is omen and every utterance an incantation.

The final pages of the main text act as a sort of artist’s statement or director’s commentary, reconciling the experience of living with the compulsion to language. “X makes videos,” Magenheimer writes, “in order to remember gestures in time, the matter and mass she was capable of shifting. Traces of her will. Evidence of her force and her witness. […] Video is fragile, contingent on mechanisms beyond itself and difficult to maintain over lengths of time. It’s a good enough medium in which to express the ordeal of having a body.” - Maxwell Paparella


Stop Making Sense: Sara Magenheimer Interviewed by Nicole Kaack

Sara Magenheimer’s videos and installations are ascendant experiences, replete with glowing incorporeal vocals, vibrating gradient hues, and rhythmic collages of images that stack seamlessly with collaged video effects. The allure of this ebullient mood is supported by a voracious shutter and a rigorous, lifelong ritual of daily writing—works emerging from an unforeseeable union of image and scripted text. Magenheimer’s Beige Pursuit, the September 2019 installment in Wendy’s Subway’s series of performance documents, exists in continuity with this practice as the preliminary scenario for a yet-to-be-realized film. In sequences absurd, antic, and familiar (with an asterisk), Sara captures the punchy, fractured interior landscape of a world manicured by encoded determinism. In the wake of launching her own record label, Rare Violins—a platform for spoken artist’s writings—and in anticipation of the Los Angeles launch of Beige Pursuit, Magenheimer and I talked through poetry, convention, and the process of making Beige. - Nicole Kaack

read it here: https://bombmagazine.org/articles/sara-magenheimer/

Working across a range of media including video, sound, performance, sculpture, collage, and installation, New York-based artist Sara Magenheimer disrupts, manipulates, and defamiliarizes language with bold combinations of image and text. Her videos incorporate traditional filmic editing techniques alongside those inspired by music and collage. In syncopated progressions of pictures and words, Magenheimer pushes against the bounds of narrative, charting circuitous storylines through vernacular associations that invite individual interpretations. Her first book of writing, Beige Pursuit, was published by Wendy's Subway in October 2019. Recent solo exhibitions include The New Museum, New York (2018), Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, Portland, OR (2017); The Kitchen, New York (2017); Chapter NY (2017): Art in General in partnership with kim?, Riga, Latvia (2016); the Center for Ongoing Research & Projects (COR&P), Columbus, OH (2016); JOAN, Los Angeles (2015); and Recess, New York (2015). Her videos have been screened at the Flaherty Seminar (2019), International Film Festival Rotterdam (2018), Brooklyn Academy of Music (2017); the New York Film Festival (2017, 2015, 2014); Images Festival, Toronto (2018, 2017, 2016, 2015); Anthology Film Archives, New York (2016); EMPAC, Troy, NY (2016); and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (2015).

Thomas McMullan - language carries a price; it exacts heavy cost. Words are spent freely—and parsimoniously weighed and measured. They punish, reward and disguise. They reveal truths and spin falsehoods. They are judge and jury. They break bones

The Last Good Man: Thomas McMullan: Bloomsbury Publishing

Thomas McMullan, The Last Good Man

Bloomsbury, 2020.

Duncan Peck has travelled alone to Dartmoor in search of his cousin. He has come from the city, where the fires are always burning.

In his cousin's village, Peck finds a place with tea rooms and barley fields, a church and a schoolhouse. Out here, the people live an honest life – and if there's any trouble, they have a way to settle it. They sit in the shadow of a vast wall, inscribed with strange messages. Anyone can write on the wall, anonymously, about their neighbours, about any wrongdoing that might hurt the community. Then comes the reckoning. 

The stranger from the city causes a stir. He has not been there long before the village wakes up to the most unspeakable accusation; sentences daubed on the wall that will detonate the darkest of secrets. 

A troubling, uncanny book about fear and atonement, responsibility and justice, and the violence of writing in public spaces, The Last Good Man dares to ask: what hope can we place in words once extinction is in the air?

“A Scarlet Letter for our times ... Zamyatin's We meets Lord of the Flies meets de Tocqueville meets cancel culture meets spite and malice meets Jesus. Should words be power? Justice or mercy? What price rage?” – MARGARET ATWOOD

“This is a visceral and disquieting debut novel about the power of words, and should be read by anyone who uses the internet” – New Statesman

“McMullan makes highly effective use of the rugged landscape, full of unease and portents, in his creepily unsettling debut, a timely tale about the dangers of toxic rhetoric and mob rule” – Daily Mail

“A brilliantly unsettling parable about how we police our societies through violence, language and shame” – independent.co.uk

“Innovative and timeless” – Irish Times

“An extraordinary and disquieting work of imagination, and as original as any novel I've read in recent memory ... The Last Good Man makes visible the dark matter of our troubled zeitgeist, and the cruelty that animates moral community” – ROB DOYLE,

“A clean, crackling novel ... McMullan updates Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter to today's sanctimonious climate ... An arresting debut about medieval justice that has plenty to say about the dangers of moral puritanism” – Metro

“An earthy, gripping piece ... A serious and seriously good book” – NB Magazine

“McMullan's skill truly lies in his prose…a startling and evocative tale” – Set the Tape

“An unsettling and startling work of literary imagination ... A shocking but compulsive read” – ON Magazine

“Brilliantly eerie” – Dystopia Junkie

“Eerie and atmospheric” – Sunday Post

“An essential and commanding slice of folk horror - a wholly successful exercise in world-building that straddles an uncomfortable line between reality and fantasy” – Lunate

This is a dark, compelling novel about the only two things humans really have to fear: each other, and being alone. We are apex predators: if another creature kills you, it will usually be one of your own kind. But your own kind can hardly be avoided. A life outside society – no aid, no warmth, no walls, no one to share the labours of survival with – will be a short and unpleasant one. This irreconcilable need and repulsion explains how we come to find Duncan Peck at the start of this novel, an outsider in the mists of Dartmoor, running from people who terrify him, and towards people who might not be much better.

The Last Good Man seems to be set in the near future. Ecological collapse is hinted at; social collapse is explicit. Peck has fled an unnamed city, a place of fire and violence where people eke out existence on a dwindling supply of tinned food. Life there is an act of constant vigilance: “In his final few days in the city, he had been a pair of eyes and little else, watching the struggles of his few remaining neighbours from behind a window.” All his hopes now lie in a nameless village, to which he has been invited by his cousin James Hale. Hale’s letter promised a new home of unimaginable plenty, but on first approach it looks a lot like another fiefdom of nightmares.

The set-piece opening is vividly nasty, recalling the smack-in-the-face technique of early Ian McEwan, and so accomplished that it’s easy to forget this is a debut. Peck creeps up, unseen, on “a black mark that becomes a body in the bog” – a man, who has been chased down by 20 men and women dressed in raincoats and armed with metal poles, and with Peck’s cousin leading the pack. Despite this recognition, Peck hangs back, assuring himself it has nothing to do with him: “You are blameless, he tells himself. You are good.” The man is hauled out against his protests, put in a wheelbarrow and pushed back to the village.

When Peck makes his appearance in the village shortly after, he learns that what he saw on the moor was the village’s justice system in action. Offenders are put in the stocks, or have a limb smashed publicly; others are “burdened”, meaning they are strapped to heavy objects (a nightstand, a wardrobe) and forced to carry them for the duration of their sentence. The accused can choose to turn themselves in, but the nature of the punishments means most make a run for it, like the man Peck watched as he arrived; and in any case, it’s more satisfying when there’s a hunt.

Even more intriguing is how the offenders are identified. There are no police in the village, no judiciary, no way to contest the truth or defend yourself. Instead, there is the wall, standing outside the village. Lower down, it’s covered with notices about items available to share (there’s no money in the village: everything is given freely, so long as you are “good”) or events scheduled. The upper levels, though, are a scrawl of unsigned accusations: “GEOFF SHARPE DOESN’T CUT THE MEAT GOOD. I SAW GEOFF SHARPE STEALING SLIVERS. NOBODY LIKES GEOFF SHARPE. I HOPE GEOFF SHARPE DIES.”

One mention on the wall can be got away with. Two will probably be fine. More than that, and something will have to be done. (And if that sounds a bit like Twitter, it’s surely deliberate. The internet doesn’t exist in the novel, but it’s nonetheless one of the best portrayals I’ve read of the dynamics of online mobs.) The wall decides the truth of the village: “If we can’t trust in people and words,” Hale explains, “there’s no point in living with people and words.” When Peck first sees the wall, it strikes him as both a “cleaver” and an “anchor”, savagery and security in one.

That slipperiness is at the heart of the novel. Peck first approaches the village through the mist, and his view remains obscure, uncertain. The wall is monstrous; but then, the only alternatives to the village seem to be “farmhouses populated by old bones and communities of agony by the old motorway”, so perhaps its monstrosity is necessary. Peck wants to be “good” by his own lights, not to fall under the sway of the village’s alarming moral code, maybe even to become a reformer; but the village requires him to be “good” on its own terms if he is to live there. Despite his intentions, the wall pulls him in.

The spiralling demands of justice in the village make for gripping storytelling, and McMullan has a sureness with violence that puts him in the company of Sarah Moss and Benjamin Myers (or the film director Ben Wheatley, who would ace an adaptation of this). Weaknesses show up in the more loosely written flashbacks to Peck’s time in the city, while a firm grasp on the levers of social psychology doesn’t quite make up for a general flimsiness of characterisation. Even so, The Last Good Man is viciously captivating: frightening to be around, impossible to put aside – a bit like other humans, in fact. - Sarah Ditum


“If you can’t trust in words, what can you trust in?”—this question, asked but never answered, echoes through Thomas McMullan’s debut novel, The Last Good Man. In it, language carries a price; it exacts heavy cost. Words are spent freely—and parsimoniously weighed and measured. They punish, reward and disguise. They reveal truths and spin falsehoods. They are judge and jury. They break bones.

Our hero is Duncan Peck. There has been some kind of ecological catastrophe—slow-burning and terminal. Food is rationed, and there are too many hungry mouths. Law and order is arbitrary and haphazard. We meet Peck on the opening pages, becalmed in a soaking winter mist on Dartmoor, a remote expanse of rugged ground in south-west England. Peck is fleeing the city where everywhere “there is the smell of death”. He has come to meet his childhood companion, James Hale, who vanished three years’ before. Out of nowhere, Hale has sent a letter inviting Peck to a village—never named—hidden away on Dartmoor. At first, it seems a kind of Shangri-La: refuge from the gradual contraction of the world outside. There is a teashop, a school and a church; pig pens, chickens, and stores of crops: food. But most of all, for the lonely Peck, worn threadbare and ghostly by the ducking and diving of city living, there is community:

The pang of food hangs above the heads of men, women and children jostling. The smell of wet earth is masked with the rich scent of pastry and a loaf of barley bread is broken into handfuls, given out in baskets to those that want a taste.

The village has a ghastly open secret, though: a vast wall, massive on the skyline above the village. Its “angular jut … is unmistakable. Taken against the moorland it looks so unnatural, so much of a statement and yet small compared to the blankness all around.” On the wall is pasted the usual parish council bumf: missing cats, choir meetings and after-school clubs. But above these notices, it holds accusations too: scrawled huge, anonymous and unarguable: “I KNOW ALL ABOUT ANNA MOAR AND SCOTT DOYLE AND IT IS DISGUSTING WHAT THEY ARE DOING. SCOTT DOYLE IS A FUCKER. ANNA MOAR IS A WHORE.”

The village turns on the spike of these accusations. Those found guilty are burdened with furniture. Tables, chest of drawers, chairs and hall mirrors are strapped to them—a punishment both barbaric and absurd. Find your name on the wall repeatedly, though, and the reckoning is more baroque. The accused are strapped to scaffolding on the village green, their limbs smashed with metal clubs. They are placed in stocks and pelted with rotten vegetables. People who try to escape are hunted down by bands of their neighbours, called chasers. The town has its own quasi-sheriff who organises this hue and cry. When Peck arrives, his old friend, James Hale, is in this role.

McMullan has crafted an impressively taut, thoughtful novel from these exuberant materials. He writes with a muscular lyricism; the book’s moral gaze is both pitiless and ambivalent. The idea for the village’s great wall came to McMullan, a journalist, when he was teaching in rural China. In one small village, he found a building scrawled with the misdeeds of the community: a palimpsest of slights and sins. It was a relic of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a communal purging of bourgeois sentiment. McMullan’s usually voluble guide fell quiet in its shadow; silenced by this singular carnival of accusation. This extraordinary encounter surfaces obliquely in The Last Good Man. By distancing his novel in time and space, McMullan gives himself thinking room to navigate the deeper resonances of this artefact—how do we trust what is said or written? Why is language less fickle than the human heart? Is community anything more than a shared fiction: brittle and all-too-easily co-opted?

The Last Good Man gives no easy answers. A note of cool, sustained ambiguity runs through the narrative, right up to its quiet fade-out of its ending. McMullan makes no bones of his literary influences: the blood-soaked spectre of mid-career Cormac McCarthy—Child of God, Blood Meridian —haunts the grandeur of the landscape descriptions, and the sudden flashes of brutish violence which punctuate the narrative; the stolid bulk of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is unavoidable in the post-apocalyptic setting and the festivals of communal denunciation and retribution.

But he tips his hat to more unexpected antecedents, too. Most chapters start with a fresh set of accusations daubed on the wall. They appear, in different type and font, before the main bulk of the story. It’s a potent device, lending a dizzying breathlessness to the action. “Things have been getting worse,” characters frequently remark to each other as charge is daubed on charge, and calls for revenge grow louder and more violent. This nesting of motives and accusations, and the plot’s relentless percussive beat, calls to mind the pacing and murky morality of Raymond Chandler’s detective fiction. Yet just beneath these accusations, McMullan contrasts quiet, sparsely beautiful descriptions of village life:

The paint is still wet on the wall; a cardinal dew facing the village as mist hangs over the fields. A sonorous void. The light is new born, it ignites the land in all its contours. A lone cow counts the perimeter of its enclosure. The pigs are burning in their dreams.

I can’t be alone in hearing echoes of Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milkwood’ here. The shushing, slapping rhythms of “still wet on the wall” recall Thomas’s famous opening lines: “sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbingsea”. Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 is another parallel. In that novel, as in Last Good Man, no distinction is made between human and non-human life; the comings and goings of both receive the same equal and exacting attention. Human darkness—in McGregor, the disappearance of a young girl; in McMullan, murder, betrayal and corporal punishment—is simultaneously shadowed in, and overshadowed by, the inscrutable turning of the natural world.

Late in Last Good Man, two characters dispose of a flensed pony carcass in a bog, “its mane fann[ing] out across the famished ground”. The saturated soil swiftly vanishes their evidence: “The bog has swallowed the remains of the pony, and now there is nothing, absolutely nothing, except the two of them in the dark.” But this largesse demands repayment; and one of those characters will later themselves tumble into a mire. “He is a few feet away, buried up to his chest,” McMullan writes. “The ground is up to his neck, one arm already below the waterline, the other outstretched … his mouth disappears below the earth.” It is perhaps too simplistic to suggest that the brute calculus which rules the villagers’ lives—a leg for lustiness, a chest of drawers for greed—is mimicked in their environment. But certainly the dull concussions of ecological catastrophe which reverberate in Last Good Man suggest the debts humanity owes nature are being called in. Note that it is “his mouth” which is last to drown. In a book in which language is so charged, it is significant that this muddy gargling is the most chilling sound we hear.

But words also hold weight. McMullan pushes the carrying capacity of language—both in his own high-wire descriptions, and in the various registers of writing encountered in Last Good Man. He is an enthusiastic foot soldier in Martin Amis’s war against cliché. Hot pies cannot simply bake in the oven; they must “purr in their new life”. Occasionally, this mania for originality forces some comic contortions. Those piping pastries have been retrieved from the oven and “all three men sit in silence with hot pies on porcelain plates, as if conducting some strange séance”. But, more often, these experiments triumph. Commonplace occurrences are seen anew: limed with strangeness and wonder.

She closes her eyes and listens to the thunder roll through the moorland. She thinks about how many aches there are amongst the storm clouds. The rain falling over the tor, the wind and the rumble, all of them foreign languages. A thousand tongues wagging.

Gossip, rumour, incomprehension—these are the stuff of nature as well as human interaction. There is an authentic freshness here which, again, recalls McCarthy. In both writers’ work, we perceive dimly a great and terrible space which encompasses the brief flicker of human lives: an outer darkness that admits no light and baffles comprehension.

Not that the characters need much help generating chaos. The village is built on a shadowy edifice of half-truths and outright lies. The wall is the most public example of this mayhem. But writing is used to hoard knowledge and preserve power as well. Maisie, the daughter of Hale’s neighbour, scribbles compulsively in a diary.

‘It’s clever to keep a diary,’ Peck says, hovering closer to the girl … Another step, but as if he crossed some invisible threshold. Maisie’s attention is provoked and she turns with a swipe of the eyes. ‘It’s private,’ she slices in a small but adamant voice.

Her secrecy has a more sinister twin in the record keeping of Brian Goss, the village’s oleaginous headman. Goss politely ducks the label of leader; yet the “fabled records” of the community’s accounts give him an unspoken authority, ill-defined but unshakeable. Peck reflects: “This administrator, this minister will not have his name stamped on the judgements that he sets on his way. Perhaps it is cowardice. No doubt it is cleverness, to stand one step below the chopping block.” The first writing system, cuneiform, was developed by Sumerian scribes nearly 5,000 years’ ago; even after civilisation’s collapse, McMullan notes, it is civil servants who will inherit the earth.

The wall, Goss says, makes the world a “place that can be understood”. Yet this legibility eludes the reader; like Peck, we leave the book—and the village—no wiser than we arrived. A disquieting vagueness lingers long after McMullan’s riddling novel is done. “Sometimes it can be hard to know up from down. It can be impossible to make out the edges.” Here, at the end of all things, words are no help at all. - Alex Diggins 


The air is rich enough to turn stones to men and men to stone. Careful not to step on anything that will make a noise, Peck edges towards the sound of heavy breathing, towards the black mark that becomes a body in the bog.

Duncan Peck watches as a group of men and women in hooded raincoats pull a man from the bog, bind him, and cart him away in a wheelbarrow. Leading the group is James Hale, the boy his mother had taken in, the ‘cousin’ he had grown up with and grown to love; the man who had crept way from the house in the night, leaving him alone in the crumbling city where food was running out and danger was everywhere.

Hale had finally written to him, inviting him to join him in a remote and isolated village on Dartmoor. Now, Peck stays hidden from the rain-coated group but in the fading light he follows their faint tracks across the bog-strewn moorland. The first sign he sees of the village is a wall ‘the size of a large barn’. As he gets closer, he sees that it stands alone and there are papers and posters stuck to it. Some have simple community messages and requests, but at the top of the wall are posters scrawled in red paint and in capital letters:


Peck is nervous, not knowing what to expect in this strange place, and not knowing how his ‘cousin’ will react to his sudden, unannounced arrival. Having secretly watched Hale and another man through an uncurtained window, he enters Hale’s home with a revolver cocked. Hale welcomes him and introduces him to his neighbour, Peter, who confiscates the gun, telling Peck that guns are banned in this village. This gun, however, will eventually cause much damage.

The tension McMullan builds in these opening pages is sustained throughout the book. Partly, it is fuelled by Peck’s own uncertainties as a stranger in a close community that has developed its own system of control and justice. He questions the influence of the wall, where anonymous people write their opinions and make accusations. And he is disturbed by the sorts of ‘atonement’ those deemed transgressors of the community’s values must make. These include being exposed to public ridicule in the stocks; carrying heavy pieces of furniture roped to their backs; or having a limb deliberately broken. He and Hale also share a past trauma linked to the death of Peck’s mother, and this is gradually revealed as Peck recalls their boyhood.

Hale, Peck learns, has become leader of the ‘chasers’, who bring back those who run away from justice. Hale decides the atonement and administers the blows to break a limb if he deems this necessary. He is a powerful man in the village, but Peck, as an outsider, sees the way this village functions, sees the way gossip and ill-feeling can distort the truth, and sees the usual human flaws hidden and revealed. The village seems well-established, but:

After enthusing about the apple trees and the barley fields, the school and the pub, there are questions about the wall, the stage and scaffold in the middle of the green, the furniture carried about. Hale does his best to listen to Peck’s misgivings. ‘It keeps the peace’ he assures.

Hale’s neighbour, Peter, is an awkward, ineffectual man, who is a poor workman and makes a joke of his own clumsiness. He has alienated people, and someone writes terrible (false) accusations about him on the wall. When Peter panics and runs away, Hale and his ‘chasers’ go after him, and Peck is persuaded to go with them. This precipitates a dramatic chain of events which link Hale, Peck, Peter, Peter’s wife Charlotte and their young daughter, Maisie. The system of law and order in the village is compromised and Peck’s own ideas of change for the good are tested.

Charlotte and Maisie are interesting characters, and Charlotte’s thoughts and emotions are threaded through the pages. When she, too, runs away, her experiences on the moors offer a different view of the way in which the community works.

Thomas McMullan tells a dramatic story and he tells it well. He conveys the mixed emotions of his characters with empathy and handles violence plainly and, sometimes, with surprising poetic imagery. Occasionally his imagery becomes strange – ‘the night sits with its knees under its chin’; ‘the candles are lonely’ – but this poetic flair brings village life and the Dartmoor landscape to life.

Underlying the story, but never obtrusive, is an exploration of the way in which people communicate with each other and how group opinions influence truth and justice – something that is currently very relevant.

In a ‘Note from the Author’ which accompanied my proof copy (and which I expect will be incorporated in the final book) McMullan describes how the book began after he had encountered an old wall plastered with papers in a room in a Chinese university where the photocopying machines were kept. When the words were translated for him by a Chinese friend, he learned that they were ‘crude, hateful, often sexual slurs about named people’ – ‘a vile type of graffiti’. He learned, too, that these public writings had been part of Chinese culture since imperial times but were best known now for their use during the Cultural Revolution. This wall represented a ‘violent tradition’ being continued.

McMullan’s own assessment of The Last Good Man rings true:

Truth, language and identity are at the heart of this book, but this is ultimately a story about people holding themselves together, living with grief, contending with ideas of goodness. - Ann Skea


On Dartmoor there is a surprising place to find – a cashless, barter-led cooperative of a village, where nobody spends anything, but everyone works and puts the fruits of their labours out there for free. It’s not all happy-go-lucky, however, as Duncan Peck, our way to explore this place, comes to discover. The village is overlooked by a huge free-standing stump of a wall, and beyond the parish notices about what is available, and what events are when, it often gets filled in with potentially libellous, gossippy accusations. In this village, where small transgressions result in the guilty being forced to walk around all day with heavy furniture strapped to their back so they can barely sit, and where the stocks are always ready for use, enough malevolent comment on the wall can force you to flee, out to risk your luck in the boggy wasteland beyond the village. The retribution against anyone criminal enough to escape and be caught is great – but what might happen if the claims are too close to the bone for Peck’s cousin, and others in positions of power?

This was an enjoyable read, and one that sent the mind quite reeling. Reeling, in my experience at least, for comparisons. It had some of the pre-Victorian, non-industrialised world perhaps of The Crucible or The Scarlet Letter – the book goes a long way whilst hiding quite when this is, only showing that we’re in a world where the city Peck has left is a much worse place, and the village is now running low on teabags. It clearly could be said to be a metaphor for the kind of flaming comments and slander seen on another wall – that on Facebook, and this definitely has parallels with social media. But something about everything here – the tone, the style, and the characters trying to get the best out of justice, also made me think of the Three Billboards movie.

It must be noted that none of that prevents this book from being its own entity, and nothing this rich and surprising would ever be happy to act as a clear metaphor for just one thing and leave it at that. This could be said to look at any society where the search for truth and justice is carried out less forensically than needed, and where one anonymous, bad word is allowed to hold sway. It also makes us think – not that this here is exactly an eye for an eye – what kind of punishment our criminals should serve. All this and a strong page-turning quality, in a debut novel, shows great promise from a creator previously known, apparently, for plays. This has hard themes and events that are never glamorised or treated poorly, so it can tend to being a little too dark for some potential readers, but nobody should be put off considering this earthy, gripping piece. The Last Good Man is, ultimately, a serious and seriously good book. - John Lloyd


Thomas McMullen: How a Chinese wall of shame inspired my novel


Interview: Thomas McMullan, Author Of The Last Good Man


Oleg Woolf - Reminiscent of Bruno Schulz, a vivid, surreal evocation of a liminal world. The characters follow the trajectories of elementary particles, disappearing in one dimension only to reappear in another.”

Oleg Woolf, Bessarabian Stamps: Stories , Trans. by Boris Dralyuk, Phoneme Media, 2015. Reminiscent of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocod...