Boris Vian - Woman dies of the lily growing in her lung; because the people they loved are gone, mice persuade diffident cats to kill them

Boris Vian, Foam Of The Daze, Trans. by Brian Harper (Tam Tam Books, 2003)

"L'Ecume des jours (Foam of the Daze) is a jazz fueled Science Fiction story that is both romantic and nihilistic! Vian's novel is an assortment of bittersweet romance, absurdity and the frailty of life. Foam of the Daze is a nimble-fingered masterpiece that is both witty and incredibly moving. It is a story of a wealthy young man Colin and the love of his life Chloe, who develops a water lily in her lung.
The supporting cast includes Chick, an obsessive collector of noted philosopher Jean-Sol Partre's books and stained pants, and Nicolas who is a combination of P.G. Wodehouse's fictional butler Jeeves and the Green Hornet's Kato. The soul of the book is about the nature of life disappearing and loving things intensely as if one was making love on a live grenade!"

"The most heartbreakingly poignant modern love story ever written." - Raymond Queneau

"For the last thirty years L'Ecume des jours has been the author's best-known and most widely-discussed work: blending as it does the most light-hearted and playful fantasy with a sense of doom and tragedy that many readers across a wide range of ages and cultural backgrounds have found irresistibly moving, it is a novel that has paradox at its heart." - David Meakin

"L'Ecume des jours is full of good things - from farcical religious rites to the obsessions of a bibliophile which turn to fetishism and wreck his life. The set pieces are marvelous, rumbustious, and macabre. This is a tragic love story, a morbid and even a pathological farce. It is a book of failures and closures, and wonderfully destructive." - Adrian Searle

"I can't think of another writer who can move me as surreptitiously as Vian does" - Julio Cortazar

"Foam of the Daze is a novel like no other, a sexy, innocent, smart and sweet cartoon of a world which then begins, little by little, to bleed real blood until, in the end, the blood turns out to be our own... it's still one of my favorite books in the whole world." - Jim Krusoe

"Who wouldn't want to immerse themselves in THE greatest love story? With pages that drip with passion, cries, laughter, tears and so forth. Among the more sober, but magnificent just the same, I recommend L'Ecume des jours by Boris Vian. It begins like a fairy tale but don't panic, you will see that it won't take long to become something else indeed... First there is the young, rich and carefree Colin. He, above all, "longs to be in love". One immediately identifies with this fragile anti-hero yearning for love. The most important thing for him is his small circle of friends: Chick, Alise, Nicolas, Isis ...and Chloe. During a party of close friends, he falls madly in love with her. Everything is great. Colin and Chloe get married and the world belongs to them. But then this beautiful fury of life is broken clean. Chloe becomes sick with a poetic disease (even though Boris Vian doesn't want it). A water lily grows in the lungs of the beauty and pushes out all the oxygen. Colin becomes responsible and works but Chloe wilts away incurably. On their side, Chick and Alise had everything to be happy... if Chick didn't have the filthy mania of bankrupting himself by buying the works and clothes of a certain Jean Sol Partre, (a little dig from Vian to the famous existentialist of Saint-Germain-des-Près). This "partrophagy" pushes Alise to kill Partre. Only Nicolas and Isis escape a tragic destiny and accompany their friends to the end. The character's purity and carefree attitude... it's superb!" - Catherine Combet

"Boris Vian writes like a dapper, dilettantish dandy, which is appropriate because that's what he was. His 1947 novel perfectly reflects this breezy social agenda of elegant aperitifs, whimsical obsessions, and love, love, love. But Vian's very much a descendent of his dour and decadent French forefathers, learning from the life of leisure that beauty reaps the blood of solitude and pretty girls do, in fact, make graves, so even the book's blithest banter betrays an echo of the memento mori that is to come. And yet, for all its subtle sadness, Foam is fun and cleverly combats life's fragility with nimble wit and a sardonically deadpan appraisal that's as unassailable as it is hilarious. Nothing captures Vian's post-ironic genius as lucidly as his rendering of the fog-shrouded funeral procession for the protagonist's lovely wife: "it was very sad looking." You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll smirk." - Britt Brown

"Rays of sunlight stream through windows and congeal into honey-golden droplets on a tile floor, which are gathered like jewels by a friendly house mouse. A "pianocktail" concocts wild libations inspired by the jazz song played on it. Rifle barrels are grown like flowers in coffin-shaped planters, which have to be warmed by naked human flesh. Metal-frog-powered Rube Goldberg machines crank out a pharmacy's medications. Cops tool around in skin-tight, bulletproof black leather and heavy metal boots. A weapon kills by attaching to the torso and ripping out the heart. Welcome to the wonderfully alive and terrifyingly human world of Boris Vian.
Born in Ville-d'Avray, France, in 1920 and passing away a short 39 years later, the fearsomely talented Vian crammed nearly a dozen careers into his brief life. Educated as a engineer, Vian abandoned the steady life to pursue his other interests, turning himself into a novelist, playwright, journalist, poet, writer of pornography and sci-fi, translator, actor, musician, jazz critic, instrument inventor, and, because that wasn't quite enough, opera librettist.
Most baffling, Vian miraculously squeezed out his original, imposing output during a life that sounds lifted from a bohemian fantasy. He was a member of the College of Pataphysicians, a parody of an intellectual society dedicated to imaginary solutions. A habitué of Paris' post-war St. Germain-de-Pres, Vian befriended Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, writing a column in Sartre's Les Temps Modernes under the name "the Liar." A jazz fanatic, Vian introduced a young Miles Davis to his friend Louis Malle, and the American jazz giant eventually scored the French filmmaker's debut, Ascenseur pour l'échafaud. Vian wrote Le Deserteur, the scathingly sardonic make love/not war song during France's Algiers troubles. He famously drank for sport; women liked him, and he liked them right back. His "debut" novel - a pulp dashed off in a fortnight called J'irai cracher sur vos tombes (I Shall Spit on Your Graves), published under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan - became the American Psycho controversy of late-'40s Paris. When his congenital heart condition took his life - since Vian couldn't even die mundanely, he passed during a screening of the unauthorized film adaptation of his J'irai - Vian's acclaim was on the rise, and by the spring of 1968 he was a revered French cult figure.
...A mash note to pretty girls and the music of Duke Ellington, the book follows the fabulous misadventures of two young couples, Colin and Chloe and Chick and Alise, through an imaginatively bustling and otherworldly Paris. The independently affluent Colin lies with his manservant Nicolas and a mouse, and after marrying Chloe gives his friend Chick 25,000 doublezons (the novel's monetary unit) so that he can marry Alise - which Chick blows on the publications and collectibles of his favorite writer/philosopher, "Jean-Sol Partre."
Vian vibrantly paints this quartet's good life in colorful gestures - ice-skating where valets come and broom-sweep the fallen from the ice, dancing the oglemee at bawdy parties, and Colin and Chloe's magical wedding. Yet just as Colin and Chloe become gaga newlyweds, life turns bleak. Chloe becomes mortally afflicted with a water lily growing in her lung, and Colin spends his entire fortune, sells his belongings, and finally submits to the ultimate indignity – employment - to fill their bedroom with flowers, the only medication comforting her condition. Their radiant apartment begins to shrink, until the jovial mouse has to flee. From the crucifix above an altar, Jesus mocks Colin at Chloe's funeral, wondering why Colin didn't spend as much money as he did on the wedding. The cops come after Chick, and the cast-off Alise goes after the vendors of Partre paraphernalia with the heart-snatcher.
That weapon's made-up French word – "l'arrache-coeur" - plays on the euphemism for "heartbreaker" ("crève-coeur"), and Vian's final novel carries the heartbroken's heavy weight. Heartsnatcher, though less playfully animated, is Vian's most mature work, the shadow of his lifelong knowledge that his heart could stop at any moment cast over every page. Set in a phantasmagoric small town where the old are auctioned off and the congregation assaults the priest, Heartsnatcher follows the mounting obsessions of Clementine, a mother of three--twins Noel and Joel and a third, Alfa Romeo - who loathes her husband for putting her through the rigors of birth. Clementine grows more and more overly protective as her children age, and though town psychiatrist Timortis tries to assuage her neurosis, she ends up going to extremes to shield her offspring like animals eating their young - to put them back - eventually imprisoning them in cages.
Disarmingly funny and catastrophically tragic, Vian's novels take place in parallel worlds much removed from this one, yet their emotional landscape couldn't feel more familiar: love and art and sex and life and music and everything can be great, but things can always go horribly, monumentally wrong. Vian confronted his own unknown by injecting his ceaseless talents and infectious humor into everything he did, leaving behind a body of work that inspires by example: that it's what people choose to do with their life, however troubled and brief, that makes it the intoxicating folly worth caring about." - Bret McCabe

"This is a great novel, mind you. Though on its surface, the simplest of stories - Vian summed it up as "a man loves a woman, she falls ill, she dies" - beneath are a host of ambiguities, digressions, levels of meaning. Not quite beneath actually, for subtexts keep erupting to the surface. It is in many ways a novel built of eruptions.
Simply, then, this is a tale of two couples: Colin, a rich and rather superfluous man, and Chloe, a woman dying from a lily growing in her lung; Chick, whose life is ruined by his collecting of Jean-Sol Partre's books and memorabilia, and Alise, who tries to save Chick from himself by murdering Partre. As the lily grows in Chloe's lung, Colin does all he can to keep her alive. But her bed sinks closer to the ground and the room grows ever smaller. Because Colin has no money left to pay for burial, Chloe's coffin is simply thrown out the window.
In Vian's world, nothing is simple, nothing may be taken for granted. Because people they love have died, mice persuade diffident cats to kill them; bells detach themselves from doors to come and announce visitors; neckties rebel against being knotted; some broken windowpanes grow back overnight while others darken from breathing difficulties; a piano mixes cocktails to match the music being played upon it; armchairs and sausages must be calmed before use. When Colin puts Duke Ellington's "The Mood to Be Wooed" on the phonograph, the O's on the record label cause the corners of the room to become round.
In Vian's books, the world becomes ineluctably strange, the world as a child or a madman might see it. And that's the recipe for Foam of the Daze, a novel with paradox at its heart, as critic David Meakin has observed: one part light-hearted fantasy, one part tragedy. Add wordplay and romance to taste. Your heart will be broken. You will be confused and confounded. You will laugh aloud. And at least for a time, however hard you try, your own world will refuse to be what you think it is.
Here is Colin in church after Chloe's death:
'Why did you have her die?' asked Colin.
Oh... said Jesus, drop the subject.
He looked for a more comfortable position on his nails.
She was so sweet, said Colin. Never was she bad, neither in thought, nor in action.
That has nothing to do with religion, mumbled Jesus, yawning. He shook his head a little to change the slant of his crown of thorns.
I don't see what we've done, said Colin, we don't deserve this.
He lowered his eyes... Jesus's chest was rising softly and regularly, his features breathed calm, his eyes had closed and Colin could hear a light purr of satisfaction coming from his nostrils, like a sated cat.'
" - James Sallis

"Foam of the Daze is influenced heavily by music, namely jazz... a song ["Mood Indigo"] by Duke Ellington surfaces in the novel several times... when the protagonist, Colin, first meets the love of his life, Chloe, he asks her impulsively if she's "arranged by Duke Ellington." It's clear that Vian intends Chloe to embody the bittersweet music, which promises her and Colin a less than happy fate. The lovers have dinner with friends, take walks, get married, and Chloe becomes sick as a water lily grows inside her lungs. The novel meanders in a way that's indeed reminiscent of jazz, though it may remind non-jazz lovers of a Quentin Tarantino film, with its surreal dialogue, obscure cultural references, and improbable occurrences.
From the beginning, the novel feels like a mixture of fairy tale and journalism. Realistic narrative alternates when fantasies in which inanimate objects come alive and mice act like people: "The kitchen mice loved dancing to the sound of the shock from the sunbeams on the faucets, and they ran after the little balls that the beams formed upon pulverizing themselves on the floor, like spurts of yellow mercury." Many writers have tried to pull off passages like that but few have succeeded. Lewis Carroll created a convincing universe with cartoonish characters in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and a white rabbit wearing a waistcoat would fit in among Vian's creations. In its first half, Vian's novel is actually more exultant and luminous than anything Carroll wrote - yet Foam of the Daze is not a children's book. In its second half, the story turns a few shades darker than any of Alice's adventures when one of the delightful, dancing mice commits suicide by convincing a cat to eat her: "She shut her little black eyes and put her head back (in the cat's mouth). The cat carefully placed his razor sharp canines on her thin, soft, gray neck. Their two mustaches mingled together. The cat unrolled his furry tail and let it lie out on the sidewalk."
This moving scene lingers in the mind, like many of Vian's images." - Doug Pond

"This offbeat, surrealist novel has been popular in France for the last half-century... The novel's plot follows the rise and fall of two youthful romances. One romance involves the wealthy and idle Colin, who falls in love with Chloe. The other involves Colin's friend Chick, who falls in love with Chloe's friend Alise. The narrative opens with cheerful whimsicality, but it takes on a darker tone when troubles arise for both relationships. Chloe falls ill with "a water lily in her lungs; as a result Colin must sell his possessions and work at pointless and degrading jobs to pay for doctors who can't cure her. Chick, on the other hand, suffers a different ailment when he becomes so obsessed with the philosopher Jean-Sol Partre that he neglects Alise and reduces her to murderous desperation. A notable feature of Vian's style is his tendency to highlight impossible environmental conditions as oblique counterpoints to his characters' understated emotions. For example, after Colin is forced to sell one of his prized possessions, "The green-blue sky was hanging practically down to the pavement and large white spots marked where clouds had just smashed down." Such fantastical elements also permeate Vian's social world: e.g., an invention called a "pianocktail," currency known as "doublezons," and weapons referred to as "heart-snatchers" and "cop-killers." The novel reads like a combination of Lewis Carroll and Thomas Pynchon, and sometimes Vian's absurdist style creates an emotionally distant effect. But its final chapters sustained a powerful note of sadness for two young loves ruined by mortality, rival intellectual obsessions, and a repressive work ethic." - Thomas Hove

"The love of Colin and Chloe may end tragically, but the novel is filled with wordplay (one character collects Jean-Sol Partre memorabilia) and such imaginative notions as the "pianocktail" - a drink blended by playing a keyboard to release different combinations of liqueurs and flavorings. Vian himself remains a legend in France; imagine a James Dean who played jazz trumpet, wrote innovative novels and poems, and died young from a bad heart." - Michael Dirda

"When I was a film-school student in Beijing in the early 1990s, I had randomly picked a French novel in a bookshop – the Chinese translation of Foam of the Daze. I was 20; I had never left China, I had never met any Westerner, and I had never tasted red wine either.
So I was reading that novel in those barbecue stalls in the streets of Beijing - no cafes around at that time, no Starbucks either - and I got the impression that the book was about melancholy French youth in the 1940s. The translation was not bad.
What I understood was that the author tried to paint a picture of youth. It starts childishly and beautifully, but then youth becomes ravaged and swallowed by time and society.
I loved the water lily that grows in the girl's chest in the novel. She is dying, but the doctor can only diagnose a flower growing in her chest, and can do nothing to help her suffering. The boy starts to lose his smiles and grows poor because his girl is losing her life, and the society is demanding that he be a "man".
After reading the novel, I thought, "I must go to Paris, and I would like to meet those beautiful sad young men in France. One day!" I indeed left China, only 10 years later. I came to Europe, trying to escape all my problems with the city of Beijing: dusty dry weather, noisy industrial buildings, a government work-unit job; basically, a rusty youth - a youth without much imagination or distance towards my reality in concrete Beijing. Coming to Europe was a second chapter of my life.
Then, in London, I bought the English translation of Foam of the Daze – 15 years after first reading it in Chinese, after drinking thousands of cups of coffee, tasting hundreds of glasses of wine, after travelling through the whole of Europe, after seeing my own youth fading away from working too much and thinking too hard.
In a foreign bed, I reread the novel, and it killed me. My tears flew when I tried to read the ending as slowly as possible – the little mouse puts his head into the cat's mouth, in order to die with the briefest pain.
The world of Boris Vian: the prince of Saint Germain – a great novelist, a jazz singer, a party drinker and, essentially, a great child who refuses to grow up in a ugly and complicated society. He died before he hit 40.
Foam of the Daze is perhaps Vian's most innocent work. The innocence of youth is drawn in such an elegant way, and its darkness and profound melancholy when the human innocence fades away, and gets lost in a blur of the political world." - Xiaolu Guo

"Upon opening this book, the reader is directly confronted with the game of inversions which sustains the global perspective: in an absurd, very strange world, the narrator presents us a character that is particularly ordinary and indefinite.
Thus, Colin is a very easy-going young man who loves jazz music, girls and who hates work and violence. He finds the love of his life in the person of Chloé, a crazy love which will make him lose everything he holds dear. Chloé’s illness will force him to work for the very first time in his life: his first job would be that of manufacturing weapons and his second job, that of guarding a goldmine and crying out loud when he sees a thief.
Chloé is the epitome of beauty and womanhood. She’s the perfect woman for Colin: young, pretty, sweet and attractive, but fragile. Her name comes from a piece played by Duke Ellington called "Chloé."
Chick is Colin’s best friend. He is mad about Jean-Sol Partre’s philosophy even if he doesn’t understand it at all. Because of this obsession with Partre he sometimes acts selfishly. Unlike Colin, he has to work in order to survive. He is also Alise’s boyfriend, but he loves Partre more than her.
Alise is a sentimental, friendly young lady. She is madly in love with Chick and full of compassion towards Chloé, but she sometimes thinks her life would have been much easier if she had married Colin.
Nicolas is Alise’s uncle, and Colin’s cook. He doesn’t belong to the same social class as the other characters. He is at the same time a loyal friend of Colin’s and Isis’s lover.
Isis is part of the high society and is the only one who has a family; she is in love with Nicolas, and she knows how to enjoy life’s pleasures.
Another character in this novel is the funny, adorable grey mouse with dark mustache.
As far as the friendship between Colin and Chick is concerned, we can notice its development all through the novel. They admit at the beginning of the book that they see each other as unique persons. Colin is aware of his friend’s poor financial situation, and therefore invites him to dine with him every Monday evening. Chick also regards Colin as a very kind, true friend, who can help him get all the books from Partre’s collection.
In fact, Jean-Sol Partre’s books are the only passion Chick has. It’s a very popular author, and Chick is simply obsessed with acquiring all of his books. But his engineer wages and the money he gets from his uncle are not enough for him to enrich his collection. Because of that, he constantly borrows money from his generous and rich friend Colin.
Nonetheless, Chick seems to take advantage of Colin’s hospitality and generosity. He never hesitates to ask him for money. In fact, he doesn’t even ask "could you lend me some money?" but instead he uses the imperative: "lend me some money." Colin accepts, of course. Apart from that, he also gives Chick 25 000 doublezons in order for him to marry Alise. But Chick uses that money amount to complete his Partre book collection. So Chick does not honestly take advantage of the money Colin had given him. So he is left with only one doublezon. He also misses to pay his taxes. In addition to that, all through the novel, Chick does not have a single moment for Colin, he doesn’t help him when Chloé is sick, when Colin is also short of money.
Therefore, Chick is nothing but a very superficial person, who does not get attached to anyone but a single obsessive thing: Jean-Sol Partre, and his successful books. This will lead him to the road of perdition. He does not, under any form or circumstance, share Colin’s friendship and warm feelings of sympathy towards him.
Apart from all these, the novel charms the reader through its fantastic imagery and descriptions, through its strange, sometimes adorable, sometimes cruel humor. It is an absurd world where the inanimate tends to replace the animate, where humans tend to be replaced by objects and machines, or to transform themselves in machinery. In all, it’s a book worth reading." - Claudia Miclaus

"Foam Of The Daze is a light-weight work filled with puns, bittersweet romance, elements of science fiction and jokes about Vian’s friend Jean-Paul Sartre who appears in fictional form as Jean-Pol Partre. The plot, an inconsequential love story exists only as a vehicle for Vian's literary riffing. With its many jazz references this novel appears to be an attempt to translate the Afro-American art of signifying into something that could be found acceptable within Anglo-French literary discourse. Tam Tam’s edition reproduces the copious annotations from the ten year old French critical edition of Foam Of The Daze put together by Gilbert Pestureau and Michel Rybalka. Since these two critics don’t appear to realise that Vian is attempting to dumb up Afro-American street traditions of tall tale telling, they fail to provide clued up readers with any insights into the book and it isn’t long before the mute literalism of their annotations becomes grating. Indeed, had I not been reviewing the book I certainly wouldn’t have bothered with their notes, and skipping such unnecessary froth can only add to one’s enjoyment of the text.
Foam Of The Daze is an interesting if ultimately faulty experiment which pales in comparison to the work of real masters of the art of signifying such as Rudy Ray Moore. Moore’s comedy sketches are often obscenely extended and he is perhaps best known for the routine and subsequent film Dolemite both derived from a tale he’d first heard acted out by an alcoholic street bum. Although familiarity with the movie Dolemite (1975) would be preferable by a long chalk, for readers unfamiliar with Moore the following short joke will provide an almost adequate flavour of his humour: ‘What did the whirlwind say to the palm tree? Hold onto your nuts because you’re about to get one hell of a blow job’. Returning to Foam Of The Daze, it is inferior to Vian’s slice and dice hack work I Spit On Your Graves precisely because it is more literary, and by the time this was written in the wake of James Joyce bourgeois fiction was already dead."- Stewart Home
Boris Vian, Heartsnatcher (Dalkey Archive Press, 2003)

"Set in a bizarre and slightly sinister town where the elderly are auctioned off at an Old Folks Fair, the townspeople assail the priest in hopes of making it rain, and the official town scapegoat bears the shame of the citizens by fishing junk out of the river with his teeth. Heartsnatcher is Boris Vian's most playful and most serious work.
The main character is Clementine, a mother who punishes her husband for causing her the excruciating pain of giving birth to three babies. As they age, she becomes increasingly obsessed with protecting them, going so far as to build an invisible wall around their property."

"The last novel Vian completed before his death in 1959, this whimsical, absurdist sendup of human foible takes place in a village where old people are auctioned off like slaves, villagers stone the vicar to produce rain and stallions are crucified for "falling into sin." The novel opens with willful Clementine deep in the throes of labor and furious about it. With her husband, Angel, locked in his room (from the outside), Clementine is rescued by Timortis, a traveling psychoanalyst, who helps her deliver triplets. Timortis befriends the browbeaten Angel (Clementine vows never to have sex with him again) and decides to stay on at the house. As a stranger to the country, he provides a window onto its bizarre customs-it is possible to pay someone to take on another person's shame, for example-even as he trolls the village looking for people to psychoanalyze. As the "heartsnatcher" of the title, Timortis has no feelings or desires of his own and embarks on a futile, hysterical quest for patients so he can "steal their feelings." His sole subject is a maid who thinks psychoanalysis is a euphemism for sex; she's happy to take off her clothes, but she refuses to talk about her feelings. The episodic, meandering narrative wanders from incident to incident, until Angel leaves Clementine, and she takes up child-rearing with unbridled abandon. Vian's sharp, playful humor makes for an entertaining read, although there are extended flat stretches. While the allegorical conceits may be something of an acquired taste, Vian's prose is surprisingly accessible, and his fascinating take on the strange logic of human cruelty and inconsistency makes this a worthwhile read." - Publishers Weekly

"An impish satire on regimentation-as seen in the delicious particulars of this fetching 1953 novel, previously, unforgivably unavailable in English translation... Heartsnatcher's arresting title alludes directly to the devious practices of its protagonist Timortis, a morose psychiatrist who attempts to enrich his own life by entering, then possessing his patients' dreams, fears, and fantasies (the scene in which he sets forth to "analyze" a bored housecat is beyond praise). His counterpart is the other protagonist, Clementine, an insanely overprotective mother who locks up her baffled husband, safely away from their progeny (a set of triplets), over whose lives she hovers with paramilitary paranoid rapture. These two characters (and several others scarcely less grotesquely absurd) coexist unpeacefully in a provincial town bedeviled by impossible occurrences, and itself a fount of hilarious eccentricity and misrule. For example, an indigent fisherman is hired to retrieve garbage from a nearby river with his teeth. And elderly people are sold as toys. What's so captivating about Vian's mad inventions is their perfectly logical relation to recognizable societal folly (e.g.,maternal "smothering," exploitation of poor people, indifference to the rights of the aged). Though Vian matured in the time of Sartre and Camus (and knew both), he's really an antiexistentialist. His people are indeed responsible for their actions: it's they, not the universe, who are absurd. A major rediscovery. Don't miss it." - Kirkus Reviews

" 'Novembruary, the cold, spitgrey, drizzleridden, fogeared month. Novembruary rain can cause all sorts of damage in all sorts of places. It can furrow through the fields, flaunch the furrows into ravines, and carry off the enraptured ravens. Or it can suddenly freeze.'
In descriptions so richly imagined that he sometimes has to invent new words, Boris Vian brings to life the strange world discovered by a wandering traveler, Timortis, a psychiatrist who wants to "psychiatrize." Timortis has been born an adult and has no memories of his own. An "empty vessel," he believes that if he can learn everything there is to know about someone, he can bring about a transference of identity and make his own life more complete. He is wandering in search of people who will bare their souls and all their memories.
When he hears the cries of Clementine, a village woman giving birth to triplets, he stops to give aid and ends up delivering her sons - Noel, Joel, and Alfa Romeo. He is soon banished from the room, however, along with the woman's husband, Angel, as Clementine decides that she, and she alone, knows what is best for her babies - she will raise the little prodigies herself.
Though much of the birthing scene is humorous, the full satirical flavor and the allegorical construction of this novel do not unfold until Timortis and Angel, sent out of the house, go into the village. There, Timortis discovers that he has arrived just in time for the Old Folks Fair, at which old people are auctioned off, and he observes a man, Ezekiel, buying an "old folk" for his kids to abuse-"Here you are, kids. Have fun with him." The auctioneer, Gerry Mander, hits one of the old folks in the mouth and kicks another in the behind, while the others sit patiently waiting for their turn to be auctioned. Later Timortis visits a shop, where he sees a child being worked to the point of death, then splashed with icewater to revive him when he passes out. Farm animals are well treated, however, being given days off when they behave themselves and allowed to hitchhike when they need rides. Few readers will have any questions about the meaning of these early scenes, though some later scenes are more ambiguous.
A scarlet stream winds through the village, "pale red and opaque. Like poster paint." Into this stream people throw their trash, including all dead bodies, and it is the job of a scapegoat, named Glory Hallelujah, to retrieve decaying things from the stream with his teeth. "I've got a house and I've got loads of gold-but I have to swallow the shame of the whole village for them. Remorse for everything wicked and evil they do. For every one of their vices." He goes on to explain that "the first person to be more ashamed than I am takes my place. That's the village tradition. They're very religious here. They've got their consciences for themselves. But never any remorse." When Timortis visits the egg-shaped church and meets the vicar, he discovers that the vicar does not want people to think of applying religion to everyday life. "God is not utilitarian. God is a birthday present..a luxury, a tasseled cushion made of beaten gold."
Vian's satire and offbeat humor continue unabated throughout the novel. A horse is crucified for his sexual depravity, women take off their clothes so they can be "psychoanalyzed," Angel builds a boat and tells Timortis that it is "not a Maytree Ark," and Noel, Joel, and Alfa Romeo grow quickly, looking for blue slugs so they can learn to fly. Additional bizarre episodes abound, leaving the reader to ponder the meaning of the non-stop action, at the same time that s/he is whisked along by the speed of Vian's prose to new and still more surprising events. Puns, word play, and literary inventions fill the novel, even as Vian's often lyrical sentences and vibrant descriptions set the scenes. One sentence, more than a page long, is a testament at least as much to Vian's enthusiasm for his story as it is to his prodigious creativity.
Vian creates a whole new world here, satirizing the existing world for some of its most obvious faults, and presenting a remarkably open-ended allegory, which makes the reader think, at the same time that s/he often laughs at the absurdities and winces at the truths. But this is no full-blown alternative universe created to illustrate a serious and specific political or social agenda. Here Vian symbolically smiles at the reader as he leads Timortis through this strange community from episode to episode, illustrating his own opinions in a more or less random way, having fun all the time, while making some serious points. Not scholarly, though highly literate, this is a book for which one must buckle up, sit back, and just enjoy the ride." - Mary Whipple
Boris Vian, Autumn In Peking (Tam Tam Books, 2006)

"The story takes place in the imaginary desert called Exopotamie where all the leading characters take part in the building of a train station with tracks that go nowhere. Houses and buildings are destroyed to build this unnecessary structure - and in Vian's world waste not, make not. In Alistair Rolls' pioneering study of Vian's novels, The Flight of the Angels, he expresses that Exopotamie is a thinly disguised version of Paris, where after the war the city started changing its previous centuries of architecture to something more modern. Yes, something dull to take the place of what was exciting and mysterious.
Vian, in a mixture of great humor and unequal amount of disgust, introduces various 'eccentric' characters in this 'desert' adventure, such as Anne and Angel who are best friends; and Rochelle who is in love and sleeps with Anne, while Angel is madly in love with her.
Besides the trio there is also Doctor Mangemanche; the archeologist Athanagore Porphyroginite, his aide, Cuivre; and Pipo - all of them in a locality similar to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, where there is a tinge of darkness and anything is possible, except for happiness."

"L'Automne à Pékin could well become one of the classics of a literature which, after having exhausted with a uniformly accelerated movement all the nuances of the sinister, from Romanticism to Naturalism and from Socialism to Mysticism, notes all of a sudden that it winds up in the desert of Exopotamie; a literature where one is finally permitted to laugh!" - Alain Robbe-Grillet

"Let the entire College pay attention to this work, let it uncover its riches: they are incalculable. A great lesson that Satrap Boris Vian gives us in L'Automne à Pékin, using, moreover, a sacred language. L'Automne à Pékin is one of the rare novels of our time which renders words their literal sense without suffering from the prejudice furnished by other possible means." - Noel Arnaud

"Ostensibly about the expedition to build a railway in the desert of Exopotamie, populated with engineers, randy priests and hermits, lovelorn couples, and a physician obsessed with model airplanes, as well as by buses that feed on catfish bones, typewriters that shiver when uncovered, and bedclothes that climb affectionately back into place when thrown back, even a chair that falls ill and must be hospitalized, this is the strangest of many strange Vian novels, like the others part science fiction, part love story, part surrealist farce - and wholly, unforgettably readable." - James Sallis

"From my freshman world lit. survey I can distinctly remember one session. The reading to be discussed was Franz Kafka's THE METAMORPHOSIS, a book that I had read at least three times during high school. As it turned out, so had the rest of the class, because, quite uncharacteristically, they had endless comments of a supposed "literary" nature to offer, all of which bore the unmistakable mark of high school English class mediocrity.
Admittedly, THE METAMORPHOSIS isn't a simple book. From the first line, in which Gregor Samsa awakes to discover he has turned into a large bug, the novel presents precisely the sort of problem that students, inundated with the worst reductive tendencies school can shove down their throats, can't quite make sense of. So, lacking any capacity for original thinking, they glibly repeat the banalities of their high school English teachers.
One person suggested that maybe Samsa's transformation was a reference to the Holocaust, as the Nazis had referred to Jews as "vermin," Unfortunately, Kafka had been dead for a couple decades by the time Hitler came to power. Another student claimed that the apartment the novel takes place in represented the Trinity, and that Samsa's transformation had something to do with transubstantiation (the belief that the bread and wine actually turn into Christ's flesh and blood upon touching one's tongue). Kafka being a Jew, though, it seems a bit of stretch to claim his work is filled with Catholic dogma. A third student simply thought it was "Freudian," as though that was, in itself, elucidating.
Of course, in reality Samsa's transformation means nothing. It's not a symbol, a metaphor, an allusion or thematic device. It's just kind of funny, and, by interjecting a radical change into the Samsa household, allows for growth and change amongst Samsa's family. But, led to believe that everything in "great literature" (or at least the books they make you read in school) has to be filled with "meaning," my classmates simply couldn't grasp that it was all an absurd joke. And what's more, that it was supposed to be funny.
Reading Boris Vian's AUTUMN IN PEKING, and desperately trying to figure out what I was going to write about it, that episode kept coming to mind. Vian, like Kafka, is full of strange absurdities. At the beginning of AUTUMN IN PEKING, Amadis Dudu can't seem to catch his bus to work, the 975. There's no room on the first one. The second one is over-full because of a fat woman. The third one runs him down. A bunch of priests with slings keep him off yet another, and so on.
Or there's Dr. Petereater's intern, who's driven to murder by a sickly Louis XV chair that keeps farting and mocking him from its hospital bed. When he poisons it with strychnine, it stiffens back up and becomes a Louis XVI.
Such absurdities (or inanities if you're some sort of tiresome bore who only loves Tolstoy) are par for the course when it comes to Vian. As noted in the reviews of both FOAM OF THE DAZE and HEARTSNATCHER which appeared in these pages over the last year and a half, Vian's work is filled with a humorous sort of surrealism, and AUTUMN IN PEKING is no different. But fortunately, Vian seldom if ever uses them as tiresome philosophical metaphors (like, say, the abysmal contemporary novelist Jonathan Safran Foer). Instead, in the aggregate they serve to invite the reader into a strange, alien world that intersects-in classic Surrealist fashion-with our own in odd ways. As Vian said of his novel in the foreword to FOAM OF THE DAZE, "Strictly speaking, its material realization consists essentially of a projection of reality, in a biased and heater atmosphere, onto an irregularly undulating reference plane, resulting in some distortion."
However, FOAM tends to cast a long shadow over the rest of Vian's work. Most readers fall in love with Vian's quirky love story, and see him as a hopeless romantic with a dark streak. Beauty and horror are thoroughly entwined. Chloe dies, after all, of a water lily growing in her lung.
But Vian is first and foremost dark. The quirk, the charm and the whimsy are mere accoutrements. Other novels-particularly those he wrote under the name "Vernon Sullivan," like I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVES-have plenty of violence and horror and none of the cute tidbits of FOAM. As I noted in my review of HEARTSNATCHER, Vian's last novel, his work grew progressively darker over his short career.
AUTUMN IN PEKING, written between FOAM and HEARTSNATCHER, is somewhere between the two. Like FOAM, it's primarily a love story, but unlike in FOAM, the love story is remarkably lacking in sentiment.
Amadis Dudu, after finally catching the 975, dozes off and awakes hours later to find himself cruising through the desert. The bus conductor, it turns out, won't stop unless someone dings the bell or he runs out of gas. Dudu, however, finds his unexpected detour to the "Exopotamie" desert to be advantageous. An executive with the railroad company, he proceeds to begin a project to build a line through the desert for, more or less, no reason.
Back in the city, an engineer, none too eager for the job, is hired to design the rail line. He is overjoyed, then, to be run over by Anne, a (male) engineer driving erratically to impress his girlfriend Rochelle and his (also male) friend Angel.
The love triangle between Anne, Angel and Rochelle forms the backbone of the plot. Anne, a pretty-boy with a well-paying job, is a bit of a playboy to boot. Rochelle is, however, devoted to him, much to Angel's chagrin.
As in FOAM, the young relationship eats away at Rochelle. She begins to fade away and shrivel up, consumed by her passion for Anne. But unlike FOAM, there's none of the tepid sentimentalism regarding youthful romance. For Anne, the relationship is nothing but sex, quite the opposite of the lovesick Colin.
Although theirs is the central story, there are far more characters in AUTUMN IN PEKING. Vian, decidedly anti-clerical and atheistic, takes aim at the clergy in the form of Littlejohn, a Falstaffian cleric who recites dirty limericks as liturgy and imbibes a great deal of alcohol. Claude Leon, an office-worker who accidentally commits a murder à la Albert Camus' THE STRANGER, becomes a re-born Catholic in prison and is sent by Littlejohn to be a hermit in the Exopotamian desert, with his penance to be having sex with a gorgeous Nubian princess. Then there's Athanagore, an archaeologist looking for sarcophagi in the sands, his gay assistant (who vies with Dudu for the affections of the cook), and Copper, one of his students who spends much of the novel nude.
Trying to reduce Vian's work is a painful task destined to failure. Like Kafka, Vian creates fantastically complex, surreal worlds in his fiction, which deserve to be savored rather than paraphrased by critics. Just over 50 years old, AUTUMN IN PEKING is still as fresh and hip as it was in Vian's day, if not more so (he was, in many ways, ahead of his time). In a new translation from Tam Tam Books, an LA micropress that is struggling to make Vian available to American readers, AUTUMN IN PEKING is a book that should be required reading, and serves as an antidote to the tired, self-obsession and gimmicky cleverness of most hip contemporary fiction." - Jeremy M. Barker

"Contrary to what the title indicates, it takes place in an imaginary desert land called Exopotamie, where the sun emits black rays and an ill-matched collection of eccentric characters is trying to build a railroad. Whether this project is eventually accomplished is a matter of indifference to both the novel's characters and its narrator. As in his third novel Foam of the Daze, Vian's absurdist humor highlights the pointless and demoralizing effects of modern work. It also serves as a tonal counterpoint to the tragic love triangle that comprises the other main plot thread. What's most characteristic of this novel are its nonsensical events, its unpredictable dialogues and interactions, and the random and careless acts of violence that its characters both suffer and commit. Neither shocking nor even darkly humorous, Vian's scenes of violence have a hilarious effect. It's not unusual for a character who has had his hip broken in five places to exclaim, "If you only knew how happy I am!..." Although these characters certainly feel pain, they don't seem to resent being poisoned, or getting maimed by uncooperative vehicles, or having their limbs sawn off. With a slapstick exuberance reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, this novel is much more fun to read than countless other modern experiments in narrative form. At its end, all that's left are ruined romances, several dead or vanished characters, and a renewed plan to start up the railroad project again with a different set of workers. It's all completely devoid of purpose, but Vian provides exactly the kind of pleasurable and surprising purposelessness that art is supposed to offer." - Thomas Hove
Boris Vian, Blues for a Black Cat and Other Stories (Bison Books, 2001)

"A cocky black cat that drinks cognac and can't stay out of holes, a hyperactive plumber who pulls out all the stops, an expiring jazzman who sells his sweat, a green soldier who moves into a terribly serious position - these are a few of the outrageous and poignant creations of Boris Vian in Blues for a Black Cat and Other Stories. Julia Older makes available for the first time in English this collection of his short fiction, which was originally published as Les Fourmis in 1949. It is a delightful introduction to the work of a much-admired French poet, playwright, and song-writer whose celebrity has continued to grow since his untimely death in 1959. These early stories, written in 1944 and 1945, reveal that Vian was already a master of black humor, wordplay, elegant understatement, and leaps of fancy. Blues for a Black Cat, bubbling with Vian's sense of mischief and evocative of his love for jazz, shows the seamier side of postwar Parisian night life. "The Plumber" is the nightmare of every citizen who has been incommoded by expensive repairmen. "Pins and Needles" conveys Vian's daring opposition to World War II (his song "The Deserter" later would be censored by the government for inciting sentiment against the French-Algerian conflict). The other stories - "Cancer," "Dead Fish," "Journey to Khonostrov," "Blue Fairy Tale," "Fog," "Good Students," and "One-Way Street" - are marked by the same verbal Niagaras, zany sexual encounters, and absurd situations. But, as Julia Older points out, parody only heightens the masked terrors of war, poverty, ill health, and unemployment that hound the bizarre protagonists of Vian's fablelike narratives."
"Ten avant-garde fables of serious whimsy, ushered in by Older's useful introduction, bibliography and discography, are culled here from Vian's rich output. During his brief life author and musician Vian wrote novels, plays, poetry, songs and libretti, contributed essays to Jazz Hot in Paris, and translated American works (by Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain) that shaped his own writing. Playful and tough, fresh and zany, Vian generally speaks from a moral stance. "Pins and Needles'' treats the horrifying absurdity of war and the Allied rescue of 1944 with wacky grisliness. In "The Plumber'' a fast-talking workman browbeats a tenant and wreaks chaos with needless repairs. The title of "Good Students'' refers to young police cadets who study the rule book on how to control and brutalize an innocent populace. "Blue Fairy Tale'' is a tale of betrayal during a motor jaunt, a format evoking the fictional popularity of the automobile in the period. The title story features an articulate, garrulous cat stuck in a sewer, while drinkers turn out of a nearby bar to save it. The collection displays Vian's range from gallows humor to verbal fireworks, and happily serves to give visibility to this important writer." - Publishers Weekly
Boris Vian, I Spit On Your Graves, Trans. by Boris Vian and Milton Rosenthal (Tam Tam Books, 1998).

"I Spit on Your Graves, a sensational bestseller in France in 1947 that reportedly sold more than half a million copies by 1950, was presented as a translation (by Boris Vian) of a novel written in English by a 'Vernon Sullivan'. The idea that it was unpublishable in the United States seems entirely plausible; it is a very graphic pulp thriller, and Europeans might very well have believed that the racial element made it impossible to release it in the US.
The novel is narrated, for the most part, by an angry young man, Lee Anderson. Lee can - and does - pass for white, but is apparently black; one of his brothers was killed - lynched -, and he's out for revenge. He takes a job running a bookstore in a small town and befriends the local youths, teens bored by small-town life and willing to have fun the only way they can around here - drinking and having sex. Lee provides both.
Eventually, Lee sets his sights on two sisters who live a few towns away, the wealthy Lou and Jean Asquith. Jean has at least hit twenty, but Lou is only fifteen. Lee's style of seduction is pretty rough and tumble, but in these parts it seems to work, and despite taking advantage of a completely drunk Jean he soon has both sisters wrapped around his finger.
When Jean finds herself pregnant, things come to a head faster than he had hoped, but he figures he can take them both out. Naturally, things spin further out of control and don't go quite as planned or hoped for, with an ending of Greek-tragedy proportions. Vian allows the book to a come to a desperate, rushed end, which somewhat diminishes its power and effect, but the conclusion was, of course, inevitable.
One reason the way Vian ties things up does not work that well is because the book is so shocking from the start. There's not that much violence (except as part of the sex-play that goes on), but there's a lot of loose and graphic sex going on (even as Vian maintains that Sullivan (i.e. he): "thinks more of suggesting by a turn of expression and construction of a sentence than by the crude word. In this respect he comes nearer to a more Latin erotic tradition" ...). There's some simmering racial tension, too, though Vian does not make as much of this as he might have, only bringing things to a head when one of the local youths takes Lee to have sex with some very underage girls ("two little girls about eleven or twelve years old"), one of whom is coloured (though at least that one, which Lee is paired up with, has a body that "had already taken the shape of a woman").
I Spit on Your Graves is genuinely shocking in its display of the loose ways of 40s youths, but only works because Vian has a good ear for dialogue and a good sense of pace. Much of the story, including Lee's various seductions, seem very implausible, but there's a confident air to the whole presentation that prevents it from seeming entirely ridiculous. It reads well, and is an excellent example of the pulp-thriller, even if Vian can't completely hold it together. It also has held up very well, perhaps because it is so much a work of the imagination (as opposed to being based on any real experience of the American South, since Vian had none at that time).
Disturbing, but a solid, sex-drenched piece of pulp." - The Complete Review

"In the tradition of Karl May and Franz Kafka, Boris Vian imagines an America even more amazing than the land he has never visited. I Spit on Your Graves is the first novel to put quotation marks around the 'hardboiled' - a vivid and startling performance." - J. Hoberman

"In I Spit on Your Graves, Vian wrote an utterly untypical work, a blast from his Id that may well have killed him. Even now, with misogyny disguised as racial justice, its venom remains potent and disturbing, in equal parts appalling and riveting. It is a singular book, not for the squeamish, and not to be passed by." - Jim Krusoe

"The book's protagonist is Lee Anderson, a white-skinned mulatto seeking retribution for the racially-motivated murder of his kid brother. His somewhat curious method: to sleep with as many white woman as possible-and if they prove worthy enough (which would seem to mean "white" enough), murder them. There are no heroes, but-less common for the "noir" genre- there are almost no victims, with the exception of the barely mentioned dead brother, and a particularly disturbing chapter involving two pubescent prostitutes. To read this book as an outrage against racism, however (which has been done), would be a misreading. Although the issue is obviously present, it makes for more of an off-kilter vehicle for the narrative. This might perhaps be due to the fact that Vian had never been to America; in the existential jazz atmosphere of postwar Paris, the lynching of a black man was perhaps as exotically "American" as the gumshoe. But the book, for all its terse prose and crafted crudity, is actually more complex than that, and ends better as a reflection (or perhaps celebration) of the misogyny and sadism so endemic to postwar pulp fiction. These were qualities that George Orwell addressed in an essay on the enormous success of James Hadley Chase's No Orchids for Miss Blandish - qualities that Queneau, Vian's pataphysical colleague, attempted to parody in his own puzzling effort at pseudonymous pulp: We Always Treat Women Too Well. Vian, though, proved to be more successful at casting a troubling light on this peculiar period in French literature. The fact that it took this long for its translation to see print in the U.S. is puzzling, to say the least." - Marc Lowenthal

"It opens innocuously enough with Lee establishing himself in small town America, but soon you are embroiled in a maelstrom of violence, pornography and nihilism. Blacker than noir, this Molotov cocktail of race, sex and hatred burns off the page." - Jim Healy

"The book is interesting from a historical standpoint because of its publishing history and Vian’s authorship hoax. It’s also a good example of an artful thriller that plays with the pulp conventions and uses the genre to satiric effect—while reading the lurid story, readers are encouraged to conflate social criticism of race relations with sheer titillation, and the reception of the work dramatizes the way people can behave, as though reading a sensational novel about racial violence is the same as doing something about it. Unlike many pulp novels, Vian’s holds up as a strange and shocking read today, no small feat in a gratuitous age." - Monique Dufour
Boris Vian, The Dead All Have the Same Skin (Tam Tam Books, 2008)

"Written one year after the controversial (putting it mildly) I Spit on Your Graves, you think Vian would have known better. But no, he decided to do another violent shocker that is ripped out of today's (or was it all in my head?) headlines. This surreal masterpiece of 'dark' writing is about Daniel Parker who is a bouncer in a drink hell bar hole somewhere in New York City (Vian, a French man never been to the States) who is blackmailed by his long lost brother who is black and threatens him to tell the truth about his brother's racial blood. Parker is not going to take that. His life, by that admission, becomes a tipsy topsey one-way ticket to hell.
If that is not enough it also includes a short story by Vian "Dogs, Desire, and Death" which is an erotic tale of a bad girl, a helpless driver, and the need for destruction and sexual release.
And no even that is not enough; we have a small essay or more like a rant by Vian regarding the history of his first controversial shocker I Spit on Your Graves. And not only that, but also a thoughtful and informative introduction by Marc Lapprand."

"Vian pulps noir by running it through the blender of his rancid post-avant-garde imagination. This book is a brilliant, brutal, page-turner, and every bit as nasty as the most depraved prose of the Marquis de Sade or Jim Thompson; simultaneously, it is one of the most intelligent novels dealing with race and racism in the United States penned by a white European writer." - Stewart Home

"Imagine an intellectual, astutely French, who hangs out with the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, has a child's sense of humor and of the world's newness, writes radically perverse novels and spends his evenings playing trumpet with jazz bands 'round about the Left Bank. There you pretty much have Boris Vian.
Life on its own, however fervently and furiously embraced, was never enough for him. It needed the seasoning of imagination: rhetorical figures, filigrees of language, slapstick, turns of phrase and radical shifts of perspective, a touch of the mythic, a pinch of the mystic. He'd walk by front doors left ajar, squeeze his way in through a basement window propped half open.
In an early story about the Normandy invasion Vian wrote: 'We arrived this morning and weren't well received. No one was on the beach but a lot of dead guys (or pieces of dead guys), tanks, and demolished trucks. Bullets flew from almost everywhere... The boy just behind me had three-quarters of his face removed by a whizzing bullet. I put the pieces in my helmet and gave them to him.'
Of the dead-unserious group in which he was central, he remarked, 'Only the College of Pataphysicians does not undertake to save the world.' Asked to fill out a form in triplicate, Vian said, the Pataphysician will remove the carbons and enter different information on each sheet. That playfulness and refusal to be pinned down peeks out, Kilroy-like, from all that Vian wrote.
... Vian wrote two further Vernon Sullivan novels, in which he kicked out all the stops and skidded toward parody; neither has the authority or purchase of the first two. Reminiscent of Chester Himes' sadly neglected Run Man Run in its intensity and its protagonist's needless headlong rush to oblivion, The Dead All Have the Same Skin also verges - with its fierce energy, candor and matter-of-fact savagery - on Jim Thompson territory: "I liked it. I got a kick out of pummeling the heads of those pigs. But after five years I've started to lose my taste for this particular sport. Five years and not a soul suspects it. No one has the slightest idea that a man of mixed blood, a colored man, has been the one pounding on their heads each and every night."
Dan Parker works as a bouncer in a New York club. It's all gone stale: drunken clients, available women, the buzz of violence, the hard-and-easy sex. Living as white in a white world, he has always felt out of place and vaguely afraid, but he has his home, his white wife and kid, his job. And when braced by Richard, a black man claiming to be his brother, Dan fears it will all come undone. From that moment, we are securely in the jaws of classic noir, as, driven by circumstance, careening from one dreadful act to another, Dan becomes his own chatty tour guide to damnation.
If only. . . .
But character is destiny and writes the script of our lives.
'I killed Richard for nothing. His bones snapped under the force of my hands. I killed the girl with one punch. And now the pawnbroker is dead, again for no reason... I killed them all for absolutely no reason. And now I've lost Sheila and the hotel is being surrounded.'
The Dead All Have the Same Skin came out in 1947, at the peak of success for I Spit on Your Graves... Certainly, Vian is not to every taste. As is said of pulp fiction, there's much silliness mixed in with the driven, hard-edged storytelling. Ever the iconoclast and reconstructed adolescent, Vian continually pushes boundaries and crawls under barricades, seeing how much he can get away with. Yet like other great arealist writers, he had a way of dipping into the pools of archetypes and primal emotions we all share - very much, in fact, like Jacquemort, of L'Arrache-coeur, condemned to fish the refuse of an entire village, all of its guilt, from the river with his teeth." - James Sallis
Boris Vian, Manual of Sant-Germain-des-Prés (Tam Tam Books, 2005)

"After World War Two, the Parisian neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés became a Mecca for intellectual life and innovative social thought. This first English translation of French author Boris Vian's Manual of St-Germain-des-Prés is a walking tour of the Left Bank cafés, galleries, underground jazz clubs, theatres, and apartment salons that were the center of existentialist and post-surrealistic circles.
Provocateur, novelist, playwright, jazz musician and singer, Boris Vian ran with luminaries including Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet, Alberto Giacometti, Juliette Greco, Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prévert, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Manual of St-Germain-des-Prés is a mosaic of their memories and anecdotes, as much as it is a collection of Vian's impressions. 200 sumptuous black-and-white photographs by Georges Dudognon capture the exciting and provocative spirit of post-war Paris.
Manual of St-Germain-des-Prés documents the first time legendary African-American jazz musicians rubbed shoulders with French writers, artists, musicians, and intellectuals who wanted to shake the conservative grip and dance. The interactions amongst a cast of characters who lived exuberantly active and diverse lives make for a captivating read, and vividly illustrate the irresistible, anything-is-possible spirit that made the Left Bank the place to be in the 1950s."
"In this priceless mock Baedeker, the 20th century's coolest Frenchman, novelist/jazzman/boho bon vivant Boris Vian, explains the Commandments of Cellar Club Existentialism and how to distinguish between the various dancing, strident, inert, misunderstood, panhandling, brawling, and megalomaniac "troglodytes" inhabiting the jazz-club catacombs. The Manual is passionately introduced by Tosh Berman (who has single-handedly restored Vian's American rep), charmingly translated by Paul Knobloch, and rich with Georges Dudognon's photographs of visiting celebs-Garbo, Faulkner, Monsieur Orson Welles-come to swill Sperm of Flamant Rose and faire un boeuf with Miss Vice, Hot d'Dee, Timsy Pimsy, and the other Rats de Cave at Le Tabou. It looks like one helluva party and I treasure the image of existential chanteuse Juliette Gréco waking up damp and tousled in her dumpy Hotel Louisiana room. It must be four in the afternoon and, even before lighting a Pall Mall, she extends a bare arm to drop the needle on the little phonograph that waits to wail some Coleman Hawkins amid the detritus of half-empty bottles and stale coffees beside her bed." - J. Hoberman

"Go to the place where the Big Bang of Bohemianism took place and you'll find chichi cafés and an Emporio Armani. It's a funny business, evolution. But 40 years ago, in post-Occupation Paris, when French philosophy and high literature met American jazz, movies and popular fiction, and started shagging each other senseless, the Rive Gauche was a cauldron of new, artistic-intellectual thought. Vian was one of its prime movers: a singer, songwriter, jazz musician, record producer and novelist (yes he did influence Serge Gainsbourg) who also translated Raymond Chandler and arranged Paris gigs for previously-banned black American jazzmen. Understandably he was a bit busy to take detailed notes. So this is not much of a travel guide, more a collection of smart, caustic, entertaining observations for his fellow insiders. There's particular venom for the press, drawn by the scene's decadence and celebrities. And there are plenty of both in the excellent black and white photos." - Sylvie Simmons

"...while he was alive Vian was known less for his work than for being the epitome of Left Bank bohemia, standing at the center of its postwar rehabilitation after the trauma of the German Occupation. He was the presiding spirit of intellectual café society, and a close conspirator with Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. He had no allegiance to existentialism, however. Instead, he offered a single absurd voice, dedicated to pleasure and provocation, to dreams and pure subjectivity. While Albert Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty spent their time worrying about choosing the right sort of authentic freedom or struggling against world-historical forces, Vian was more interested in amusing himself. “I am not an existentialist,” he wrote. “For an existentialist, existence precedes essence. For me, there isn’t any such thing as essence.”
“I was born, by chance, on March 10, 1920, at the door of a maternity ward, which was closed due to a strike,” Vian wrote by way of autobiography. “My mother, pregnant by the works of Paul Claudel (whom, to this day, I cannot stand), was in her thirteenth month and could not wait for a legal settlement to the issue.” In fact, he was born, on that day, into a well-to-do bourgeois family living in Ville-d’Avray, a suburb of Paris. The Vians lost most of their money in the crash of 1929, but by the time he was a teen-ager Boris was already committed to not letting anything get in the way of fun: he organized legendary parties in his family garden, with guests dancing into the night.
As a child, Vian was given a diagnosis of a heart problem, and he battled various ailments throughout childhood and adolescence. He often predicted that he would die before he was forty. An early death, and a long-foretold one, became an essential element of his personal mythology: he had no time to waste. He liked to say that one should be a specialist in everything, and he did his best to live up to this dictum.
In his late teens, Vian began listening to Duke Ellington and took up the trumpet. In 1941, his heart condition having kept him out of the war, he began performing with the clarinettist Claude Abadie’s jazz band, which soon was renamed the Abadie-Vian Orchestra. Meanwhile, he did his best to avoid any sort of regular work, though he did spend four years as a civil engineer, employed in the glassworks division of the French standards bureau. (His first assignment there was to find the perfect bottle, appropriately enough: one of his more famous songs is called “I Drink,” and runs, “I drink / the worst cheap wines./It’s disgusting / but it passes the time.”) After the war, he formed his own group, which he called the Little Choir of Saint-Germain of the Feet, and helped transform the underground club Le Tabou into one of the hottest spots in the city. As he wrote in The Manual of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, “Rather quickly Le Tabou evolved into a center of organized madness.”
When Vian was twenty-one, he married Michelle Léglise, the daughter of an inventor, and his first attempts at writing were done to amuse her. He began with poetry—a book of sonnets—and finished two novels before writing Foam of the Days. He dedicated it to her—“Pour mon bibi”—and the book has the quality of an absurd love letter, a fairy tale for grownups. Colin, a young man possessed of a fortune large enough to avoid any sort of work, and Chick, a young man without fortune who avoids work nonetheless, meet two girls, Chloe and Alise. Colin has a factotum, Nicolas, a sort of Surrealist Jeeves, who serves pâté made out of eels that he finds in the plumbing, carries on conversations with mice, sleeps with teen-age girls, and is Alise’s uncle. When Chick remarks on the resemblance between uncle and niece, noting a particular difference in the general area of the chest, Nicolas answers that, indeed, “she is more developed perpendicularly, if I may be permitted this precision.” Colin and Chloe fall in love, and marry.
But this simple tale is only the canvas onto which Vian’s hyperactive imagination splashes a rich variety of bizarre effects and contemporary allusions. He misses no opportunity to invent new words, or to play with the ambiguities of already existing ones. The book is peppered with pianos that mix cocktails according to which notes are played, rifles that require being fed by human warmth to grow regularly, a philosopher named Jean-Sol Partre, who arrives at his lectures on the back of an elephant, and a visit from a noncommittal Jesus, who refuses to take responsibility for any of it. The book is half a satirical picture of sleek postwar culture—gadgets, car trips, parties—and half a blooming forest of surreal effusions. Here is Colin, off to meet his friends, seeing the world as only he sees it and drawing his own conclusions:
Colin got out of the metro and went up the stairs. He came out on the wrong side and went round the station to orient himself. He took the direction of the wind with a yellow silk handkerchief and the color of the handkerchief, carried away by the wind, landed on a large and irregularly formed building, which then took on the air of the Molitor skating-rink-pool complex. . . . A man in a white sweater opened a changing room for him, accepted a tip for his work that he would use for his leisure because he looked like a liar, and abandoned him in this forgotten dungeon after haphazardly scrawling his initials on a blackened rectangle placed for that purpose inside the cabin. Colin noticed that the man did not have the head of a man, but of a pigeon, and did not understand why he was put to work at the skating rink rather than at the pool.
That a pigeon-headed man is better suited to water than to ice is hardly something that most readers will feel requires no explanation, but Vian isn’t interested in explaining what he sees. He deploys his effects with deadpan bravado, as if they were nothing out of the ordinary. He works in a universe of pure lightness, rising up against what Italo Calvino once called “the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world,” lifting himself above all laws of gravity out of a certainty that they do not apply to him.
Until, suddenly, they do. For most of the book, Colin and Chick live in a childish world, of girls and jazz and fun, but around them Vian’s surreal sketchbook starts to display an almost giddy cruelty. Vian evokes a mechanized world in which human lives, apart from those of the main characters, seem utterly expendable. At Partre’s lecture, his fans are so crazy to see him that some try to parachute in (a team of firefighters drown them with hoses) and others try to enter the hall through the sewers (security stomps them, and rats eat the survivors).
...Indeed, from the end of the war, Vian was everywhere you looked—“the Prince of a subterranean kingdom,” his biographer Noël Arnaud called him, “a prince in shirtsleeves with a trumpet for his scepter.” The Manual of Saint-Germain-des-Prés portrays a scene filled with poets and painters, movie stars, singers, and philosophers—Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet, Alberto Giacometti, Tristan Tzara, Juliette Gréco, Simone Signoret. De Beauvoir, describing a party at the Vians’, recalled:
When I arrived, everyone had already drunk too much; his wife, Michelle, her long white silk hair falling on her shoulders, was smiling to the angels; Astruc . . . was sleeping on the sofa, shoeless; I also drank valiantly while listening to records imported from America. Around two in the morning Boris offered me a cup of coffee; we sat in the kitchen and until dawn we talked: about his novel, on jazz, on literature, about his profession as an engineer. I found no affectation in his long, white and smooth face, only an extreme gentleness and a kind of stubborn candor. . . . We spoke, and dawn arrived only too quickly. I had the highest appreciation, when I had the chance of enjoying them, for these fleeting moments of eternal friendship.
...Vian remains difficult to categorize, in part because he both was and wasn’t a creature of his time. For all his cultural centrality in postwar Paris, his books have much less in common with anything his contemporaries were up to than with the linguistic playfulness of writers who preceded him, from Mallarmé to the Surrealists, or, for that matter, with literature that came just after—the practitioners of the nouveau roman who emerged in the late fifties, or the game-playing Oulipo crowd of the sixties. “He lived ahead,” Arnaud wrote. “He was, and remains, on the arc of the future.” Foam of the Days was largely ignored on its publication, but it became a totemic book to the revolutionary generation of 1968: by 1962, it had sold only three thousand copies; by 1975, the figure had reached a million.
But by then Vian was long dead. In 1959, as he sat in a movie theatre, watching an adaptation of I Spit on Your Graves — a French production that he had wanted nothing to do with and had tried to prevent from being made — his weak heart finally gave out. He was thirty-nine. According to Vian legend, he was able to bear only ten minutes of the movie before collapsing, and his last words were “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” Evidently, the Americans in the film were not the Americans Vian had seen in his head, and, for Vian, what he saw in his head was all that counted. In the preface to Foam of the Days he wrote, “There are only two things: love in all its forms with pretty girls and the music of New Orleans or Duke Ellington, it’s the same. The rest should disappear, for the rest is ugly, and the brief demonstration that follows gathers all its energy from the fact that the story is entirely true, because I imagined it from one end to the other.” - Dan Halpern


Lily Hoang - Calligraphic patchwork of sadness, at once a fractal fairy tale, a fortune, and a translation told through the I Ching

Unfinished: stories finished by
Lily Hoang, Jaded Ibis Press, 2011.

ART: Original art finished by Anne Austin Pearce. Also includes unfinished art by Pearce that readers are urged to finish.

SOUND: original music by by Ron Heckert (Tornado In A Jar)

"Lily Hoang is a daring writer because she attempts to make something new with each piece that she writes. She plays with form and sometimes applies compositional constraints. And she does amazing things with narrative voice." – William Walsh
"Hoang invited over twenty adventurous writers to submit unfinished stories that she then completed. Story fragments ranged from a few sentences to a few pages, and manifested in wildly different styles. "The breadth of range is impressive," wrote book critic Paul Constant, "some entries are science fiction, some are field guides for fictional birds, some are descriptions of fantastic, otherworldly museums." Authors of unfinished writing are Kate Bernheimer, Blake Butler, Beth Couture, Debra Di Blasi, Justin Dobbs, Trevor Dodge, Zach Dodson, Brian Evenson, Scott Garson, Carol Guess, Elizabeth Hildreth, John Madera, Ryan Manning, Michael Martone, Kelcey Parker, Ted Pelton, Kathleen Rooney, Davis Schneiderman, Michael Stewart, J.A. Tyler. "

Here’s the deal: we know from the publisher’s description of Unfinished, from interviews with Lily Hoang and the initial call for submissions on her blog, how this book came about. She asked writers to send her their “abandoned” stories. She would finish them. The authors of the abandoned and Hoang would edit them together or not. Then the collection would be published.
But before we talk about what became of these finished pieces, we have to address Unfinished’s paratexts: Gérard Genette’s concept that every text that surrounds the main-text of a book creates a frame for understanding it.
Within the framework of paratexts, there’s the peritext: information in and on the book (text on the cover, the spine, the title page) and the epitext: the text that orbits the book, outside of it (interviews, reviews, etc.)
In the forward (a peritext) to Unfinished, Hoang writes of the stories, “I have co-opted and taken [them] as my own.” That kind of ownership isn’t necessarily suggested on the cover (another peritext), which reads “stories finished by Lily Hoang.” And the epitexts that surround Unfinished create what will become a useful confusion about ownership and division: Hoang is listed as the sole author of the book in its bibliographic reference online at the Library of Congress, and she said in an interview about the book at the Kenyon Review blog, “They’re now my stories”. But some writers of the abandoned drafts refer differently to the stories published in the book: John Madera calls his “The Museum of Oddities and Eccentricities” a “collaborative story” on his blog and Kate Bernheimer wrote of her draft that became “Kitty’s Mystical Circus,”: “I felt Lily was giving something to me, not that I was giving something up.” To complicate matters further, a story from Unfinished, “So Cold & Far Away,” was included in William Walsh’s Re-Telling, where both Hoang and Rooney are listed as writers of the story—though Hoang’s name comes first.
But back to the peritext. Hoang’s name is printed at the top left-hand side of each page of the book in bold multi-colored text that matches the font of the story titles. This placement is just where readers expect the author’s name to be. The names of the authors who provided the abandoneds are listed underneath the titles of the stories, in parentheses and italicized in plain black text. Their names are preceded by the word “from.” So we have “An Expansion of Land” and underneath “(from Ryan Manning).” But the “from” means many things here, and seems a very deliberately used open word. “From” as starting point? Clearly. But what about the definition of “from” as removal or separation? The stories were “given” to Hoang, the words taken from the original authors and re-claimed by her, but as she says in the same Kenyon Review interview where she claimed ownership of the stories, “the abandoned story starts are still on the original writers’ hard drive somewhere, still unfinished.” Or maybe “from” is meant as distance between things: the distance between unfinished and finished, the distance between one writer’s voice and another’s. Or maybe, more importantly, it’s the distance that disappears once we begin reading, when we, the readers as collaborators with the finished text, quit obsessing about the goddamn paratexts and start thinking about the stories.
Yet introducing these stories is difficult. Do I write, Unfinished begins with “Your Ballad of Milt and Stanley”; or do I write Unfinished begins with Evenson and Hoang’s “Your Ballad of Milt and Stanley” (as was done in Hobart 12); or do I write Unfinished begins with Hoang and Evenson’s “Your Ballad of Milt and Stanley”; or do I write Unfinished begins with “’Your Ballad of Milt and Stanley’ from Brian Evenson” like the table of contents suggests? Does it matter?
Regardless, the choice to begin with something “from” Brian Evenson is important. Because there’s a particular sound, an unfolding, in all of Evenson’s works that seems recognizable, particular to him. Are we meant to look for the seams, to see what doesn’t sound Evenson-like right away? Is this a challenge?)
If it is, it’s perfect. Because the story is told in the second-person. The “you” is an active participant from the second line of story, “What made you think, even for an instant, that Stanley had a chance with the cool kids?” We, the readers, are accomplices to something terrible that will happen. To participate fully, we who become the “you” have to let go of trying to separate Evenson’s words from Hoang’s, because we have to play the role the story demands of us. As we proceed, our “you” morphs into a double of ourselves: a character reading the story written by the narrator: “For Christ sake. Haven’t you ever read a fucking short story before?” Then the “you” becomes another double of the character “Milt,” with the same failed career in the electronics department at Wal-Mart, and is admonished by the narrator, “Because rather than reading the story like a normal human being, you start seeing yourself in every character.” Soon after, our “you” wears the same clothes as Stanley, changes his/her electronics department nametag to “Stanley,” until finally we arrive where we began the story: we, the reader, have provided the impetus for some classroom violence against Stanley so affecting it can’t be described and the story ends. The identity of the reader, the “you”, quickly emerges and disappears, is buried and begotten beneath layers, like the very palimpsest of authorship that the paratexts of Unfinished create.
I think it’s only natural to talk about the seamlessness of these stories—how the reader can’t “feel” the textures of Hoang’s words separate from the authors of the abandoneds. But I think there are exposed seams and they are vital to the success of the book: the seam between reader and text that can only occur because we are at times fused: reader and character.
In almost every story, we, the readers, are asked to become characters; the narrators often speak to us. The narrator of “Birthday Cake”, who watches Samson, a man who has baked a cake and left it for someone to find while he hides, waiting to witness the intended recipient’s reaction, knows his thoughts. This narrator makes a remark to the reader in parentheses. And even though it’s a fairly mundane comment about the numbers of windows needed in a room “(preferably two, but one will do),” and arises out of Samson’s surveillance of his hiding place, this aside is still an important moment. The narrator knows we are watching the narrator watch Samson.
In the exquisite “So Cold & Far Away,” a kind of “translation” of the “Book of Ruth,” there’s a similar moment: “He is a quick one, this Boaz,” says the narrator, stepping outside of the narrative, clearly making a comment to the reader about Ruth’s husband, who realizes something’s wrong with Ruth, who has been hiding in a closet.
The narrator in “The Man and His Treasure” has the same moment of contact with the reader: “Remember: the treasure is tucked in the man’s corduroy jacket” we are reminded, about a never-explained treasure the man takes great pains to conceal.
When we, the readers, become characters, when we fuse this division of outside and inside, we create the story, just as the original writer of the abandoned drafts did, just as Lily Hoang did when she finished them.
But many of these stories are also about the failure to divide, the failure to blend. In “Whore’s Machine,” there’s a physical line that cannot be seen that separates two worlds, there’s a failed attempt of language, to separate the all-powerful force of an “it” into its disparate, there’s the world that “migrates towards the interior,” but is in constant, uncomfortable contact with the “she who does not belong.” In this story, what’s separate is what’s dangerous.
In “The Story of Two Sisters,” the removal of difference creates a despair. The physical and magical differences between two sisters, “Ana” and “May,” disappear at the end of the story. The girls “make a little slit on their forefingers and rub their blood together,” and in that decision to blend is the danger; it’s the moment when they abandon what separates them from everyone else in the world that they lose their individual power, even their names: they become “AnaMay.”
But there were moments when I stepped completely outside the stories. While reading “A Birder’s Guide to the Wibble-Wibble,” I couldn’t help but think about how wonderful it must’ve been to get this draft from Michael Stewart, to get to play with it. But even while I thought this, I never lost my connection to the kind of tension between counterparts that permeates the book (finished / unfinished; separate / fused). In the “Guide,” we learn that “Once you are quite certain you have sighted a Wibble-Wibble, you should approach while banging a pot with a wooden spoon in a variantly syncopated pattern. The Wibble-Wibble will dance, allowing you to venture closer.” Yet we are warned in the parenthetical editor’s note that follows that: “The Splotched Ruth may also dance like the Wibble-Wibble when approached this way, but if you come within a thirty-food diameter of it, it will attack. This is when the method is particularly important. There are no known survivors of a Splotched Ruth wound.”
And there’s more still; certain stories seem to comment on the process of making the book. In “Eight Ball,” three co-workers at a department store make a film; one of the actors, Kyle, says after seeing the finished product, “It’s totally perfect.” But Zane, who directed the film, says, “It was my vision, not yours… It’s shit. You made it shit.” Then there’s the mission of the Museum of Oddities and Eccentricities, in the story of the same name, which states, among other things, that it exists to “encourage and develop the study of dead starts and false ends.” If we aren’t supposed to see these two statements as meta-remarks, the first as a self-conscious comment on Hoang’s process, the latter as a kind of declarative goal of the project, well then I’ll eat my suncovers.
After twenty-one stories, Unfinished ends with an image of a puzzle piece and the words “finished,” just as the cover of the book shows the negative image of a similar puzzle piece, and the words, “unfinished.” The visual metaphor of the process that created the book is represented beautifully by Anne Austin Pearce’s collaborations with artists (some professional, one 9 years old). Many of the thirty artworks show their finishing boldly: the layers of authorship we can’t see in the stories are made manifest in the art." - Jess Stoner

"Lily Hoang is daring writer. I initially wrote “young and daring” but realized that Lily Hoang’s daring on the page is not a quality related to her (relative) youth. Lily Hoang is a daring writer because she attempts to make something new with each piece that she writes. She plays with form and sometimes applies compositional constraints. And she does amazing things with narrative voice.
Lily’s latest project is a large-scale collaboration with multiple writers. In May 2009 she issued a call for unfinished manuscripts, contacting more than twenty writers and asking them to send along their abandoned story ideas. She proposed to complete their story remnants: “I basically told them, ‘Send me your trash.’”
The resulting collaborations with Brian Evenson, Michael Martone, Kathleen Rooney, Zach Dodson, Kate Bernheimer, Ted Pelton, Debra Di Blasi, and others will be collected as Unfinished, forthcoming from Jaded Ibis Press. I saw Lily read the Evenson-started story (“Your Ballad of Milt & Stanley”) at the &Now Conference last fall in Buffalo and was blown away but its structure and humor, and I just read the equally impressive collaborations with Dodson and Rooney (which is featured in the new issue of Make).
Here’s a Q&A with Lily Hoang about this unique collaborative writing project.
You approached a number of writers who are known to be prolific. I would see those writers as finishers and imagine that any unfinished manuscripts in their files would be absolutely unfinishable. Was that part of the challenge for you?
- Yes and no. I’ll start with the no part first: I have dozens of stories and novels on my hard drive and my notebooks that I simply abandoned, not because they weren’t good, per se, but because I couldn’t find my entry into the narrative. I imagined all these other writers–because they are prolific–were probably in the same position. In many ways, I asked other people for their “trash,” thinking it would motivate me to finish my own abandoned stories.
But yes, of course, I wanted the challenge of finishing what other writers didn’t or couldn’t, but I didn’t see it as a conquest. More than anything, I wanted to play. I didn’t think of the story starts I got as “unfinishable.” They were all finishable. They were all great story starts, but they were things their original authors had abandoned for any number of reasons. It was more like I was taking on stray pets than anything else.
Why did you want to begin collaborating on stories in progress–especially stories that had been all but abandoned by their initial authors?
- I used to teach at a college, and when I taught, I couldn’t write. I used summers as writing time. When last summer (09) rolled around, I didn’t have any project I was keen to start. A month or two earlier, I’d joked about swapping unfinished novels with a friend and we’d finish them for each other. Whereas I was joking when I suggested it, the idea of finishing someone else’s work became appealing.
So I started to send some emails to see if anyone would even respond, and people did! Writers I love and respect generously gave me their unfinished stories, many of which I considered better than anything I could have written on my own.
Without naming names, were there any writers who declined your request to collaborate? Or can you describe any negative or qualified responses to your query?
- There were many writers who declined my request, though they declined by not responding. I did notice, however, that I had a disproportionate number of men offer me their story starts. I had to make a concerted effort to contact women to make the collection even somewhat balanced. I don’t want to make any kind of hypothesis about this gender divide and writing, but there is something to be said here.
Did you find that some of these stories were unfinished because of specific flaws? What kind of prescriptive work did you do to finish these stories? Was the revisions process entirely addition or was there some subtraction involved?
- No, none of these stories were unfinished because they were flawed. They were all promising story starts. I abandon plenty of promising story (and novel) starts, and not necessarily because they’re flawed. Writers abandon stories for a range of reasons. I don’t want to speak for the writers in this collection, but I can say that most of the story/novel starts I “throw out” are trashed because either I can’t the right voice and/or form or I don’t think the voice and/or form I’ve chosen can be sustained. I don’t think of these as flaws though. I’d prefer to think that the decision to stop a project shows insight, that the writer is patient enough to not push, etc.
Most of the story starts I received were really short, some just a sentence or a phrase, some a paragraph or two. Only in a couple instances did I receive more than a finished page, and these were the most challenging stories to finish. These stories had established both voice and form but no plot. I didn’t do “prescriptive” work on them though. I just picked up where the original author left off. I literally finished what they started.
But it was a long process going from their story starts to a finished story. There was a lot of addition, obviously, but also substantial subtraction. My goal was to keep the original author’s voice, style, and narrative as best I could. Nonetheless, these story starts were given to me with the freedom to modify, and so I did. I did a lot of renovations: removing extraneous words, adding more words, changing the narrative voice, changing the narrative as a whole, etc. On the whole though, almost all of the authors were happy with the end product.
What were the biggest surprises in the process?
- How easy and fun it was to finish other people’s stories! I conceived of this project as an extended writing exercise. I wanted the constraint of another writer’s voice, style, story, etc. I expected it to be difficult, but I found that because I was familiar with almost all of these writers, the process was fun. If anything, I did a lot more playing than working!
You play with form and often use compositional constraints in your storytelling. How did you apply this approach to these unfinished manuscripts?
- All of my books have some kind of constraint to them, and with this book, the constraint was to maintain authenticity to the original authors’ voice, style, and substance. This is a fairly common writing exercise. I’ve given it to my fiction students: take a story (usually a canonical story) and add something–a few paragraphs or change the ending–to it while maintaining the author’s voice and style. I’ve done the same thing, only with living writers and unfinished stories. The concept is the same though.
Can you talk about the title of the collection, Unfinished? Do you see the completed stories as still, somehow, unfinished? (As if these orphaned texts will always be unfinished.)
- I called the collection Unfinished because the abandoned story starts are still on the original writers’ hard drive somewhere, still unfinished. I’ve finished their stories, but they’re now my stories. Even though I tried to maintain the original author’s integrity, in the end, these stories are mine. I hope the reader can’t tell where one author ends and I start, but I can tell and so can the other writers. So I’ve offered these stories one possible ending, one possible finishing, but they will all remain ultimately unfinished, until the original author finishes them.
Do you feel the project changed you as a writer? If so, in what way(s)?
- Whereas I don’t necessarily feel changed, the project did challenge me as a writer. For instance, most of my other writing is overtly fabulist. I have some grounding in realism, but the ties are loose at best. With these unfinished stories, however, I had to work with what the original authors gave me. So if a story was fabulist and/or conceptual, I was comfortable, even though I still had to negotiate plot, character, etc. If a story was realist and/or traditional, however, I had to work within those specific constraints. The challenge was part of the fun.
Did you have similar feeling(s) in completing this manuscript as you did with your previous books?
- That’s a really great question, especially considering the title is Unfinished. I always have a rough outline before I begin writing. I write towards a goal, whether it’s a certain development in narrative or a decided number of chapters. This book was no different. I knew I wanted 21 stories. My first book had 21 chapters, so I’ve come to have a sentimental attachment to the number.
When I finished this book, it felt more decisive than when I finished my first book, which felt like groping through darkness. Finishing Unfinished felt like finishing something unfinishable." - Interview by William Walsh

Lily Hoang, Changing (Fairy Tale Review Press, 2008)

"Besides being a powerful novella with an emotional heft that weighs you down with sadness, with the burden of a woman’s history, a woman calling herself “little girl,” Lily Hoang’s Changing is also a puzzle, a game, a manual, and, through some kind of magic, an oracle. Actually, that last part isn’t true because the fluff of hocus pocus is not the stuff of great fiction. In fact, Changing doesn’t provide definitive answers so much as it asks more questions, creates doubts and uncertainty; it provokes, prods, and befuddles the reader. As the narrator explains in “Viewing,” she’s sick of giving “answers so easy & I / want you to look at this I mean / really look at this & from these / stories find your own future.”Reading Changing you might consider starting at the end, with the novella’s appendices, where you’ll find a “Letter of Introduction & Instruction” and “Handouts.” Or you could, like me, begin at the beginning and try to figure out for yourself exactly what is going on. If you see yourself opting for the latter, you might wish to stop reading this review and immediately pick up a copy of the book from Fairy Tale Review Press.
The novella uses the form of the I Ching’s hexagrams as a structural device. Divided into the 64 hexagrams, the text itself mimics the symbol’s form, as it’s broken up into “Yang” sections that run margin to margin and “Yin” sections that are divided in half. This experimental structuring, however, is not simply a fancy frame, but an energetic way of allowing the text to virtually continually change. Borrowing an idea developed by Alice Fulton in her essay “Fractal Amplifications: Writing in Three Dimensions,” Changing is “fractal.” Here every section is as complex as the larger piece from which it’s derived, is full of infinite nesting patterns where digression, disruption, and disintegration counteract conventional notions of continuity.
The I Ching translates as the “Book of Changes” and Hoang’s use of the active verb derivation of change for her title suggests in an even stronger way movement, and lack of fixity, lack of permanence. Like fractal forms, her prose fragments exist in a paradoxical space of movement and stasis. Another interesting device (one that I usually find annoyingly self-conscious and twee) in Changing is the universal use of ampersands. Here its curvilinear aspect acts as a kind of connective tissue to the text fragment’s angularity. Very smart that.
Without giving too much away (one of the pleasures of reading this book is piecing together its threads), Changing is a meditation on what gets lost in translation. Throughout the refractive narrative, the “storyteller” points to the inadequacies of various translators’ translations, mistranslations really, and their concomitant interpretations of the hexagrams. She writes of the “[t]ranslator translating & I not / liking it,” and in the hexagram “Innocence,” she shares the burden of her responsibility:
Translators translating for this one telling me how the innocent often befall misfortune & even though I don’t understand I don’t get it I try to translate au- thenticaly [sic] to authenticate texts of straight & broken lines to give fate.Hoang’s novella is a collection of tiny time capsules. At times it reads as a kind of textual family photo album, each fragment a snapshot from the narrator’s life. Most of the memories are anguished, but some are joyous, even whimsical. Here is one of my favorite passages from the book:
Memory of bathtub filled & me pretending I’m a mermaid & me pretending to sing the Siren’s song even though I’m only four & I don’t really know what the song is I make it up & me pretending I’m the little mermaid only with out such red hair & me splashing up side of tub as if it’s a rock & me seeing water rise higher & higher & me not wanting to make a mess in the bath but still wanting to be a mermaid until a chin cracking open on porcelain & water being ruby redPassages like this (and there are many others like it in Changing) beautifully navigate through childhood fantasy while allowing submerged pain to unexpectedly rise to the surface. In Changing, we find reflections on how one is shaped by circumstances, by memories. Here images collapse together, are obscured by contradictory feelings. Here time moves “differently than / straight & so leader leading to- / day will be gone & even perse- / verance can’t change it & even / being great won’t change it…”There’s so much that my review hasn’t even touched on: the novella’s wonderful repetitions, the bouncing back and forth between “flatland” and the “city of heat,” its numerous interpolations of the Jack and Jill tale, its passages that tumble breathtakingly along. This is a book meant to be reread until the various fragmented memories and stories in Changing finally intertwine, then mesh, then cohere into a captivating story of love, illness, regret, sadness, betrayal, yearning, doubt, and fear. That said, it’s also a book meant (after picking a number out of a cup) to be read at random with each individual story offering direction, illumination for the reader’s—the seeker’s—path. Read this book. It will stretch you." - John Madera"Admittedly, I occasionally look to the back cover of a publication to give me pointers on how others might have read the book that I am reading. This often happens when I am not completely sure about how I “should” be reading. Take for instance, Lily Hoang’s experimental “fairy tale,” Changing, which is described in this way: “At once a fairy tale, a fortune, and a translation told through the I Ching, Vietnamese-American author Lily Hoang’s CHANGING is a ghostly and miniature novel. Both mysterious and lucid at once, the book follows Little Girl down a century-old path into her family’s story. Changing is Little Girl’s fate, and in CHANGING she finds an unsettling, beautiful home. Like a topsy-turvy horoscope writer, Hoang weaves a modern novella into the classical form of the I Ching. In glassine sentences, fragmented and new, Jack and Jill fall down the hill over and over again in intricate and ancient patterns. Here is a wonder story for 21st century America. Here is a calligraphic patchwork of sadness.” While the description seems clear enough, one knows that there will be a challenge levied upon the reader when the phrase “mysterious and lucid” is used to describe the text. Indeed, the “fairytale” does not operate in a realist fashion, proceeding along a relatively linear trajectory. Instead, the text jumps from one narrative configuration to the next, but there still seems to be a rough geometry, as each page possesses textual blocks. Having read Lily Hoang’s Parabola prior to this point, I was well aware of the mathematical way in which her work tends to be structured. In Parabola, the title already clues the reader into the way that the novel will appear as a kind of boomerang. With Changing, Hoang structures it in relation to the I Ching, which employed 64 hexagrams in its arrangement. As such, the updated “fairy tale” does possess 64 sections that each seem to mimic the ideographic nature of the I Ching. It is difficult to describe exactly what this looks like, but suffice it to say that on some pages there are six separately blocked sections in two columns with three “text boxes” each, where it is confusing to think about whether to read “downward” or “across.” Because each “text box” is already so fragmented, it almost doesn’t matter what direction you read. Not all pages have six different text boxes, some have three, others have five, but all are in blocked form and each seems to exist independently of the others. When taken together though, strands do begin to emerge.
While one of the immediate impulses is also to re-envision the “fairy tale,” Hoang seems content with the metaphorical nature of what the fairy tale provides. While the description at the back does make mention of Hoang’s Vietnamese heritage, there is very little reference to that except in the form of indirect and oblique references. For instance, “Mother & father coming here from the country of heat from the country that was their home coming here to a land without their language a cold land & Mother & Father bowing heads complicity dreaming”. “The country of heat” might refer to Vietnam given its tropical climate. Their migration to “a cold land” already suggests the challenges they might face. Another block explains, “That my mother & father don’t speak the language fluently that they take insults from strangers with regularity like pills like medicine swallowing without water like humility like theirs doesn’t need lubricant”. The updated fairy tale is very invested though in the question of translation and if we are to take the possibility that the “narrator” of Changing is indeed someone facing the challenges of assimilation, the fairy tale structure serves as an entire metaphor for such acculturative obstacles, that language is itself a process of Othering and we see this element all throughout the fragmented narrative: “Translator translating this Prevading & me with my humility & embarrassment not knowing what this word Prevading could mean & me searching dictionaries & maybe it’s misspelled or simply the wrong word”. If we understand the “narrator’s” parents as suffering due to their lack of English fluency it would seem vital for the “narrator” to establish a link with English that would allow to use it in such a way as to overcome its power to Other not only her, but her parents as well. Family is a larger motivation as it recurs over and over again; brothers and sister appear repeatedly throughout, and the mother “character” seems to endure a cancer illness that leaves the “narrator” struggling to find her bearings. Other portions of the text seem to invoke a more experimental aesthetic; one block reads: “Return: point a to point a to point a…” and another reads “When I grow up, I want to be a _______ or a _______ or a _______ or a _______ or a ______ but never in my life had I wanted to be a ________ or a ________ & yet that is what I am”. Fred Wah and Myung Mi Kim has used similar techniques in their poetry to leave the reader to “fill in the blacks” themselves. The other major “fairy tale element” is the repetitive motif of “Jack and Jill” which become a riffing device for Hoang; one characteristic riff is this one: “Jill holding the pail & water sloshing & Jill asking Jack to help & Jack saying I thought you’re Ms Independent & Jill saying Of course I am Jack but this is really heavy & I think I might & Jack stepping in front of Jill & Jill falling down & the pail no longer containing & Jill with her head hit & Jack running off & Jill dreaming dreams of seven men no taller than her knees & Jill dreaming dreams of a man with hair yellow & fine & dreaming dreams of a life without Jack”. What is of course interesting here is that the Jack & Jill fable is retold from the perspective of a ruptured relationship and placed in a feminist context. It also has a somewhat serious undertone in that it disrupts the playfulness of the rhyme for a scene of domestic violence in some sense.
The I Ching was supposedly an oracular text, a way to find order out of seemingly random events, and one wonders what sort of predictions that Changing provides the reader. Hoang does not make it clear for us and that I believe is part of the fun. Towards the conclusion of the novella, Hoang intrudes in the form of the translator, “If you are still confused, dear readers, here are more guidelines, but they are unimportant. This can be read any way you want, but I dream of you friend standing & thinking your questions needing resolve & I dream of you extending your arm into the cup & removing a sheath of paper & this is what you read & this is all you read until your next question”. Clearly, Hoang understands the importance of the reader in making meaning out of text, but those meanings can be derived independently of writerly intent. To a certain extent, this makes Changing an absolutely interactive and liberating text. I think taking a very flexible mindset when reading this novella is the only way to make “sense of it” as the translator doesn’t ask us to read it in any one way. There is no handholding, no specific signposts. If I were to invoke my own fairy tale in this review it is to liken this text to a positivistic reading of Hansel and Gretel, where there is no need to follow the bread crumbs, because you can make the bread crumbs out of the hexagrams that appear in the novella. You will find your own way out of the forest, eventually that is. In this respect, I agree with the blurb on the back cover (to be circular if only momentarily), that the text is both mysterious and lucid. I especially appreciate the use of the word “glassine” to describe, as glassine is a type of translucent paper that can be made opaque in the presence of dyes, both transparent then and possibly not. On this seemingly paradoxical terrain, Changing is its own chameleonic force." - Stephen Hong Sohn

"I love this novel. Yes, I like this book and I am impressed by it, but more importantly, I love it.
Let me explain: this book is unique, touching, intimate. It almost feels autobiographical, but it is not. On page after page Hoang's riffs on Jack and Jill and other nursery rhymes, on romantic relationships, on cruelty and tenderness, on family, feel so intimate that to not love them would seem inhumane.
Changing, a 2009 Pen America Award Winner, is based on the ancient Chinese uber-text I-Ching or Book of Changes. The book is composed of 64 hexagrams, each one with six stacked horizontal lines. Some lines are composed of just one dash (­—) an­d some are two (--). The unbroken lines are associated with yang, the creative principle, and the broken with yin, the receptive principle.
For our purposes, it is enough to know that these 64 hexagrams refer to combinations of concrete natural phenomena; namely earth, mountain, water, wind, thunder, fire, swamp, and heaven. For each hexagram, the first three lines refer to one of these phenomena and the second three refer to another. (This is how we get the number 64; there are 64 such possible combinations.) Water, as an example, is composed of a broken line followed by a solid line and another broken line, respectively.
To use the I-Ching for divination, you ask a question then randomly pick a number. Studying that hexagram should help you understand your question better. In an appendix at the end of the book, Lily says that she wants the book to be read that way. For all practical purposes, we can assume that the book need not be read sequentially.
Hoang's book is a new translation of the I-Ching. And it works by, for each hexagram, riffing off of its implications for two pages. (i.e. Each chapter is two pages.) A chapter is divided into six blocks of text, three on one page and three on the other. Some of these blocks are broken into two columns and others are completely solid. They correspond to the broken or solid lines in the hexagrams.
To see what Lily does with three hexagrams, go here. Note that there are six text blocks under each hexagram, and that in the book a page break takes place between the third and the fourth ones. Since it is easilly accessible on the net, I will use this excerpt as an example of what happens throughout the book. I will concentrate on the first one, "Obstruction."
The most direct discussion of the hexagram itself is in the text block that begins "This hexagram is not..." Since heaven is the ultimate creative force (with its three solid lines) and earth the ultimate receptive one (with its three broken lines), it would seem that this hexagram would be water. But it is not: it is obstruction or barricade. Hoang imagines the Princess Jill living in a castle behind a moat. Where did this come from? Throughout the book, in every discussion of a hexagram, Lily goes into Jack and Jill at one point. What's more, other nursery rhymes and fairy tales are quoted. So here, Jill is a princess, evoking all sorts of other tales. This quoting while riffing is very similar to what many jazz artists do, who, while soloing, "quote" the melodies of other songs as a playful and generative act.
This riffing and quoting occurs throughout this excerpt and throughout the book. Each chapter is composed of more than six riffs on the title coming from different imagist, allegorical, and conceptual frameworks. For an example of an allegory, look at the text block beginning "That us lovers..." The whole piece is about the narrator's inability to play chess well and, by implication, the lover's "clean" ability. This is an allegory about the narrator's difficulty with bringing intense emotional scenes (what else could the chess game suggest other than arguments, stressful decisions, an inability to be decisive?) to a conclusion. Perhaps they tend to fester.
Other text blocks under this hexagram are equally interesting. If we remember that with the bottom three lines we are dealing with ultimate receptivity, the block beginning "Impossible for the great..." becomes fascinating. It is a paean to the Taoist idea that the insignificant and nonfunctional (the traditional example is of a severely bent tree) will not be hurt. Here we see how crafty and impossible to catch are the small ones. The very nature of ultimate receptivity implies a strength, an ability to take powerful pressure and yet still remain. The total obstruction of the receptive is impossible (and this is also in keeping with the Yin Yang philosophy) no matter how hard anyone tries.
In the long text block beginning "Memory of the city..." Lily works the notion of water and rain as obstruction once again. Using conjunctions, repetition, and agrammatical structures she causes us to plunge down the text block like heavy rainwater. And it ends with the rye comment "before we're real stuck." The playfulness in this section is quite typical. There is a bouyancy to this novel in spite of its many tragic elements: cancer, growing old, homophobia, racism, breaking from family, and so on.
The playfulness, perhaps, comes from the the conception or intuition that animates the novel, the use of the I-Ching— coupled with the wildly free, agrammatical style. What's more, the play seems inexhaustible. Each chapter could be discussed for hours in terms of how Lily is riffing off of the hexagram. In the sections of the hexagram "Obstruction," she deals with memory, fear, sadness, definitions, Heaven, Earth, small vs. great, family, translating, allegory, and housing. All in two pages!
What's more, this intricately textured novel is not dense. There is so much room to breathe, so much tenderness — the mother lying next to a sick little girl and asking her to give the illness to the mother, and the little girl not wanting to get her mother sick; lovers hearing "how sounds move in groups to our ears"; & Jill walking "into a forest & there she sang with rabbits & birds & a very charming prince overheard melody. And there is tremendous pain — cancer and chemotherapy, racist comments aimed at the little girl and her parents, love affairs breaking apart, a young man almost completely rejected by his family because of being a homosexual. Each of these, returned to again and again under different hexagrams, causes us to read each text block in at least two ways: one in relation to the hexagram it is under, and the other to the other text blocks under different hexagrams that deal with the same issue.
I love this novel because of its tenderness, its playfulness, its ability to look at some of the most horrible aspects of experience yet not despair. To read this novel and inhabit its world is to feel that almost anything can happen, and it might be horrible. It also might be beautiful. But in that very randomness is the possibility for a a spaciousness and openness that is the source of endurance, perseverance, play, and good fortune." - Jefferson Hansen

"Lily Hoang has created something truly unique and altogether fantastic (in nearly every sense of the word) with this book.
I find this a hard book to really talk about. It’s perhaps best described as a book of oscillations, in craft and syntax as well as meaning and direction. It’s a book that circles in on itself as well as outward, swelling upward like an explosion while sinking into the depths like a whirlpool. Deafening in its unsuspecting force, but also at times in its silence.
This is a book that raises big questions (Are we to believe in fate? If so how seriously do we (should we) take it?)) while keeping itself grounded with an authentic, enjoyable poignancy and honesty that is generated in part from autobiographical themes that seem to course through a lot of Lily’s work. It’s an experiemental endeavor while at the same time struggling with its roots as a retelling of ancient fortunes.
Most importantly, it’s a delicate yet strong book; beautiful and ugly but always enjoyable." - R. Sanford
Lily Hoang, Parabola (Chiasmus Press, 2008)
"The simple act of a butterfly flapping its wings, and our journey begins. A tracing of modern day mythologies, Parabola weaves through genres, mathematical formulas, and photographs, all while following the curve of a parabola, stopping at various points to pick up strands of intersections or stories. Lily Hoang's debut novel offers readers tender snapshots of an Asian American girl coming-of-age juxtaposed with the Pythagorean belief in numerology placed right beside a physical manifestation of dark matter contrasted with interactive IQ, personality, and psychological tests. Smart, challenging, sad, and kind, by the end of Parabola, you will have moved through every emotion, and you will end right where you began, with that simple act of a butterfly flapping its wings."

"A work of proportion, grace, tenderness, ferocity. The easy intelligence and genuine audacity of Lily Hoang’s Parabola makes it a wonderful and disarming reading experience." — Carole Maso

"Lily Hoang’s Parabola deploys a calculus of composition that always already approaches the absolute of… Or I was going to say something like that, but this book exhausts the conceits of mathematics, physics, heavenly bodies, and the human heart. The story problems have all been proven; the figures figured. Parabola is a tour de form with force multiplied further. Elegant vision is the constant and ever-changing. And imaginary numbers are the least part of the imagination evident here, and everywhere, in this sublimely sublime book." — Michael Martone

"Lily Hoang's Parabola is the kind of text that solicits a rereading, but you aren't dutifully bound to return to its beginning. Instead, you can rewind to the middle and branch out both forward and backward, deciphering chapters that match up along the Y-axis of the titular structure.
This novel — or un-novel, since it's the winner of Chiasmus Press' Un-Doing the Novel Contest — stops at disparate intersections to tell its stories. Hoang has created an experimental work that communicates with the reader through fragmentary exchange. Whereas some postmodern narratives feel stale due to their headiness, Parabola manages to include heart and humor within an innovative, interactive storytelling style. It chronicles the inner life of a first-generation American daughter of Vietnamese immigrants. The resulting so-called coming-of-age story explores the gap between expectations vs. reality, incorporating numerology, myth, astronomy, and other mystical wonders in the process.
Reminiscent of Nabokov's Pale Fire, Parabola features similarly beautiful and elaborate word games, such as an entire paragraph alliterated with the letter B that corresponds to quadratic form. Hoang's novel has a similarly dizzying effect, frequently compelling you to flip from one chapter to a parallel one 100 pages prior. But it stands alone, challenging categorization by presenting holes filled with words (surrounded by black matter) and playful collaborative components like personality tests and even a Word Find." - Michelle Broder Van Dyke

While reading the book [Parabola] I was fascinated by the juxtapositions between histories of astronomy, first person narratives, and seemingly private voices that we may find in a journal (among others). Am I correct in observing that you are playing with the similarities and differences between the close and the distant?- Yes and no. I don't necessarily see a difference between the two. I consciously chose the subject for each chapter more as things I considered to be mythologies than questions of distance and closeness.
Many of my favorite authors use geometric shapes as the basis for plots. The Brazilian Osman Lins, for instance, works with a spiral in his novel AVALOVARA. What interests you in the geometric shape of parabolas? Is this related to your interest in various 'scientific' tests that purport to measure intelligence, personality, and so on?
I first conceived of this novel as one that would explore the occult & religion as mythologies, but as I started researching, I found a lot about numerology and mathematics. Since I was little, I wanted to be a scientist or a mathematician (I'm not quite sure why I'm not, to be completely honest!) so I decided to use the superficial constraint of the form of a parabola to shape this text. Again, while researching, I came to understand that there were so many more mythologies out there than just the occult & religion. As such, I expanded the scope of my novel. I wanted to create a work that dialogued within itself. As for the shape of the text, I wanted to mimic the traditional triangular structure of a novel, but I wanted to invert it. A parabola was a perfect fit! I love interactive novels. I think the various tests that appear throughout the text add a new level of interactivity. Ideally, readers would actually take some of the tests. Additionally, I know many people (myself included) who put a great deal of weight on personality tests, IQ, and psychology. I see these as modern-day myths, a new form of "religion" and a method of categorization. To me, IQ seems to be especially troubling, particularly because of the mass sterilization in the early to mid 20th century based on the Army Beta IQ test. I based some of the questions on my test on that original test.
At each point of the 'X' axis, there are two different stories, one as we come down the left side of the parabola and one when we go up the right. Many of the two points are in direct dialogue, most particularly number 5, which is a continuation of the same story. Sometimes, however, there does not seem to be as much dialogue. For instance 9 juxtaposes a history of astronomy with what appears to be an actual intelligence test. How do you see the interaction of the 'X' and 'Y'?
As for Chapter 9, personal equation is one of those really fantastic scientific truths that has a whole mythology to it. First off, I should explain what it is for your readers who haven't read my book. Personal equation essentially says that everyone sees things slightly differently because of our reaction time to light. The whole myth or story to it is that an Astronomer Royal fired one of his assistants because his data was incorrect. Quite a while later, it was discovered that the assistant's data was, in fact, correct. The slight aberration in numbers came only because he had a different reaction time to light. Then, as I was researching personal equation, I found a great scientific article that tied reaction time to a person's IQ. I came up with the thesis that IQ then has something to do with reaction time, which is almost arbitrary, if that makes any sense. So both chapter 9's are in fact related. I actually thought that the chapter 9's had more of a correlation than some of the others. I did my best to have each chapter reflect its opposite chapter. Some of the reflections are harder to see than others, which I can readily admit is my fault.
I was charmed by the many places where you worked stories into stories, almost like the wooden Russian dolls. I am thinking most specifically of the second Chapter 3. Is this related in any way to your interest in layering text (scene here to the right)?- I'm not quite sure I understand about stories within stories. I can say, though, that I work best with little pieces. Especially now, I feel like I have a hard time writing anything more than 500 words long. But when writing Parabola, I was working on my MFA, and it was expected that you would produce "short stories," as one would traditionally think of short stories. Most of the chapters in here are my attempt to "cheat" the system by putting little pieces next to each other & seeing what that juxtaposition does. As for the layering of the text, I used it twice, well, three times technically. The first two instances, with short shorts inside geometric shapes, were my attempt to show how easily truths are covered & to mirror the jumbled nature of this world. It's hard to distinguish what is what. I simply wanted to reflect that feeling of almost helplessness. The third instance - the dark matter story - should be fairly obvious. I tried to have as much fun as possible with this chapter, once I came up with the basic conceit. I have to give all the credit to Tom Philips's A Humument though. It was his idea to create a new text by highlighting an original text. What I found, however, was that by covering 95% of my original Chapter 6 did create an entirely new text. Again though, I was just having some fun!
This is the big question, but your book I think demands it: Some will probably claim that your book does not cohere. How would you answer such a criticism?- I could go into all the small way this novel coheres (please do keep in mind that this book won the Chiasmus Press Un-Doing the Novel Contest), but I'm not sure it's really necessary. There are themes that tie this together, and the mathematical structure of it makes coherence a lot easier to achieve. I think the more interesting question would be why it's a novel & why I've chosen to call it a novel. & I suppose I'll turn it back over to you now, readers. Do you think it's a novel? Does it cohere? Should it cohere? & finally, what exactly is coherence & should that be a function of a novel?" - Interview with Jefferson Hansen
Lily Hoang, The Evolutionary Revolution, Les Figues Press, 2010.
"What if evolution was decided by committee and revolution by mere chance? What if man was a subspecies? What if man, as a subspecies, was woman, with tiny red wings on her thighs and pasted shut eyes? What if she flew in the sky or slept on the moon, and what if the earth was a saltless water world filled with forgetful, vengeful two-headed mermen? Welcome to The Evolutionary Revolution, a fabulist story of sense-making for the 21st century. In this twinning tale of freak shows and prophets, tract homes and impending doom, award-winning author Lily Hoang collapses time and narrative into a brilliant novel of beginnings and ends, where sentences undo each other and opposites don’t cancel each other out. As Anna Joy Springer notes in the book’s introduction, “In literature, as sometimes in life, it’s a scary kind of fun to be manipulated by a pretty girl, who changes the game on a whim.”

"This is a book about evolution, about a failed evolutionary revolution, and in a layering deftly handled by one of the new queens of fairy tale play, the text itself also evolves and the language is used for revolt: "A long time ago, long before man walked upright, the earth was filled with water. It was a sphere of pure ocean. During this era, man flew in the atmosphere with tiny wings attached to her thighs. Back then, man as a sub-species was kind." There are plenty of books that sturdily house a story within a story within a story but Lily Hoang has taken it upon herself to evolve this conceptual foundation, making her stories in The Evolutionary Revolution the stories of the stories inside the stories told by the stories to break the stories and build new stories. This is, to put it mildly, a book that is doing something masterful and glorious: "She was gentle, never provoking arguments, never killing other beings for sustenance, or even pleasure. It’s said that man’s language didn’t account for cruelty. Acts of aggression were nameless and silent, as if they never existed. During the day, man flew over the ocean, playfully chattering about this or that, and at night, she slept on the moon."When The Evolutionary Revolution opens it proposes to be about several stories all tied together in tandem, and it doesn't take Hoang very long to get us mixed into and caring about all of these narratives that are, in reality, mere threads into a new beginning – a beginning that we must surpass in order to realize that Hoang is telling the same story and all different stories and no story at all. This book evolves and blooms as we turn its pages, and the flower that opens is a magnificent beast: "The Evolution Council was unhappy when man started using her eyes again. They had done a great deal for man when she decided to seal her eyes so long ago. They had, in fact, convened a special meeting just to help man cope with the loss of one of her most valuable sense."There is obvious depth and complexity in Hoang’s book, the narrative divides and multiplies, turns away and turns back on itself; however, it is in the simplicity of her language that Hoang achieves so much: "Back before the daughter was born, the father waited until his wife was asleep, and when he saw her breath move in the calm of silence, he bent his mouth close to the fetus. His hand cradled her body and whispered a story into her unformed ears." There are moments when the arc of The Evolutionary Revolution teeters on the edge of philosophical cliffs or environmental diatribes but Hoang steers her ship artfully and carefully way from those falls by basic language and gentle moves, just at you worry the journey is lost: "He told her that two decades later, they would meet again, and he would forgive her for killing him, that she should be unafraid. He told her she needed to maintain strength, to build her focus to help her brothers, that not all revolutions end with death. He told her this as a preface to the story, a private conversation between father and daughter."In this moment of literary time, when the broken narrative and fragmented through-line are so often being employed by writers and, seemingly, against readers, Lily Hoang’s The Evolutionary Revolution is breaking and un-breaking language alongside her readers. Hoang is carrying us within her earthquake, within her tumbled rearrangement of the world and her unrelenting manipulations of these fairy tale elements that we have always held and cradled, until we realize just what terrors and haunts Hoang has us holding so dearly to our chests." - J.A. Tyler

"Before starting this book I thought, "No, Lily could not possibly do it again." She has written two terrific books in the last couple years, Parabola (Chiasmus) and Changing (Fairy Tale Press). Finally, Les Figues has just come out with The Evolutionary Revolution, a wild fabulist book where a number of remarkable things happen, among them females living in the sky and eating on the fertile moon at night. So far in my reading, it would seem she did it again.
Since I am not finished with the book, I would just like to share some of Lily's fine prose at this point. She writes in very short, half-page to two-page chapters that are often discontinuous. In one, entitled "Merman's Dream," these sentences appear:
"Emily is caught in a merman's dream... Once, she tried to sing, to comfort herself, but her voice came out as soft cashmere... Then, out of nowhere, she hears him singing. His dream is a muted song and Emily uses her fingers to draw out the lyrics, which she must translate into Man, and when she has, she will be able to talk to the merman... Emily doesn't know about the merman's vengeful nature. She doesn't know that the merman isn't dreaming at all, that he's letting her think he's dreaming so she can waste the little breath she has left in interpretation. He has no problem killing little angels... He laughs broadly. Emily hears this. She thinks it's another clue to help in her escape."This parable about interpretation, which I take to suggest that interpretation often has absolute limits beyond which is profound misunderstanding, is part of a larger narrative in the book about mermen and women with wings on their thighs and wax on the eyes. It's a remarkably inventive book, sentence after sentence right on. I am looking forward to the rest." - Jefferson Hansen

"Micro-chapters that can stand alone or be read in a linear fashion, Lily Hoang's The Evolutionary Revolution is a book of sly stepping stones, stepping away from the world as it is now. The world as it is now is assumed by many to be out of our hands, something unstable, something that both affects us yet is not within our reach to fix or improve. Hoang's chapters have grandiose names such as “The Imperial Council,” “Man Emerging” and “How the Sea Became Salty,” for the times beg for at least grounded, surefooted beginnings -- even if many find themselves wading in obscurity after a story unfolds. Hoang creates lush yet monstrous, hybridized versions of humanity disguised as imaginative fables, somewhere between the familiar and unrecognizable. They are lovely, weirdly knowledgeable in their goal to un-educate (i.e. perhaps, one needs to un-teach the self before the self is capable of learning) the reader regarding treatment for any sanctioned story's future.
There are so many possibilities in The Evolutionary Revolution - choices that provide the reader with adventurous scenarios, concocting piece by piece a sense of renewal and strength upon finishing the text. Hoang brands complex, coiled fable into memory with ease:
'Of course, back then, man lived underwater with all the other species of human, and because water was translucent and the sun's brightness never waned, every dream was a daydream, bright with anticipation and hope. It must have been the sunlight that tainted their dreams, giving their tree, their meeting place, a golden hue, and it must have been all that vivid light that made these men at this very first meeting decide that man should no longer live with other humans, that man should take to the atmosphere, and at night, to hide from the luminous brilliance of the sun, man should harvest a home on the moon.'
One can see how addictive these scenes can become. With each chapter, it becomes easier to locate at least one line that is like nectar to an anxious hummingbird, instructive and wise (“There is no hero, no savior”). Phrases like “Back then” and investigations into what “man” used to be and no longer is prevail. This subject matter never ceases to be of interest to those searching for what they truly are made of - especially in times when despite being flooded with catchy technological trends, remnants of pseudo-knowledge and emerging Wikipedias galore, there are still so many heavy questions left unanswered regarding human nature and the origin of the species.
Hoang's text refers to a timeless epoch that is both ours and not ours simultaneously -- one where many are more obviously influenced by moral storytelling, twisted fable, myth handed down generation to generation. Hoang hypnotizes, deliberately repeating introductory phrases, such as “A long time ago...” or “It is said...” or “At the end of this winding road...” or “The truth is...” or “Back before...” or “One of those early days...” or “At this point in time...” or “There was a time...”. It is difficult to avoid feeling that a poignant conclusion should be reached at the end of each chapter, yet oftentimes, Hoang ends chapters magically, abruptly - as if fairy dust was an intrinsic part of this readerly equation.
This ineffable energy that Hoang illuminates can also be found in current film and music, as well as in other more classic samples of literature and art. For instance, consider accessible works such as Pablo Picasso's La joie de vivre (1946) or Marc Chagall's Der Spaziergang (1917). Humanity has an ongoing rapport with bliss, illusion and auspicious escapism. A more modern version of this fixation is present in Jay-Z's hit “Young Forever”:
So we livin' life like a video /
Where the sun is always out and you never get old /
And the champagne is always cold /
And the music is always good /
And the pretty girls just happen to stop by in the hood
Jay-Z and Hoang both have a talent for fabricating thriving metaphors for this life force. Both share hopes of basking in an eternal sun, yet these euphorias are most rooted in the examined life. Perhaps, only the examined life has the capacity to be recognized as phenomenal or “bright with anticipation and hope.” The world's foundation is made of daydreams, and what a shame it would be to deny the art and literature of today the right to feel uplifted. Hoang explains:
'Unlike storytellers, who had a utilitarian function, poets weren't very useful. It was the poets' duty, their task and purpose, to retain the stories of the past in the various cavities of their bodies. Poets were created with many empty sacs. Rather than real livers or lungs, they survived on the memory of these organs. Their bodies were essentially empty pockets, a hollow skeleton holding up skin.'
It can be argued that it is the poet's role and inclination to preserve and protect stories such as those produced in The Evolutionary Revolution. The poet is most equipped to build a palace from nothing but memory alone." - Jacquelyn Davis
"As an admitted follower of Lily Hoang’s already admirable body of work, young as it is but growing at an almost obscenely prolific pace, the expectations I approach each new work with have yet to be disappointed.
One of the most intriguing aspects of her work is the way in which her authorial tone from book to book manages to evolve and shift as one might hope it would while retaining similarities in confidence, intelligence and whimsy that never let the reader forget Hoang’s presence behind the scenes. There’s an ever-present slyness and impression of trickery, the execution of which is brilliant in that Hoang manages to walk the line between solely emphasizing the performance itself or that behind-the-scenes finesse; both are important, and the sense of play always gives way to a cohesive focus and momentum that leaves no doubt as to how seriously one should take the themes of the book. The word ‘whimsy’ seems to be one I always cling to when pondering Hoang’s works, but it does feel a bit imprecise as I don’t feel it communicates the proper weight of this book, as well as her others. While Hoang indeed seems to have mastered this kind of playfulness reminiscent of the classic fairy tales, I don’t feel I can emphasize enough how well she pushes this playfulness toward something larger and arguably more lasting; let there be no mistake when questioning how much intellectual stunt work is going on in this novel.
To me, the most enjoyable element in ‘The Evolutionary Revolution’ is the constant, open-ended criticisms of memory and nostalgia, the way we (as a person, as a society, as a culture, as a nation, etc.) look backward and interpret not only the past as it stands objectively, but how we even deal with the act of remembering itself, how we question or do not question ‘facts’ and other types of cultural givens that affect how we interact and behave. There’s quite a bit going on here that makes one think about ‘where we’ve come from’ on so many levels and in so many voices that the reader will no doubt find herself trying to answer them long after the book ends. This doesn’t even scratch the very large surface of Hoang’s delving into the nature of stories and fairly tales in particular–where the monsters come from, who has to fight them and how, and why? What makes a hero, if a ‘hero’ can really exist at all? The power of all of this is the questioning; Hoang seems to stop short of pushing forth too many answers, which to this me allows her to take a place comfortably alongside the reader rather than some place above, a trait I admire quite a bit.
My only qualm with the book is in not feeling certain how to feel about the rather overt, ‘preachy’ messages regarding issues such as global warming. If these are indeed as ‘preachy’ as they seem at times, I think this is a bit disappointing and something I think the book could have / should have been better than putting forth. If they were intended to be more self-conscious, I probably would have liked them to be more clearly so, and to play with that in a larger and more complex way. Overall there were small places I felt the book could have been slimmed a bit, a few sections that wandered perhaps a bit too far into an awkwardness that seemed slightly too aimless, but these were few and far between. The quirks here nearly always create the appropriate space for themselves and never use up any credit they haven’t earned.
This book, like the rest of Hoang’s books is certainly worth your pennies, and more importantly your time." - White Walls / Black Ink
"The latest release from Lily Hoang, The Evolutionary Revolution is a history unto itself. Both a fable and a myth (“Myth is about the past, fable is about the future.”), this title revolves around stories of an ancient, watery Earth populated by “subspecies,” one of which is man, although she does not physically resemble modern homo sapiens. (I know I’ve used “man” and “she” together. It’s an oft-employed technique from the book, one of many contradictions of language that whirl about and simply shrug off their own existences, adding to the intricate mystery and progression of Hoang’s work.)
This old Earth shares a deep bond with contemporary society in the form of a mysterious and power-endowed family, the Sylphs, including a two-headed boy, Eliot and Sylvester, a thigh-winged girl, Chloe, and other curious beings. This is one of The Evolutionary Revolution’s greatest strengths: the rich yet subtle characterizations and interactions twist in ways exotic and unexpected. I simply could not put the book down, beginning to form a very strong bond with these characters and the fate of their world(s).
It’s difficult to explain too much about the Sylphs, the Imperial Council, mermen, or the beast with three thousand sets of eyes without spoiling some of Hoang’s experimental techniques. Here we can see a short example of her myth-unfolding style, the casual yet profound tone she gives to this history:
'Just one day of physical separation, and the Sylph boys are losing their collective memory. Their singular memories – that’s fine – but anything they experienced together is beginning to erase. Their earliest memory is the day they chose to be conjoined. Their father, a man they barely remembered even when they were double boys, appeared in their small, unformed ideas and persuaded them to hold each other tight. They were, at this point, not even fetuses. They had no body, and even as ideas, they were scattered, barely coherent, but they remember their father’s words and when they were given bodies, they held each other with such force, with such passion, that their bodies melted together.'There’s an uncanny depth to Hoang’s style, choppy and full like salty ocean waves (an image of relevance to the novel). At times, Hoang’s individual sentences seem daringly simple, but this effect only furthers her fable/myth motifs. The wider tapestry is voluptuous and exquisite, each small chapter ending on a note of poetic toast. The novel can feel more like a series of prose poems tied by a number of recurring narratives (which is appropriate, given Hoang’s status as a recipient of Chiasmus Press’s Un-Doing the Novel Contest). But like any good work of multiple narratives, the intermingled plotlines take a turn towards each other and the namesake event, a collision of ancient past, tumultuous present, and predestined future. The Evolutionary Revolution is a thoughtful and endearing work that will leave you dreaming in Hoang’s imaginative past for days." - Caleb Tankersley

"Is Lily Hoang's The Evolutionary Revolution" a "feminine feral" book, as a Naropa graduate student, Janna Plant, wrote to me today, towards: genre, an independent study... I've been reading it on a dark, spring-time, rainy afternoon, with the off-dazzle that comes from having said the word "mermen" aloud earlier in the day, and, in another context, "mermaid," then reading this, from a chapter called "The Extinction of Poets and Philosophers:"
"There was a time when all men lived in water. Back then, there were more than ten species of humans, some of whom have survived, such as men, mermen, and arguably, poets and storytellers. Many others have gone extinct."Poets can't handle the gravity, apparently. Or their gills rupture.
I've been mapping out the Summer Writing Program sentence/species class, and this feels useful. Also, Erin Morrill in her knickers and bra, in Oakland most recently, photographed in a gorgeous, startling and ruined landscape, in a bear/wolf/tiger wrestling mask.
How can I merge the studio practice of the body with a paragraph, in which the sentences lie down next to each other, exchanging their blood non-violently, all night*, but in a way that's guaranteed to kill them off by dawn? A sentence is an addict. You just have to open a novel written in the late nineteenth century, or anything written by Michael Ondaatje since 2001, to see it: the sentence, lying down forever, right there, on the ground, on the forest floor, on the carpet, barely breaking eye-contact with the one lying next to it, when you open the book to read." - Bhanu Kapil

"Struggling to review Lily Hoang’s The Evolutionary Revolution, I recently witnessed a confounding concert by Rufus Wainwright. How Wainwright’s enigmatic music connects with Hoang’s peculiar novel will grow more obvious. Trust me.
Rufus Wainwright is the child of two famous musicians: his mother was Kate McGarrigle (recently deceased and the mother of another popular musician, Rufus’s sister Martha Wainwright). His father is Loudon Wainwright III, folk singer who has fathered other musicians with other women (at least one I know of: with the Roches’ Suzzy Roche, the singer Lucy Wainwright Roche).
Over his career, and even within albums, Rufus’s music swerves theatrically from pop to ballad, from Baroque-flavored pop-opera to funky progressive. I’ve seen Rufus Wainwright perform many times, but this show presented a puzzler like I’ve never before paid $50 to witness.
We the audience were instructed not to respond (not to applaud, Rufus hoped—not to feel, I supposed) when Rufus entered, performed, and exited the first set. And so the lights dimmed and out funeral-marched Rufus, wearing a cape that married Count Chocula’s work outfit (for Gothic darkness) with the Duchess of York’s wedding dress (for length of train).
Performing solo, Rufus accompanied his singing with melodramatic piano. Although the music took a sophisticated poperatic stance on his mother’s death—and I’ve never buried a parent—it wasn’t the music that flummoxed me. Far from it. Much like reading Hoang: the writing itself is some of the clearest, plainly-structured prose I’ve ever encountered in a novel. In fact, having recently tossed aside Jose Saramago’s Blindness because the dialogue refuses quotation marks or paragraph breaks—and all prose contains innumerable comma splices and run-on sentences—processing Hoang’s language reminded the reading part of my brain of life’s simpler pleasures.
What perplexed me about Rufus’s performance was the eyes.
Looming behind Rufus and his grand piano was a screen showing sometimes one, sometimes two or three or more eyes…eyes looking vaguely human but strangely animalistic… almost like dangling tarantulas, lower lashes drooping more lushly than the top… eyes glistening with moisture… leaving me to wonder: is the moisture tears or some other indication of human emotion? ...or is moisture simply how any animal’s eyes work?... whose eyes are these; why even ask these questions; I just want to enjoy this work of art—why should I even care?!
When you read Hoang’s The Evolutionary Revolution, similarly prepare for a flummoxing. Darken the stage on which Hoang’s supposed drama will play. In fact, forget a simple dark stage with spare spotlight. Imagine a grey surreal landscape, drips and drabs of brilliant color smudged with black. Think painter Yves Tanguy’s 1942 “Indefinite Divisibility”—a suitable backdrop for the Earth in The Evolutionary Revolution, when our planet was no more than water and sky and the first few species populated it simply.
Back to those eyes, those inscrutable reptilian eyes, striking chords of human familiarity but insisting on bestiality. The Evolutionary Revolution melds mythology and fables with science fiction and fantasy. It requires readers to imagine a time when human-like creatures could fly—some modern-day human characters awake to find atavistic wings appended to their legs like little Mercurial propellers—and their extremities bore talons. Their eyes were cemented shut by mucus and hair-tangles… and, instead of sight, these proto-human creatures relied on senses such as (interpersonal) memory and (the crudest, most fairy-tale beginnings of) kindness. If painter analogies work well, try Hieronymous Bosch (1450–1516), whose technicolor Renaissance take on mythology and religiosity imbued human epiphany and torment with eerily contemporary skill.
As when I sat stone still at the concert, haunted by those eyes, you will feel the creatures of The Evolutionary Revolution haunting you. Hoang thrusts you into a world where pre-humans are more like creatures, gender warped or erased from your perspective. Before humans, “man” was identified by “she” or “her,” and instead of “mermaids” there were sexless “mermen” who, instead of charming and soothing, seduced with song and imprisoned and then tortured, killed, and/or ate the “men” they captured.
And like the concert of a skilled musician—confusing, unsettling, throwing you off with switches of genre, time signatures, mosaics of themes and images—this book will never let you settle into comfortable understanding… of its story, characters, even language itself. Overlapping genres constantly, Hoang wittily glides from fable to myth, from novel to intermittent stabs at something like personal essays (each chapter bears a title to headline the action or propose an abstraction to ponder). If prose writing had time signatures—describing not rhythm or pace but grounding you in verb tense or setting—then Hoang seems hell-bent on disorienting. The narrative bolts between present (with satiric nods to contemporary technology) and various stages of the past, when our civilization was still forming and our ruling forces perseverated over what to do with us. Here time elides, warps, blurs, and bedevils.
The mosaic of themes and images animates a cast of characters you might loosely call a family…one even more outrageous and far-flung to map out than a literal band of Wainwrights. Hoang’s tale begins with the conjoined twin boys Eliot and Sylvester Sylph, the sons of Mama Betty Sylph and Ralph Sylph. Here’s where reality flings far: Eliot and Sylvester Sylph have a sister named Sylvia, more prophet than human actually. Sylvia also has a twin sister, in another family, Chloe Henklemeyer…whose adopted mother is Susan Henklemeyer (also a prophet) and whose father/brother is one Stanley Henklemeyer, who was born…yes…Stanley Sylph. Bend your mind around the modern-day Sylph/Henklemeyer clan(s), where daughter Sylvia kills father Stanley before she was even born, when he commits suicide; where Stanley’s sister/other wife Susan brings him back to life, allowing him to save his conjoined sons (now separated, at least in their dream lives) from beyond the grave.
If you’re sensing Oedipal and Electra myths strewn together in a sloppy yet tightly-controlled stew, you know you’re struggling to swallow The Evolutionary Revolution. Just like I did.
How did I make sense of it all? I thought of it as one woman’s take on the modern-day tussle between evolution and literal Christianity, between science and religion, between rational thought and faith. It’s an emotionless, deliberate yoking together of binaries: using evolution to explain our shifting understanding of our bodies and souls and our place in the universe. Or, if you prefer: using mythical and fabulist writing to illustrate how man, long before our current scientific knowledge, first pondered concepts like evolution.
The concept now seems as elemental to me as… well… mourning one’s mother and playing out the love, angst, incestual drives, and anxiety associated with death. With poperatic piano articulating the language of loss. And a giant hovering eye to blink out the tears and highlight an artistic vision." - Matthew Katz


A Caveat

We cannot be held responsible if some of these events are not quite in order, if some of the facts are slightly out of place. We did not live through this, and what few facts we do have are difficult to verify.
We have tried our best to make this clear and simple. We have tried very hard to reconstruct this history as it happened, but it’s impossible to do so without some errors so we apologize in advance, before it becomes too murky. We have tried, and while we hope that is enough, we’re afraid it isn’t, that the inevitability of the future is already set, that maybe the prophet wasn’t talking about the Evolutionary Revolution, that maybe the prophet was talking about something we can stop, if only we can get things right. We are trying. We’re trying very hard, but we can’t do it all on our own, if only we could have help, if only we could get you involved. We’re weak and few in number, but that does not mean that we do not try, lord only knows, it does not mean we do not continue trying.

A New Baby Boy

Stanley was born a single boy, but when he was in his Mama Sylph’s belly, he had a twin sister. The doctors didn’t know about them being attached, but his mama did. Mama Sylph picked out the name Sylvia for her. She loved the idea of twin babies, attached by a small piece of skin, little wrinkled blobs of baby attached like friends. It was her idea, them being attached like that, but Stanley didn’t like the idea of a sister so he made her disappear.
Sometime along the twenty-ninth week, fetus Sylvia disappeared from his mama’s belly. Mama Sylph was at the doctor’s office getting a sonogram. Both babies were there. They were holding their small hands. Mama Sylph swore she saw Stanley gentle rubbing Sylvia’s hand, soothing her, and then, just like that, Sylvia disappeared. No heart beat, no remains, nothing.
It wasn’t uncommon for fetuses to be miscarried, especially with a tentative pregnancy like Mrs. Sylph’s, fragile twins and all, but the doctor had never seen anything like this. There had to be remnants somewhere, bits of baby floating in Mrs. Sylph’s body somewhere, but there was nothing. There was nothing anywhere, almost as if Sylvia had never existed at all, almost as if someone had gone in and erased her from the manuscript, only it was more than just erasure. You can see the imprint of remains after erasure. No, it was more like someone had just hit the delete key while typing and had deleted all of Sylvia.
The doctor didn’t tell Mrs. Sylph about this sudden change in her body. He thought maybe it was in his own head, but later that night, he went over her file, and in all the other sonograms, there’s another small, distinct body. Up until she gave birth, Mrs. Sylph expected to have conjoined twins, and when just one small wrinkled glob of baby came out instead of two, and after it smashed its eyes and cried, suddenly, no one remembered he should have had a sister. Even the pictures forgot.

A Rumor Dispelled

The sea has not become any more or less salty since that one decisive moment. We would like to think differently, that eventually, we can actually correct the mistakes someone else made at some other point in time, but we can’t. This is the state of things. We must accept it. The sea is full of salt, and it will remain so until we can invent a mechanism to remove it, and even then, the mermen will make sure the memory of salt remains, if only as an afterthought, if only as a final act of revenge.