12/30/10

AD Jameson - Stories like dreams, leading the reader into an alternate universe, but also back to the author as a mysterious and malignant force





AD Jameson, Amazing Adult Fantasy, Mutable Sound, 2011.






"A D Jameson, quaint and childish, tired ex-wife of a rodeo angel, owner of an antique tortoise-shell comb, nice-mannered, respectable, having been seen crawling quickly across the dinette set, destined to someday become a vice president at the bank, and whom you long ago bought and sold, is nodding off. If you let him, he’ll fall fast asleep on the unread page in your lap. He’s still wearing the camisole that you gave him, the one embroidered with his initials. He still has the cameo that you stuck in his Christmas stocking.
His hands were too clumsy. He’s sorry about how clumsy his hands were, the butter he handled you with for a while. He didn’t know better. He didn’t know otherwise in those days, in the obsolete past, about how his ascot became unfastened, about the way his suspenders snapped, about how his penny loafers were always scuffed and broken. He couldn’t help that his fedora was missing a feather, or that his appearance was rendered old-fashioned by passing years. He’s still amazed that you let him touch you, that you submitted to his caresses. He wasn’t amazed when you finally flinched and said, “OK now, man, that’s enough.” And when you left him without any warning, his feelings weren’t ruffled. His feathers weren’t left out of sorts in a huff.
Since then, he’s tried to become more refined. He’s tried to shape up. He might have become a rodeo dancer, or maybe a college graduate—we’ll never know. To hear the tales, he might have entered a program at Harvard, then finished the program. But we can’t be certain about those tales: when questioned, he tore up his diploma and ducked out the back.
Because he was feeling hungry for Thai food, he moved to Thailand. He stuck the two halves of his degree in a steamer trunk, and he set out at once. He learned where to go to get the freshest coffee in Bangkok, the freshest pad thai. He scouted the neighborhoods there for two years, just asking questions, just riding the buses. Just keeping his mouth shut, taking in heat and humidity. Just learning to keep both his buttery hands to his little old lonesome.
He missed you while living there, missed you terribly. He talked with his neighbors, and swam and rode every bus in Bangkok. He wrote an essay about how it felt to live in Thailand, and live there without you. He knew you were waiting for that essay, that you were checking your mailbox each morning. But he’d forgotten the look of the English language, its punctuation and letters. He got angry about how the characters looked on the page. He tore that essay in half every time he tried to write it, and crumpled those halves, and stuffed those torn and crumpled halves in his steamer trunk.
He tried to forget you. He took the liberty of buying you a coffee; he remembered how much you like coffee, and how you bought a cup every morning. He took the liberty of dropping a red and white peppermint in it; he remembered how much you like red and white, and how they filled your Christmas stocking. He’s kept that peppermint coffee warm for you ever since, inside a Thermos that he bought at a weekend market.
While he was in Thailand, he became friends with a passing gumball for a while. He befriended a passing tortoise, also. He ate the tortoise when it begged him to, when it cried and forced its chewy fins in his mouth. He placed the gumball inside a locket, a scuffed antique with a broken clasp, which he scotch-taped together and wears round his neck to this very day.
Now he lives in Chicago, has been spied living there for four years. He wasn’t corrupted, not very much; he isn’t easily corrupted. He still has the money that you lent him, the shiny new hundred. He’s turned down his many chances to spend it. He’s felt little pressure. He’s found he can get by with very little. He can get by on no more than a tortoise’s winter rations.
Ever since then, he’s been hanging around here, half-asleep, his hair combed, his eye out for your arrival. He’s still in love with you; he loves people just like you—kind souls who can handle his minor corruption. A little corruption might be precisely what you will need—you can’t be so certain.
As soon as he spies you, he’ll smile and wake up and say, “Hello and good morning to you.” The moment he sees your oblong face and remembers your name, he’ll fold his hands and bow and whisper, “Sawasdee krap.” He’ll say, “While sleeping, I wrote a book of short stories for you—accounts of the dreams that I had while I missed you, while living in Thailand. I hope that you like them.”
Until then, feel free to take a closer look at him. You can stare. You can take a long gander. He’s resting his head on that dream-laden book; he’s using its stories as a pillow. He knows that you’re destined to return at any moment; he’s foreseen it. He’s dreaming about you. His lips shape your name. He expects you to be back at any minute." - www.mutablesound.com



"We’re in an unimaginative period when many readers prefer memoirs to fiction. Perhaps there’s something in Canadians and Americans that demands fiction to mirror life, to provide a perspective on how to live, like one would download an app designed to locate chain restaurants in foreign cities. Imaginative writing, so newspaper reviews would lead one to believe, has its best home in science fiction and fantasy titles. The serious novels—written by Philip Roth and James Ellroy, for example—don’t stray far from realism, unless you’re Spanish, South American or Salman Rushdie. When was the last time you picked up the local paper and saw a long review of a book that didn’t pretend to tell you exactly how this or that occupation was carried out in the 1540s, or describe minutely the way clothes were worn in 19th-century Wales? When was the last time an author’s style, above all other elements of a book, received praise in that same paper for its vocabulary, fresh metaphors, complex sentences, and the use of adverbs and adjectives, without once mentioning plot?
In the first volume of his four-volume set of criticism, Sheer Fiction (1987), Paul West has an essay titled “In Defense of Purple Prose,” and in it he says:
Certain producers of plain prose, however, have conned the reading public into believing that only in prose plain, humdrum, or flat, can you articulate the mind of inarticulate ordinary Joe. Even to begin to do that, you need to be more articulate than Joe, or you might as well tape-record him and leave it at that. This essentially minimalist vogue depends on the premise that only an almost invisible style can be sincere, honest, moving, sensitive, and so forth, whereas prose that draws attention to itself by being revved up, ample, intense, incandescent or flamboyant, turns its back on something almost holy, and that is the human bond with ordinariness. . . . Surely the passion for the plain, the homespun, the banal, is itself a form of betrayal, a refusal to look honestly at a complex universe, a get-poor-quick attitude that wraps up everything in simplistic formulas never to be inspected for veracity or point. Got up as a cry from the heart, it’s really an excuse for dull and mindless writing, larded over with the speciously democratic myth that says this is how most folks are. Well, most folks are lazy, especially when confronted with a book, and some writers are lazy too, writing in the same anonymous style as everyone else. How many prose writers can you identify from their style?
   Based on this first book of fiction pieces by A.D. Jameson, I can say that though I think he could write like a realist, he has greater ambitions than devising a plot (though now and then one pops up) or developing a character you could care about. In fact, it would go against everything in the mood and nature of Amazing Adult Fantasy if a reader invested himself in what happens to the swirls of black on white that make up Ota Benga, Melissa, Nok Yai, and other figures. The opening piece, “Fiction,” occupies only one page but promises much, while addressing certain illusions we might have about what fiction ought to offer: “Fiction may be the worst thing about the 21st Century. Nobody likes it. Everyone has better things to do than pretend to care about who does what to whom, considering that these people aren’t even real. You think we would have learned our lesson after the 1800s, definitely after the 1900s.” This concludes with: “It’s no shame that this book was lost soon afterwards in [a fire]. Still, everyone was terribly disappointed.” What will his magically recovered version of fiction contain, then, if what appeared in two hundred years of creative writing is left out? Not real people (or not precisely, as we’ll see), not rounded characters, little plot, no dramatic arc; instead, we’re given style and the kind of playfulness one feels in Raymond Queneau’s The Sunday of Life. No wonder people were disappointed.
There are 16 short pieces (some are job ads for waste extraction workers, others summarize a television series), and a seven-part sequence titled The Solar Stories. A good example of Jameson’s extravagant prose can be found in “Rock Albany!,” the fifth of the Solar Stories:
Rock laughed and shook his head, then dove into the lake far below. He swam easily to the far shore, where he dressed, then strolled down a path. He walked swiftly, with a loose, lazy expertness of motion. He walked down the long road on the sun, the sun’s only road. The sun was his home. He had lived there for seventeen years. Most men would die if they tried to live on the sun. They would burn up at once. Rock laughed at this thought. He found the sun charming. The sun, he thought, has been waiting here just for me. Waiting to be ripped apart by my dynamite and drill. Waiting for the new shape my hands will give it. He would paint it pigeon blue. He would install a Pekinese buttress. He would hand-raise pudgy canaries. Rock liked canaries. [italics Jameson’s]
It’s clear that we are far removed from fidelity to the world, from colorlessness, and from parsimoniousness imagery. We stop at one word in particular: if “most” men would burn up on the sun, then not all will, allowing an impossibility to be possible for a moment. Or forever, since multiple readings will allow us, theoretically, to entertain that conceit eternally. Both the possible impossibility, or impossible possibility, and its longevity, are qualities found in fantasy, myths, legends, and tall tales. Rock could be the Paul Bunyan of Sol. What we also see here is the cruelty we associate with gods, demi-gods, and those touched, or afflicted, by the gods. Rock has no second thoughts about dynamiting, pillaging, defacing, and remaking the sun. In the short pieces that precede these stories, Jameson has us meet Indian Jones, who bears a resemblance to a film character, yet his career and old age are not what we would have expected: “By now he’s a very old sculptor who can’t remember anything, who sits all day in a courtyard, drinking grappa.” His dog “feels like a goddess of memory on Olympus,” and “Indian Jones is God.” Not quite what the movies tell us, though of course there are movie gods (and screen sirens). Oscar the Grouch, who meets the narrator in many different ways (myths begetting littler myths, ad infinitum), Big Bird, and others who show up don’t do the things you’d expect, though their behavior isn’t entirely unfamiliar. They just seem to have wandered over to the dark side.
In Jameson’s multiverse, real people also float free of their tethers. This suits those whose stature is larger-than-life. In “Buzz Aldwin” Jameson riffs on Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong (renamed “Neal”). As iconic figures go, these two are near the top, and you have to admire a writer who steps in to mess around with their lives, substituting surrealism and soap opera for factual biography and science. The result is a warped version of their lives that mingles mystery and despair with “odor-starved dogs” and “a ten-thousand-word typewritten love poem.” The figures don’t come across as cartoonish because they were never people to begin with. (It also might be that Aldrin’s achievements, in Jameson’s view, raise him above the level of the ordinary person.) In a similar way, fun is had in “Bonnie Raitt, I Am Coming to See You.” While there is a resemblance to the real-life musician, it’s doubtful she’s aiming to “master the art of ceramics, ceramic music” that her obsessed fan, verging on a stalker, insists is her next step. (Jameson doesn’t mention Raitt’s healthy love for the music of NRBQ, though, which is a shame.)
All the well-known figures populating Amazing Adult Fantasy, some whose achievements are part of history, some whose existence flickers in the mind as part of a soundtrack or a celluloid memory (including the casts of Star Wars and Star Trek: The Next Generation), were mythical before Jameson wrote about them, but he transforms them, re-imagining them—“Waiting for the new shape my hands will give it” indeed—for his pleasure, and for our times. He does so with fresh language that catches you unexpectedly. Rock Albany has “the mouth of an executed saint”; Goths “stank of mirrors”; a young boy named Peter who’s an intuitive cook “makes the meats he uses look like a suicide.” Alternatively, in “7 Movie Reviews,” Jameson blandly presents the contents of movies, uses the same character names over and over, and only occasionally forces out a sell line, so that the lack of energy and invention become the very things that seem to be missing. It’s as if he’s saying, “Watch, I can rein myself in.” He can also be crude and stereotyping in reverse, as when, in “My Parents Tried to Make Me More Popular,” the male character complains his “nice Irish girl can’t get knocked up worth shit.”
Two things struck me about the fireworks, off-beat remarks and jazzy phrasing. First, Jameson’s craft hides the effort behind writing freewheeling prose and knowing what fanciful conceits to retain. Second, while the stories contain humor, they aren’t sunny, and the Muppet-inspired pieces certainly aren’t for children. For all its lighthearted exterior, a grimness rests inside Amazing Adult Fantasy. A phrase from “Big Bird and Snuffy” applies to this book: “hidden deep inside a forest . . . uneasy things enjoyed themselves.” 
Those vague beings come out in the open suddenly, make their mark, and then retreat. Menace and foreboding help comprise the atmosphere of myths. But Jameson isn’t offering a glum view of the world because he isn’t offering the world at all. He’s written a book that places inventive writing at the forefront and come up with a work of fiction that looks breezy and contains much unpleasantness. His myths, in keeping with 21st century writing, don’t offer a lifeline to anyone. As Gilbert Sorrentino said, “Art cannot rescue anybody from anything” (The Moon in Its Flight), and I think Amazing Adult Fantasy is reminding us of that. There’s no life-changing message here, but perhaps by merging the poetic and the absurd we can tell our stories in new styles. Yet even that small solace is a source of tension, and may be denied by A.D Jameson when, on the last page of this fine book, a character who has gone through several adventures advises or warns of fiction’s follies:
But even still, before we knew it, our time had come and gone. Now, at the end, we have to admit that we haven’t enjoyed ourselves. No one has had any fun. Our lives haven’t turned out at all the way we planned. Our lives haven’t turned out at all the way we wanted. Our stories, we have to admit, have been the cause of all our problems. Fiction, I’d like to insist, has been to blame." - Jeff Bursey


"What does it mean to be a writer? Who are writers? What do they do?- For me, writing’s a form of thinking. It allows me to express ideas that I couldn’t express otherwise, because my memory isn’t good enough. And because writing possesses a logic all its own. It’s a meditative activity and a form of discipline that allows me to clarify some thoughts, and muddle others.
There exist more writers than people suspect, including all those whom “real writers” usually won’t acknowledge. There’s a disturbing tendency among high lit folk to not take seriously other writing, even if they enjoy it: genre fiction, commercial television, comics, children’s books, writing by actual children, zines, journalism. Also excluded: slam poets, performance poets, conceptual artists, and many others. This is elitist, short-sighted and unfair, not to mention a huge mistake. The people who wrote G.I. Joe and Star Trek are very much so writers. They wrote all over me! They wrote me!
Your stories seem a response to the current state of fiction. How would you characterize that current state? - My central complaint against fiction today is how insincere (and therefore inconsequential) so much of it is: so ironic, so commercially-minded, so abstract. Most of it slides right past me, unmemorable, unaffecting. If writing is thinking, then a lot of the thinking being done by writers today is poor.
For example, I have little patience for what I call “ironic realism,” which some might call hipster writing (but which extends beyond that). Irony has been stripped of its powers, because we live in ironic times. Such fiction may be clever and amusing, even entertaining, but it’s superficial and deeply unsatisfying. All it can offer is entertainment, and reaffirmation of shared, conservative values. It criticizes and complains out of habit, and it has nothing else to offer. As the Where the Wild Things Are movie demonstrated, when the ironic realist is stripped of his irony, he has nothing left save platitudes like “group hug” and “all is love.”
I’m also troubled by how naïve and nostalgic so much of today’s writing is. US culture is disturbingly self-indulgent and infantile. So when I found myself wanting to write about pop culture icons, I initially recoiled. I didn’t want to write ironic G.I. Joe stories!
Who or what are your influences? - First I’ll give the proper writer answer: AAF was influenced by Kathy Acker, Donald Barthelme, Guy Davenport, Steve Katz, Carole Maso, and Yuriy Tarnawsky. Katz exerted a particularly strong influence. Anyone who looks at his marvelous collections Creamy and Delicious, Stolen Stories, and Moving Parts will see how much I’ve pilfered.
But I was also influenced by popular culture of the 1980s and early 1990s, when I was a child and young adult. Like lots of geeky, friendless kids, I grew up reading G.I. Joe comics, X-Men, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I think the most conventionally “literary” thing I’d read by the time I was twelve was Lord of the Rings. And Michael Crichton.
Meanwhile, I watched Star Wars repeatedly, Star Trek, Indiana Jones — those were my religious texts. Between the ages of seven and fourteen, I wanted nothing more than to be a Jedi, or a ninja. As well as a mutant. I actually wondered what my mutant power would be, when I reached puberty. (Answer: the ability to suffer.)
So when I wrote, of course I imitated those things. I wrote a TMNT/X-Men crossover, and fantasy novels. I had a superhero comic series that I planned out in exhaustive detail. In junior high I drew a 350-page comic book adaptation of Mega Man II; I spent over five years working on it, using Bic pens and colored pencils and blue-lined Mead tablets. My love of awkward language comes as much from mistranslated Nintendo games as it does from Donald Barthelme’s “back-broke” sentences.
Is there something you are trying to work out in your stories? - All of my writing is rooted in some conflict, some tension that I don’t otherwise know how to resolve. The stories are a way of thinking things through.
I started some of the stories in the collection, the earliest drafts, in the late 1990s, right after I finished college — not too long, really, after I stopped wanting to be a ninja. By then I wanted to be a literary writer instead — a postmodernist, like Barthelme or Acker, my new influences. But all I really knew about was pop culture.
I was also reading a lot of fan-fiction then, so I decided to write “literary fan-fiction.” And my initial impulses were juvenile and ironic: to drag out the Star Trek characters and kick them around, to vandalize them. I can claim now that this was a Situationist impulse, or punk, but it was also hip and ironic. I ended up writing what were basically parodies: “Mario and Luigi’s Super Midlife Crises.” This kind of stuff is everywhere now, online. It’s cute, but it’s also easy and shallow.
It’s mostly impossible to vandalize pop culture, impossible to “take down” Indiana Jones, or TMNT, or Oscar the Grouch. Those things are much stronger than we are, much bigger. And the second you approach them ironically, thinking that gives you an edge, you’re really just capitulating to them. As a college professor of mine, Pat Trimble, wisely put it: whether you watch Friends or Simpsons or Star Trek or Twin Peaks, you’re still watching television; you’re still watching commercials. You’re still sitting on the couch, or behind your computer monitor, eating corn chips.
The moment I realized this (and it was a gradual realization), I realized that although I’d been through college, and had taken writing classes, and had supposedly outgrown those childish loves, I was still, in essence, hunched over my parents’ kitchen table, making a Mega Man II comic book. X-Men vs. Turtles.
The stories are initially very playful, but as the collection progresses that playfulness is increasingly overwhelmed by a larger eeriness. I became both confused and intrigued, facing a world that is neither real nor imaginary. - Well, what happened was that I put these kinds of stories aside for a while. I tried to focus on proper literary topics: adult relationships, the workplace, buying cars. Grandparents dying, pets dying, kids and spouses dying — the whole dead deal. But when I was honest with myself, I still wanted to write about my childhood. I didn’t know anything about adulthood. I knew only ALF!
And so I decided to acknowledge that desire, that the saddest thing I could think of was ALF dying. But at the same time I wanted to call myself to task, to admit how pathetic that was, how juvenile.
I returned to those pop culture stories, because I realized I needed to write them, to exorcise something. Amazing Adult Fantasy was my long dark night of the soul. Ingmar Bergman tormented himself over religion, and I, I agonized over — Kermit the Frog.
Your stories read like dreams, leading the reader into an alternate universe, but also back to the author as a mysterious and perhaps malignant force. What is the source of this? - If the stories are malignant, it’s because I tried to recognize how my desires are malignant. And how the pop culture forces are, before that, themselves malignant. Injurious and untrue.
The stories in the first half of the collection, in the “Fiction” section, are all fan-fiction. They’re about Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Oscar the Grouch… They’re about things I loved as a child, and still love, even if my love is conflicted and bittersweet. And they’re fantasy stories: fantastical, unrealistic.
Any fantasy, if it’s good, is also perverse. It asks you to believe in a world that isn’t true, an alternative to our real world. It’s escapist. This isn’t bad, per se — we need fantasies. We enjoy them. We use them for all sorts of useful things. But fantasy is particularly dominant right now in our culture — look at the movies out there, month after month. I can name every single one of the X-Men, summarize hundreds of issues of those comics. I’ve seen the Star Wars movies more times than tongue can tell. Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus are like real persons to me; they’re my childhood friends, as real as my downstairs neighbors (and not as loud). There’s something sad and terrible about this. And yet I can’t stop loving those things.
How does one get out of such a dilemma? Can one? - Another, more theoretical influence helped me come to some terms with this, to write through this problem: William H. Gass’s formalism, in particular his essay “The Concept of Character in Fiction,” and his 1970s debates with John Gardner. (So Gardner, too, was an influence.) Gass defined characters as linguistic constructs: proper nouns that other words “go to be about.” Gardner, meanwhile, took a more realist or illusionistic approach, arguing that characters are instead apparitions, dreams.
Their debates resonated very strongly with me. I agreed with Gass’s formalist approach, but I also felt great sympathy for Gardner’s view: the very problem I was having with these childhood pop icons was that they were apparitions. They were ghosts, haunting me. Or demons, in a very literal sense: divine beings that provide for us, and that determine our fates and fortunes. Attendant spirits.
After reading those debates and Gass’s essays, I found myself able to approach those dreamlike apparitions more abstractly, more as verbal constructs. Gass writes that the character is not real, but rather just a noun that other words modify. That insight helped me to see through some of the illusion.
So I tried sending other words to be about those characters, which in fact opened up a lot of room. These characters, these demons, are so well known, they’re so strong — that’s their appeal — that I found I had a lot of room to redefine them, and thereby deform them. So I could call Indiana Jones “Indian Jones,” and write that he now lives in Brooklyn, buying vanilla Cokes at the corner shop and squeezing the straws until they crinkle and tear. And at the start of that story he’s a young man, about to set out on his first adventure, about to become Indian(a) Jones. But he can also be an extremely old man, later on in the story, a man who “never found a single priceless artifact; instead he used his butterfly hands to become a sculptor.” Because Indian Jones, Indiana Jones, can be whatever I want him to be.
The first half of the collection is about redefining these characters, giving them new identities. This, too, is ultimately impossible, but I found it a better approach than mere ironic vandalism. The language could become something stranger and more troubling than guarded yet unabashed love letters.
The second half of the collection, “The Solar Stories,” is a rewrite of the first half — a dark mirror. The pop culture references disappear, replaced by a new, self-enclosed mythology. I think of the book as getting “older”: the first half is pre-pubescent, while the second half begins with puberty. The toys of childhood get cast aside, but not before they’ve been absorbed. And what replaces them is a much darker mythology, one more fiercely embraced. This dark reflection goes back to pollute the first half, I hope, and vice versa. The insular teenage fantasies are built on the naïve childhood loves, even if the teenage self won’t dare name them.
Do you follow any particular formal methods when writing, or would you call yourself more intuitive? - It’s a mixture of form and intuition. It was important to me that the structure played a meaningful role in the collection, organizing and commenting on the stories. And different stories in the collection used different styles and writing methods.
But I never want to sacrifice writing to adhere to form. If something feels right, then I’ll go with it. I want there to be tension, and form permits digression.
To what extent is media a guiding force? - The stories are mine, but saying that just calls into question what “mine” means. I’m definitely ceding some control in my choice of subject. And even as I wrote away from my sources, deforming those pop icons, I consistently felt a lot of pressure to return to their original concepts. The solution that worked best, I found, was to keep the characters protean. They’re endlessly mutating verbal constructs. So, for example, in “Oscar the Grouch” the title character is at first a radio broadcaster and successful poet, but a few paragraphs later he’s a neurotic young man, and very shy. And a little bit later he’s a lecherous, elderly Beat. But he’s also at the same time a disgusting, mangy creature who lives in a garbage can, like a bum.
Meanwhile, the narrator of that story, the “I” — that “I” is another character, too, another word that can be modified as well. And so the narrator, just like Oscar, also keeps changing: at first she’s a sickly little girl, then a student, then a groupie, then a teacher. She and Oscar continuously mutate around one another, defining and being defined by one another. And I hope that, when you’re reading that story, those transformations are pleasantly confusing, but also critical. Because who are you when you embrace Oscar the Grouch as your personal demon, as your totem animal? And how does that embrace deform you?
Claude Levi-Strauss said that we personify animals because, just like how some animals are “good to eat,” some are “good to think.” These stories look at those pop culture creations and ask how they are “good to think,” but also “bad to think.”
Are you opposed to pop culture? - No, certainly not. In some ways it’s too big to oppose. Can one ignore it? Condemn it? I don’t watch TV any more, and I read a much wider variety of literature than when I was a kid, and I have a lot of theory under my belt — but those pop stories, those characters, those franchises — they got their hooks into me before anything else. I was seduced at an early age: I can’t remember my life before Star Wars. The very first movie that I saw, when I was four years old, was The Muppet Movie. So I’ll no doubt always love Star Wars, and Kermit the Frog. And I’ve tried to be up front about that: “This before anything else.”
(A friend of mine was teasing me about these stories, arguing that I should just let my childhood go, like she did. She’s a sculptor who makes soft, animal-like fabric pieces. I asked her what kind of toys she’d played with as a child, and she said, “Oh, I had tons and tons of stuffed animals…”)
It’s important to resist one’s love for such things. We need them to some extent, but they were also the products of extremely pervasive capitalism — gimmicks for wresting cash from our parents’ fists (and then our own open hands).
The problem here becomes one of nostalgia, which is a kind of melancholy. Originally nostalgia was considered a disease: in the 1700s and 1800s, Swiss soldiers living abroad deserted in droves, because they couldn’t stand being so far away from the Alps. They were said to become particularly homesick when they heard the “Ranz des Vaches,” a farmer’s song. Their doctors and generals of course considered this a problem (they banned that song).
But today, nostalgia is a condition that we openly embrace. Our culture is very, very happy to sell our childhoods back to us. In my late teenage years, when I found myself at college, I struggled to cast aside the playthings of my youth. I stopped buying X-Men comic books, and action figures, and video games. I chose to stop going to see the new Batman movie, the new Star Trek. I wanted to have done with all of that, to move on. To no longer live like a child.
In some ways the culture helped: the more it insisted that I should care about the X-Men, the easier it made it for me to not care about the X-Men. George Lucas keeps tinkering with Star Wars, making it less and less like the Star Wars I remember — some people are upset because of that, but I’m actually somewhat grateful; I appreciate that alienation from Star Wars. The Batman that kids love today is not the Batman that Tim Burton gave me, the vision that he seduced me with…
…But this also makes nostalgia much more tempting. I actually bought some action figures one year ago: the NECO Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figures — because they’re based on the original comics version, you see, not the cartoon… And they just released a second series…
It’s difficult to get away from these things!
I took as my motto, “They will betray you.” They will never stay the same. They promise that they are divine, eternal, but they are the products of many different writers, of different places and times — which is part of their strength, but also part of their callousness, their injurious untruthfulness. They are greater than you; their masters are greater than you — and they do not know you, do not need you (just your paycheck).
This, then, is the tension that fueled the collection: my desire to write about these things, because I love them, and always will love them, but at the same time my very strong need to examine that love critically. And to hold myself accountable for feeling it." - Interview at Mutable Sound
Excerpts:Rock Albany!
Indian Jones
A Sad Story of Factory Girls” (PDF, page 33)
Korawik Wattanakul

The Speculative Turn – To depart from the text-centered hermeneutic models of the past and engage in speculations about the nature of reality itself

The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (editors), re:press, 2010.

"Continental philosophy has entered a new period of ferment. The long deconstructionist era was followed with a period dominated by Deleuze, which has in turn evolved into a new situation still difficult to define. However, one common thread running through the new brand of continental positions is a renewed attention to materialist and realist options in philosophy. Among the current giants of this generation, this new focus takes numerous different and opposed forms. It might be hard to find many shared positions in the writings of Badiou, DeLanda, Laruelle, Latour, Stengers, and Zizek, but what is missing from their positions is an obsession with the critique of written texts. All of them elaborate a positive ontology, despite the incompatibility of their results. Meanwhile, the new generation of continental thinkers is pushing these trends still further, as seen in currents ranging from transcendental materialism to the London-based speculative realism movement to new revivals of Derrida. As indicated by the title The Speculative Turn, the new currents of continental philosophy depart from the text-centered hermeneutic models of the past and engage in daring speculations about the nature of reality itself. This anthology assembles authors, of several generations and numerous nationalities, who will be at the center of debate in continental philosophy for decades to come."

Table of Contents:

Introduction

1. Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, ‘Towards a Speculative Philosophy’

2. Alain Badiou, ‘Interview with Ben Woodard’

Speculative Realism Revisited

3. Graham Harman, ‘On the Undermining of Objects: Grant, Bruno and Radical Philosophy’

4. Iain Hamilton Grant, ‘Mining Conditions: A Response to Harman’

5. Ray Brassier, ‘Concepts and Objects’

6. Iain Hamilton Grant, ‘Does Nature Stay What-it-is? Dynamics and the Antecendence Criterion’

7. Alberto Toscano, ‘Against Speculation, or, A Critique of the Critique of Critique’

After Finitude

8. Adrian Johnston, ‘Hume’s Revenge: À Dieu, Meillassoux?’

9. Martin Hägglund, ‘Radical Atheist Materialism: A Critique of Meillassoux’

10. Peter Hallward, ‘Anything is Possible: A Reading of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude’

11. Nathan Brown, ‘The Speculative and the Specific: On Hallward and Meillassoux’

Politics

12. Nick Srnicek, ‘Capitalism and the Non-Philosophical Subject’

13. Reza Negarestani, ‘Drafting the Inhuman: Conjectures on Capitalism and Organic Necrocracy’

14. Slavoj Žižek, ‘Is it Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today?’

Metaphysics

15. Quentin Meillassoux, ‘Potentiality and Virtuality’

16. François Laruelle, ‘The Generic as Predicate and Constant: Non-Philosophy and Materialism’

17. Levi Bryant, ‘The Ontic Principle: Outline of an Object-Oriented Ontology’

18. Steven Shaviro, ‘The Actual Volcano: Whitehead, Harman and the Problem of Relations’

19. Graham Harman, ‘Response to Shaviro’

20. Bruno Latour, ‘Reflections on Etienne Souriau’s Les différents modes d’existence’

21. Gabriel Catren, ‘Outland Empire’

Science

22. Isabelle Stengers, ‘Wondering about Materialism’

23. Manuel DeLanda, ‘Emergence, Causality, and Realism’

24. John Protevi, ‘Ontology, Biology, and History of Affect’

Conclusion

25. Slavoj Žižek, ‘Interview with Ben Woodard’


"I conceived the collection one drunken night as I was cooking dinner, full of warm and euphoric sensations from the chardonnay I was drinking (yeah I know, lame, but for some reason chardonnay makes me very euphoric, sentimental, expansive, affectionate, and happy whenever I drink it), and flush with excitement from reading Meillassoux’s After Finitude and from encountering Graham’s work, much to my embarrassment, for the first time. Prior to that, I only knew of Graham as the guy from DePaul (Loyola’s Continental rival) who had published a book fresh out of grad school and who was wearing a fidora in his books cover picture, i.e., I encountered him as an object of my envy and ressentiment. The original title of the collection was to be Post-Continental Realisms, but that title quickly got shot down– rightfully –by Bruno who observed that we have far too many “posts” in philosophy. “Let’s just do philosophy, eh?” At any rate, with the project fresh in my mind and wine diminishing my judgment, I immediately contacted Nick Srnicek, whose work I admire tremendously, who knows far more about the speculative realists than I ever will, and who I also owed for so generously citing me in his thesis.
Nick and I set about contacting the “big four” (Brassier, Grant, Harman, and Meillassoux), as well as others doing important work with a realist orientation (Stengers, DeLanda, Johnston, Hallward, Badiou, Protevi, Hagglund, Pepperell, etc). We were shocked and overwhelmed by the enthusiasm with which our proposal was met. Along the way we struck up a friendship with Harman and he did so much work promoting the collection that there was no way we couldn’t make him an editor. Graham is a work-horse, filled with enthusiasm for everything he does, and a mover and shaker. I really don’t know where he gets the time to do all that he does while also doing such creative and original philosophy.
As I sit here today, not even a year later, watching the articles begin to roll in, I am amazed by how much this project has changed my own thought process and philosophical orientation. One of the things I really like about this collection is that it is a work written by moles and being published by moles. Here I am not using the term “mole” in the sense proposed by Jon Cogburn, but rather in the sense of the old spy movies as someone who infiltrates a foreign organization and undermines it from within. On the one hand, nearly all of the contributors to this collection are moles in the sense that they are on the fringes of mainstream Continental philosophy, somewhat excluded from academia and traditional Continental scholarship. What made this strange alliance of moles possible– as moles are generally solitary creatures –was the internet, which allowed for networks of burrows to be formed, creating the possibility of strange cross-fertilizations of ideas and philosophical orientations that are otherwise so disparate. Although moles are generally peaceful creatures, content to burrow and feast on the grubs and delectable roots they find, nomadic mole armies are fearsome forces, despite their myopia. Indeed, their myopia or devotion to burrowing lines of flight are their strength.
On the other hand, Re.Press is a mole press, publishing the work of authors and thinkers that otherwise would have a great deal of difficulty getting their work published by more mainstream Continental presses, due to the manner in which these works tend not to be organized around commentary on a particular thinker. In this respect, the name “Re.Press” is a double entendre, capturing Freud’s dictum that repression is always accompanied by the return of the repressed.
However, if Re.Press is a mole press, then this is because through open access publishing that makes its texts available to the general public online, it allows for networks of burrows to be formed, alliances to be forged, that would otherwise be significantly restricted by exclusive paper publishing. Like the scene in Fight Club where Ed Norton’s character beats himself up, the voice-over remarking that something has been growing around and behind his boss that couldn’t be seen, open access publishing as well as blogs allow for mole collectives to be formed that skirt the established hierarchies of the academies and the morphogenetic role they play in defining the canon. If you read Peter Gay’s biography of Freud you discover that a mere handful of psychoanalytic theorists managed to transform the world through weekly meetings in Freud’s living room over coffee. The internet intensifies the formation of such networked assemblages and alliances. Moreover, it is high time that we Continentalists shoot back at ridiculously priced presses like Continuum and Palgrave that both inhibit the propagation of thought, hurt academic careers by keeping the work of emerging authors in obscurity due to the price of their texts, and that promote a sort of implicit elitism by restricting readership to those that can either afford the texts or who have access to a good library. And, of course, there are all the ecological issues behind paper publishing as well.
As far as my own contribution to this project goes, I’d like to express my great thanks to Jon Cogburn, Nick Srnicek, Reza Negarestani, John Protevi, and Nathan Gale for the exceedingly helfpul comments they gave me on my article “The Ontic Principle: Outline of an Object-Oriented Philosophy”. While not shirking on critical comments, all of you have been extremely encouraging and helped me to better develop my own vague intuitions. I owe all of you." - Levi Bryant,


"The Speculative Turn, edited by Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, has now been published. This volume gives the fullest account to date of (so-called) “speculative realism” in all its varieties. There are articles by the four initial speculative realists (Graham Harman, Iain Hamilton Grant, Quentin Meillassoux, and Ray Brassier), together with work by other thinkers who have influenced them (Laruelle, Latour, Stengers, Delanda, etc) essays by later contributors to speculative realist trends (Bryant, Srnicek, Reza Negarestani), brief interviews with Badiou and Zizek, and more. The volume contains my own article/critique of Harman, “The Actual Volcano: Whitehead, Harman, and the Problem of Relations,” together with Harman’s response." - Steven Shaviro

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12/29/10

Kellie Wells - He wanted to feel those feathers, to feel them brush his knees and open the closed places in his body, pass through him like hot nails

Kellie Wells, Skin :A Novel, University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

“From within the deceptively commonplace bodies of the inhabitants of a small Kansas town with the deceptively homespun name of What Cheer, Kellie Wells unleashes the clamorous, resistless, marvelous voice of our world's collective unconscious, the language of ecstasy and despair in all its manifold registers. Reading Skin is like finding yourself inside one of the great medieval paintings, every last detail (a sycamore tree, a TV, a firefly, a set of dentures in a glass, a meadowlark) perfectly rendered, and exploding with celestial meaning.”— Kathryn Davis

"In her first novel, Skin, Kellie Wells tackles theological questions of eschatological proportions within the complicated web of What Cheer, a small town in Kansas. God peeks through the clouds with ominous and alarming force, knocking men to their knees and demanding nourishment with insatiable hunger. What Cheer's residents live in a violent, premillennial reality where the only spiritual peace is inside your skin, below the veins and obscured by body tissue.
Wells eschews chronological narrative form, jumping through her characters' lives with a different kind of arc. Their futures mix with their pasts, creating a chaotic present without a clear protagonist. Instead, a cast of interconnected sinners trapped in various physical, philosophical, and emotional purgatories trades leads. Degrees of pain flirt with pleasure in a way that is just barely tolerable yet undeniably compelling.
The prologue sets the tenor for the body of the novel. Wells begins by describing the intoxicating scent of gardenia hanging in the air. The smell is so powerful it makes her characters forget what the body is reasonably capable of and the language so crisp it makes readers forget to question rationally impossible plot twists. Within the first two pages Rachel wills herself to shrink, her daughter Ruby dreams of the day she will let her mother relax in the safety of a pocket, and Zero floats into the sky until his body becomes merely a "matter of faith." Miracles are commonplace, theophany is never ruled out, and penitence is relished. Wells closes the prologue with guilty people ready to be consumed by their creator - "Thin clouds prowl across the sky like cats stalking sparrows, and all the residents of What Cheer who stand in their greening yards, hands reaching toward a trickle of sun, look above to see the sky eddy with the ylem of imminent consequences, kneel beneath the heft of sins they've yet to commit."
Throughout the novel, Wells uses Christian imagery to flirt with existential questions. God feeds us himself in the form of the Eucharist, but who feeds God? What is life? "Who's to say we are not floaters in God's eyes, making him a little less lonely behind his dimming vision?" What is heaven? Is it real? Could it be a place where "blood means the same as milk or rain or wine?" In What Cheer, God's name is Harold and he consumes whatever he chooses, answering these questions with swift blows. Abuse is divinely sanctioned and even envied. Masochism is the path to happiness and divinity. "It's a balled-up fist you hit yourself with, but you like it that way 'cause the beauty of contusions is that they disappear."
The world Wells creates is complex. At times the pain is so beautiful it invokes guilt. Wells succeeds in getting the reader to acquiesce to abuse, describing it with language so romantic that only later does reality catch up. She plows through issues that don't bring joy - domestic abuse, death, and self-mutilation - yet somehow leaves the reader with a smile. The book is not funny, but the prose so pleasurable it lulls the reader into seeing God in every bit of pain and loving him anyway. Wells manages to weave layers of storyline into each other from generations past and present without faltering, and she makes miracles rational, vigilantly retaining her audience in that heady, intoxicating cloud of What Cheer gardenias." - Rebecca Turnbull

"In Skin, Kellie Wells' novel-in-stories, scars are sites of healing as much as they are repositories for suffering. The motifs of skin and scar appear repeatedly throughout the book, and the structure of the novel itself forms a tissue of interrelated, almost symbiotic smaller narratives. For Wells, skin is not just the vast organ that protects the human body; it is also the narrative fabric that connects the human community, and the membrane that separates the otherworldly from the all-too earthly.
Skin follows the lives of the residents of What Cheer, Kansas, where the "gardenia-scented air fills them to their gasping gills with a barren hunger no fecundity could ever answer." This hunger winds throughout the novel and highlights the longing that each of its characters experiences in different ways. Evangelical Ansel Dorsett, for example, hungers for word from God, while his neighbor, the elderly Charlotte McCorkle wishes for an end to her physical presence on earth and a reunion with her husband. As the "sporadic seer" of What Cheer, McCorkle has the ability to imagine the lives of even unfamiliar residents, and her prophetic voice helps to draw all the other voices together. Like most of the residents of What Cheer, McCorkle is independent and pulsing with life. She underscores the importance the novel places on how humans differ from all other beings in their ability to experience through their sense of touch. "Touch is an underrated sense," she says. "We are tyrannized by the visual, and nearly as often led around by the ears, but what if we lost tactility, what lesser creeping creatures would we be could we not feel?"
Wells is at her best when in the realm of the body. One does not read her words as much as sense them through the fingertips. A sensual writer, her prose is both fleshy and often blurrily erotic, especially when she conjures angels: "He wanted to feel those feathers. He wanted to feel them brush his knees and open the closed places in his body, pass through him, tearing like hot nails, feel them die violently, all blood and sun, then feel them light as nucleolus rise up inside him like resurrection, scattering on the wind, the pollination of a restive demi-divinity."
In Skin, angels signify the tension between the body and the spirit, and the general sense of abandonment that permeates the novel. Wells' angels do not have perfect, white wings or receive messages from God. Instead, they can be seen feasting on the carcasses of animals in a field or visiting their human companions for a game of Triple Yahtzee. They age and grow sickly, are at once too corporeal and disembodied. Gabriel, Charlotte McCorkle's nephew, is one such angel. After several operations to remove his wings, they "came in all cockeyed and sickly, curling out to the sides like corkscrews with shriveled, musty feathers, and each time they grew back they came in more gnarled and in less and less likely places." In What Cheer, angels suffer, perhaps even more than their human counterparts. As Mrs. McCorkle explains, "When we are in the midst of a celestial burgeoning that walks among us, we tend to look the other way, hope we'll be spared."
Angels are not the only supernatural elements in Skin. Zero Loomis floats, and his eight-year-old niece Ruby Tuesday grows lemons in her abdomen. There are encounters with skin-stealing aliens and talking animals. Wells' brand of magical realism is reminiscent of Garcia Marquez, but also distinctly American. Her descriptions of the supernatural are as humorous as they are incantational: "You will wamble and flap at your own limitations, and molting feathers will twist to the floor. She will gather them and make a picture to comfort you. She will trace her hand on construction paper, a sweet hand small enough to fit comfortably inside your mouth, and she will glue your fallen feathers to the outlined fingers. She will fashion the body and head and wattle of a turkey out of brightly colored kernels of Jolly Time popcorn.
The impetus for Skin grew out of the author's short story, "Compression Scars," featured in her collection of the same name, which won a Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. That story is, like Skin, both tragic and comical. In a lesser writer's hands, the metaphor of scarring might come across heavy-handed, but Wells treats misfortune with tenderness and levity. Much is accomplished through the lively voices of her characters, but one senses the author's voice too, just below the surface, reminding the reader that there is a fine line between "grace and desolation," and it is through the skin that we negotiate that line, that we are reminded not only of how alone we are, but also of how connected we are to each other in our shared experience of aloneness." - Rachel Swearingen

"Wells gives us a series of linked stories with a prologue and epilogue. Although the setting is the small town of What Cheer, Kansas, the citizens of that town not only do the usual chores—cut the grass, watch television, search the sky for weather signs—they are also obsessed with divinity. Does skin reign? Or does divinity in some form or creed enter the skin, hinting that there are angels? What Cheer is, indeed, a very strange place. I need only quote some passages: Rachel Loomis "imagines soon she'll be able to see her soul showing through, a faint glimmer near the hipbone, between her ribs...." Ivy Engel, a teenager, gets "a little spooked, thinking maybe [the bats] had gotten their coloring from blood feasts, like maybe steady blood plasma transfusions had begun to redden their skin and fur...." Martin LeFavor sees angels: "Clearly great mysteries coursed between the extraterrestrial skin, drooping from their bones like melting wax." Are the people who live in the heartland crazy? Wells doesn't bother with simple terms because she writes of experiences beyond words. And her special gifts of metaphor and image gradually draw us into uncommon - to say the least! - states of mind or being. We begin to think that "skin" is haunted, enchanted, spooky. And Wells puts us in a mood of "continuing speculation." We will no longer see the natural world - flowers, crocodiles - as it "is." I cannot think of many novels that alter our perceptions, that make us think as old Rachel does: "The world is ending, the world is ending. I'm thinking about it. I'm thinking about it." - Irving Malin

"The residents of What Cheer, Kansas, are a fractured and tortured lot, wrangling with questions of personal responsibility, spiritual absolution, and cosmic uncertainty. What cheer, indeed? There's Ivy Engel, contemplating her mysterious tree filled with bats, and her boyfriend, Duncan, dressing all in blue to hide the scars ambushing his body. Next door lives evangelical Ansel Dorsett, whose piety is too much for the infirm Charlotte McCorkle to bear, laboring as she does under the delusion that she killed her husband, while in reality, he languishes in a nursing home across town. Ansel's savior may be the precocious child, Ruby Tuesday Loomis, who sees possibility in words written on cows, and dreams of fruit springing from her body, though such otherworldly skills confound Ruby's mother, Rachel, who still bears the childhood scars wrought upon her by her father's violence. In this surrealistic phantasmagoria, Wells writes with an intoxicating lyricism of the magic and mystery that lurk within and without the frailest and finest among us." - Carol Haggas

Prologue: Spiritus Monday


Kellie Wells, Compression Scars, UGA Press, 2002.

“By turns achingly poignant and downright hilarious, rendered in prose as supple and surprising as it is consistently brilliant, these stories take us into a world of angels and grotesques, of grace notes and grave truths, of the lost and, finally, the found.” — Ellen Akins

“Distinguished by a compressive force born from invention and intensity rather than economy, Kellie Wells's aptly titled Compression Scars is a memorable debut. The writing is consistently fresh and often beautiful, though for Wells beauty is a by-product. The primary function of her language is incantation—necessary to effect the alchemical transformations that inform each story.” — Stuart Dybek

“Slyly comic yet deeply felt, Kellie Wells's marvelous fiction embraces the sacred weirdness of everyday life. These are magical stories, in every sense of the word, by a writer with a conjurer's feel for the hidden compartments, death-defying escapes, and lighter-than-air levitations of language.” — Peter Ho Davies

“Even in a crowded field, it is a rare pleasure to come across a prose stylist like Kellie Wells, whose intellect and language bid one another beautifully to a dance. A thrilling debut from a writer so agile and subtle in her terms that, like Walter Abish and Kathryn Davis, she dares to be at play in the most unsettling questions of her day. Surely when the present generation of writers shakes down to its unique and irreplaceable voices, Kellie Wells will be one of them.” — Jaimy Gordon

"In Kellie Wells’ Flannery O’Connor Award-winning collection, Compression Scars, the body is a problem. The bodies in these stories are blind, deaf, pierced, headless, scarred, ridden by tumors and shingles and leukemia, plagued with heart palpitations, ugly, and, more often than you’d expect, dead. They suffer from what the fatherless narrator of “Star-dogged Moon” calls “the corporeal rap.” Characters occasionally approach sex, that most body-affirming of acts, but it remains out of reach. After one failed seduction, a woman, apparently by way of “good-bye” to her uninterested partner, “raises one side of her shirt, exposing a breast as small and fragile as a teacup.” Strange, sad and beautiful, a chord this book plays many times. It's no surprise, then, that these characters often want spiritual relief. The stories use mystical means - seances, ghosts, imaginary and rhetorical flights - to escape, transcend, ascend; or to use Wells' own consistently brilliant language: each story is "a fast burning centrifuge spinning spirit from flesh." At the magical conclusion of the title story "Compression Scars," bats descend to brush bugs from the protagonist's bare belly, a spectral touch that contrasts with the earthier sex she can't accept from a young man with devastating compression scars spreading throughout his body. But Wells occasionally balances this spiritualizing impulse with a character willing to give the flesh a go. Even the pre-adolescent Hallie, in "Hallie Out of This World," when confronting a knife-bearing sexual predator who "just" wants to look at her, exhorts him to "Touch me." Whether that touch would be worse than what the man has already subjected her to is hard to say. In any case, the story withholds that touch, as these stories generally do, as if, in Hallie's words, "a plate of glass separated us."
Plotwise, these stories also tend to be a bit disembodied. A typical narrative puts a character suffering from the loss of a loved one through a seemingly meandering series of memories and encounters, set to the music of Wells' inventive, finely detailed, funny, and sometimes bracingly intellectual sentences. When the music is about to stop, we find that the story has deftly managed to locate itself directly above a trapdoor leading into feeling or insight - and out of the story. Without the unfolding of dramatic action to bring on their resolutions, something which depends on purposeful bodies moving through time, the stories often require imagined rather than enacted endings: a dead father returns for a conversation in "Star-dogged Moon"; Hallie imagines leaving this world with her friend Oedipus and an experimental cow named Gretel. But, in most of these cases, the power of Wells' language leaves me feeling that definitive plot action is for squares.
Interestingly, the story most grounded in familiar emotions and motivations is the amazing "Secession, XX," a story which also has the most body-crazed premise: conjoined twins, brother and sister, survive long enough to attend high school and fall in love with the same person. It's as if having paid off a massive debt to strangeness, Wells feels comfortable getting down to jealousy and desire. Here the climactic rhetoric (climactic maybe for the collection as well), spoken by the brother who has begun to thrive as his sister declines, gives the body its due: "I sense that it is, after all, in the body that one knows whatever one can claim to know about God; redemption occurs, courageously, at this site of pain and decay." but in the last story, the will to escape the flesh is re-ascendant. Yet as the characters at the end of "Hallie Out of This World" rise into the sky, ready to "burn ourselves out of this world," I'm tempted to say, "Not so fast. Down here, in our bodies, is the only place we can live." Then again, Wells knows this, deeply, and that's why she's written these beautiful, pain-streaked stories." - Andy Mozina

"For this debut collection, creative writing instructor Wells won the University of Georgia Short Fiction Prize. Her characters are unable to avoid disaster in a world where "things can get so strange, so fast." Fathers and mothers disappear; children are left alone to cope with their fears and fantasies. In "My Guardian, Claire," the young narrator is trapped in a role reversal. In "Godlight," a Jesus-like figure, Jonas, replaces burned-out light bulbs in the Hyatt Regency Hotel. The light that he keeps for himself the light that comforts him is the light he sees when he imagines his dead daughter in heaven. The people in these stories are vulnerable, eccentric outsiders attempting to find their way in a world that puzzles and dazzles them. Wells adeptly portrays both their vulnerability and their fortitude. Her strong, unaffected prose contrasts sharply with the surreal quality of many of the stories. This collection introduces a writer of startling imagination and great promise. Suitable for all public libraries." - Marcia Tager

"Brother and sister conjoined twins; a teenage boy who believes he is dying from excessive scar tissue; a child conceived with the purpose of providing bone marrow for his cancer-stricken sister. Such abnormal afflictions lie at the core of Wells' debut collection of luminous short stories that reflect both the fragility and the flexibility of the human spirit. Emotionally and physically damaged as they may be, Wells' characters struggle with scars that are both internal and external, though they often fail to realize which of the two is the more disfiguring. Like Hallie, the teenage heroine of "Hallie Out of This World," Wells, too, can be said to "romanticize misfortune... the shortcomings, disabilities, grief and misery of others." What saves Wells, and what elevates her characters, is the inner strength and sublime compassion that compel them to assist others in singularly unconventional ways. Sometimes dark, frequently droll, by turns heartbreaking and humorous, Wells' phantasmal stories shimmer with a dreamlike vibrancy that continues to haunt long after the last word has been read." - Carol Haggas


"In the lobby of the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan, fiction writer Kellie Wells, M.F.A. ’91, tells how from an early age she recognized “how persuasive words can be.” She pauses to think. “Potent,” she says a moment later. “That’s a better word.”
Word by word, sentence by sentence, Wells crafts her stories. “I write very slowly,” she says. “In paragraphs rather than pages.”
That approach has built a body of work that has garnered the Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction, publication in prestigious literary magazines, and most recently, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, which has brought her to New York.
The cadence of language and the unconscious element of idea generation are two aspects of writing that intrigue Wells. It is not surprising, therefore, that her language casts a dream-like spell on readers, engaging their imaginations with oddball and often shockingly vivid imagery.
Her first collection of stories, Compression Scars, is being publicized on Amazon.com as “eloquent and original… vibrantly captur[ing] the oddities of both the everyday and out-of-this-world.”
In the story “Swallowing Angels Whole,” for example, protagonist Aimee Semple McPherson, a preacher with many stories, many truths, questions the ways of the world around her. She wonders whether “[Darwin] had felt the walk out of the water into the light click in his own bones, the weight of that forward movement pressing down on his skeleton. Bones remember. The ache that starts at the base of the spine is a bone memory of another posture.”
The evening of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Awards ceremony, sixty-five floors up in the pavilion of Rockefeller Center’s illustrious Rainbow Room, the best word to describe Wells and her writing was lofty. Overlooking a cloud-enshrouded New York City skyline, the literary world’s top publishers, agents, and editors assembled in late September to honor six emerging writers.
The writers are all women in the early stages of their careers who, in the words of the foundation, “demonstrate exceptional talent and promise.” Others to receive the $10,000 award this year are: Eula Biss, Adrian Blevins, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Ladette Randolph, and L.B. Thompson
A saxophone’s soft jazz filled the partygoers ears, fancy finger foods filled their mouths, and the names of future literary giants claimed their minds’ attention as author and philanthropist Rona Jaffe announced each winner.
Literary greatness, however, was not of foremost importance to young Kellie Wells. She was aware of words’ potency, yes, but did not immediately gravitate toward them.
“I was not one of those kids who wrote all the time,” she says. Only after college, when she found herself in a copywriting job at a public television station, imprisoned behind the strict confines of thirty-second spots, did she see the path that lay ahead of her.
“I found myself yearning beyond the thirty seconds,” she remembers.
"Wells had earned two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Kansas, Lawrence—the first in English, the second in journalism—and decided to test out the limits of fiction and poetry by enrolling in the M.F.A. program at UM in 1989. She received an extra incentive when honored with the University of Kansas Kate Stephens “Get the Hell out of the Midwest” fellowship for graduate study. It stipulated that its winners attend graduate school east of the Alleghenies or west of the Rockies. (Missoula, she says, was “exotic” in comparison to her hometown of Kansas City.)
“Being in school was something I was good at and enjoyed,” she says. “I was casting for an identity and couldn’t find one. I stayed in academe because I knew who I was when I was there.”
After earning yet another M.F.A. with a concentration in fiction from the University in Pittsburgh, she decided to make a career for herself in higher education. She studied abroad in Berlin and Hamburg, gained fluency in German, and received her doctorate in English and creative writing from Western Michigan University in 1999.
Though she says she “never lets naiveté get in my way,” she was struck by how demanding teaching was. Now an assistant professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, she does not get much writing done during the semesters she teaches. She simply does not have much to give to the creative side of things; teaching consumes so much of her energy.
To teach literature, Wells says she must first craft aesthetics and defend her positions. Students often ask her why she refers to certain readings, and she must be able to rapidly produce articulate answers. This process, she says, pushes her forward to do the work—the thinking—that she perhaps wouldn’t do on her own.
“It allows me to change, revise, and grow in a way that comes quickly,” she says. “I’m forced to be reflective all the time.
“Lots of writers who teach complain that they have no time to write,” she continues. “But for me, the only way to survive academia and writing is to see the symbiosis—how one feeds into the other.”
The Rona Jaffe Foundation bestows cash awards on its winners in the spirit of providing them with a cushion of time during which they can achieve a high level of reflection and creative output. Some winners use the money to cover the cost of childcare; others pay the rent for cubicle space. Wells plans to journey to Egypt to research Queen Hatshepsut.
At work on her second novel while making finishing touches on her first, she says her characters often get interested in subjects about which she is not personally knowledgeable, like ancient Egypt. “Sometimes an image pops into your head and attaches to this one character,” she says.
Her second novel, tentatively titled Fat Girl, Terrestrial, is still in the “embryonic stages.” Yet Wells already knows that one character, an amateur Egyptologist, would be interested in going to Egypt to visit Queen Hatshepsut’s tomb.
Wells says her writing process is two-pronged. At times she becomes grounded in language first, getting to character through language. Other times there is a character dilemma that she wants to work out through prose.
Her first (not yet published) novel, Skin, is set in the mythical town of What Cheer, Kansas. In this work Wells explores various crises of identity simultaneously. In what she describes as a “Midwestern magical-realism” genre, What Cheer residents grapple with big abstractions of body and spirit and work out the “consequences of the imbalances” in their daily lives.
Creative ideas like this one have been attracting attention to Wells for years. Nancy Zafris, fiction editor of the Kenyon Review, is a good friend of Wells’ from the days when Kellie was a student at the University of Pittsburgh. Zafris says she remembers Wells as a shy and unassuming student who had a mind full of thought-provoking ideas.
“She’s just so smart,” Zafris says. “She expresses herself really, really well and has an extraordinary vocabulary. At the same time, she is very modest, shy, and thoughtful. When she did say something, you wanted to listen to it.”
The class Zafris taught in the early 1990s was a literature class; the students handed in little of their own creative work. Yet, something about the way Wells talked about the readings provoked Zafris to ask for a writing sample. And what she saw—the beginnings of the title story in Compression Scars—blew her away. She urged Wells to write to an agent, which resulted in Wells getting representation.
“I sort of see her as a female David Foster Wallace in her own way. I hope she rises to the top. She’s the best literary fiction has to offer,” Zafris says.
Though Wells says she has been fortunate throughout her career, the past year has been exceptionally propitious. She published in the Gettysburg Review and the Kenyon Review, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, moderated a panel discussion on “The Figure of the Female Grotesque” at the Associated Writing Program’s annual conference, and landed her assistant professorship at Washington University.
She has come a long way since winning the “Get the Hell out of the Midwest” fellowship. Having been launched “into the stratosphere” after dwelling in obscurity for many years, she says, “This past year has been dizzying.”
Booklist reviewer Carol Haggas called Compression Scars a collection “of luminous short stories” that “reflect both the fragility and the flexibility of the human spirit. Emotionally and physically damaged as they may be, Wells’ characters struggle with scars that are both internal and external, though they often fail to realize which of the two is the more disfiguring.”
Haggas also recognizes that the characters appear to be saved by “inner strength and sublime compassion that compel them to assist others in singularly unconventional ways.”
Wells says that she is pleased that critics are picking up on the refuge her characters find in compassion.
“A lot of the world’s ills exist fundamentally as a result of a lack of empathy,” she says, adding that she is intrigued by the small places in which people find hope." - Jodi Werner


Interviewed by Dan Wickett

Kellie Wells: Digesting the Father (story)

Kellie Wells: Secession, XX (story)

Kellie Wells, Threnody (story)

Kellie Wells: Gaythal Dethloff, Mother of Murder (story)

12/28/10

Mick Farren -Vinnie wants to sell me Hitler's Brain, The Aztec Calendar Just Ran Out, Just a Poor Dogpoet Who Finds Himself Locked Out Of The Cathouse

Mick Farren, Zones of Chaos, Borderlands Books, 2009.

"Mick Farren is a legendary poet, musician, author, critic, activist, countercultural icon, and one of the last true gonzo journalists. Enter his paranoid, radical, drug-addled and excruciatingly beautiful world; go to jail during the L. A. Earthquake, meet Doc Holliday and take a ride in Diabolo's Cadillac. ZONES OF CHAOS is a maelstrom of poetry, prose, essays, lyrics, commentary, and fiction."

"Michael Moorcock's introduction describes this hallucinatory concoction of Farren's poetry, song lyrics, essays, short fiction and social commentary as a display case of his obsessions from demons to dope to the dangers and rewards of remaining alive in an increasingly berserk universe. In Enter the Swordmaid, vampire Victor Renquist encounters a woman with a sentient sword and gets a nightmarish glimpse into another dimension. The Voodoo Chile Experience is a psychedelic roller-coaster ride through extreme user fatal video gaming. Jailhouse Rock chronicles Farren's experiences in a Van Nuys jail during a major California earthquake. A 1975 comic book entitled Rock & Roll Madness shows an aging Elvis-like character becoming president. Farren is equal parts drug-crazed madman and poetic prophet, and his work both predates and transcends modern bizarro apocaliterature." - Publishers Weekly

"Mick Farren is one of the unsung heroes of the modern "underground" - writer, musician, journalist, anarchist, prankster and unrepentant sinner. A godfather of punk and heavy metal, his bands have shaped the music of two generations - He has worked with The Deviants, The Pink Fairies, Hawkwind, Motorhead and many more. As a writer, his dystopian visions helped lay the groundwork for much of what we now expect of science fiction, yet always with a smirk and sense of humor often missing from most recent books and films.
In "Zones of Chaos", Farren throws down with a collection of prose and poetry (and even cartoons) with titles like "Vinnie wants to sell me Hitler's Brain", "The Aztec Calendar Just Ran Out" and "Just a Poor Dogpoet Who Finds Himself Locked Out Of The Cathouse".
"Zones" is an outwardly chaotic mixture of lyrical storytelling, but each piece in the book is a gem, strung together on a broken guitar string that changes quickly from a charming necklace to a garrote, and back again. In" Jailhouse Rock" he tells the tale of spending the Northridge Earthquake locked in the Van Nuys jail. The story, in seven short pages, has it all- drama, humor and biting social commentary. The poem "Anthropomorphism", a eulogy to cartoonist Edward Barker, is full of sweetness and anger, and "Envy" tears apart rock'n'roll idolatry in a mere hand full of words.
Farren is unafraid to show his roots and cultural references- reading his work is like watching a great poker player playing an open hand. No tricks, no secrets, no bluffs- just raw talent, well-honed skills and a lifetime of experience that tells him what to throw out, what to keep in, when to fold early, when to go all-in.
The great Michael Moorcock, in the introduction to "Zones" describes Farren's work best - "Mick Farren is an original. Read him and rage. Read him and laugh. Read him and weep. He still has more energy, more life and more creativity than most of those who have come after him. And He's still ahead of his own game. Doing what comes naturally. Cocking a snoot at convention. Telling it like it is. Living in a present made incandescent by his very existence. Showing just how good it is to be alive. " - Ricardo Feral

12/27/10

Jenni Fagan - Homage to 17. century Chinese poetry, pornography in a Scottish caravan park, murder, armed robbery, Elvis, native Indians, coal mines



Jenni Fagan, The Panopticon: A Novel. Hogarth, 2013.

An Amazon Best of the Year pick and named one of NPR, Library Journal, and Flavorwire's Best of 2013 novels, THE PANOPTICON is a dazzling debut by one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists
Anais Hendricks, fifteen, is in the back of a police car. She is headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders. She can't remember what’s happened, but across town a policewoman lies in a coma and Anais’s school uniform is covered in blood.
Raised in foster care from birth and moved through twenty-three placements before she even turned seven, Anais has been let down by just about every adult she has ever met. Now a counter-culture outlaw, she knows that she can only rely on herself. And yet despite the parade of horrors visited upon her early life, she greets the world with the witty, fierce insight of a survivor.
Anais finds a sense of belonging among the residents of the Panopticon – they form intense bonds, and she soon becomes part of an ad hoc family. Together, they struggle against the adults that keep them confined. When she looks up at the watchtower that looms over the residents though, Anais knows her fate: she is an anonymous part of an experiment, and she always was. Now it seems that the experiment is closing in.
Named one of the best books of the year by the Times Literary Supplement and the Scotsman, The Panopticon is an astonishingly haunting, remarkable debut novel. In language dazzling, energetic and pure, it introduces us to a heartbreaking young heroine and an incredibly assured and outstanding new voice in fiction.

Anais Hendricks, the tough, fiery 15-year-old at the center of Fagan’s first novel, has grown up in the foster care system in England. Abandoned by her mother, who gave birth to her in a mental institution, Anais has been bounced around ever since the murder of Theresa, a compassionate prostitute and the only mother figure Anais has ever known. Anais is brought to the Panopticon, a halfway house for truant teens, after she’s accused of brutally beating a police officer and leaving her in a coma. Anais, who was hopped up on drugs at the time, can’t remember whether she’s guilty or not. The police are gunning for her, determined to send Anais to juvenile detention until she’s 18. At the Panopticon, Anais is convinced she’s being watched as part of a sinister experiment, the purpose of which, she believes, is to try to bring her down and all but eradicate her from society. Told in Anais’ raw voice, Fagan’s novel peers into the world inhabited by forgotten children, and, in Anais, gives us a heartbreakingly intelligent and sensitive heroine wrapped in an impossibly impenetrable exterior. Readers won’t be able to tear themselves away from this transcendent debut. --Kristine Huntley

“Fagan has created a feisty, brass-knuckled yet deeply vulnerable heroine, who feels like sort of a cross between Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larsson’s 'Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,' and one of Irvine Welsh’s drug-taking Scottish miscreants from 'Trainspotting' or 'Skagboys.' Her novel is by turns gritty, unnerving, exhausting, [and] ferocious...A deeply felt and genuinely affecting novel.” —Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
“Fagan has given us one of the most spirited heroines to cuss, kiss, bite and generally break the nose of the English novel in many a moon…there is no resisting the tidal rollout of Fagan’s imagery. Her prose beats behind your eyelids, the flow of images widening to a glittering delta whenever Anais approaches the vexed issue of her origins…vive Jenni Fagan...whose next book just moved into my ‘eagerly anticipated’ pile.”—Tom Shone, New York Times Book Review
“[Fagan] grew up in what’s euphemistically called ‘the care system,’ and she writes about these young people with a deep sympathy for their violently disordered lives and an equally deep appreciation of their humor and resiliency…[Fagan has a] rousing voice, with its roundly rendered Scottish accent.”—Ron Charles, Washington Post
"A classic coming-of-age tale."—Boston Globe
“Fagan’s style calls to mind fellow Scottish writer Anthony Burgess, whose novel A Clockwork Orange used similar lexicographic liberties to reinforce a theme of teenage dystopia” —The Daily Beast
“[A] terrific portrait of a young criminal…Fagan makes this ugly life somehow beautiful.”—Alan Cheuse, NPR

"The Panopticon [is] a terrifically gritty and vivid debut.” Cleveland Plain Dealer
 “She’s Oliver, with a twist. Anais Hendricks, 15, and the female protagonist of poetess Fagan’s first novel, cuts right to the chase as she chronicles the modern British foster care system.” —New York Post

“The Panopticon is like its protagonist: tough as old boots and always ready with the fists, but likely to steal your heart if you’ll just slow down and listen.”—National Post

 “Fagan creates a complex and vulnerable character…[and] even though Anais makes it hard for you to love her, you can’t help wishing her out of her plight and cheering her upward.” —Bust (four stars)

"The Panopticon is an exquisite first novel--Jenni Fagan has created a dark, disturbing, yet ultimately hopeful portrait of a young woman growing up alone in the Scottish foster care system.  To say it is haunting is an understatement--I kept wanting to set a place for Anais at the table with the rest of my children."—Vanessa Diffenbaugh, New York Times bestselling author of The Language of Flowers
"Jenni Fagan has created a high-resolution portrait of a throwaway kid. Fifteen-year-old Anais, born in a mental ward, tumbled through the social work system, violated and violent, high on whatever, each decision she makes is a jaunty wave as she sails past the next point of no return. This is a contemporary tragedy of the highest order." —Carol Anshaw, New York Times bestselling author of Carry the One
“In the Margaret Atwood/The Handmaid’s Tale vein—very literary and suspenseful. I like books set in an altered reality—one that feels familiar and yet also deeply unfamiliar, that embodies some of the dailiness of life, and yet slowly reveals itself to be a very different, much more sinister place.”—Gillian Flynn, Oprah.com
"With The Panopticon, Fagan makes Foucault proud and readers ecstastic. This is why we read. You'll begin wanting to save Anais Hendricks but finish wondering if, and how, she's managed to save you."— Tupelo Hassman, author of Girlchild

"Jenni Fagan is the real thing, and The Panopticon is a real treat: maturely alive to the pains of maturing, and cleverly amused as well as appalled by what it finds in the world." -Andrew Motion
"Ferocious and devastating, The Panopticon sounds a battle-cry on behalf of the abandoned, the battered, and the betrayed. To call it a good novel is not good enough: this is an important novel, a book with a conscience, a passionate challenge to the powers-that-be. Jenni Fagan smashes every possible euphemism for adolescent intimacy and adolescent violence, and she does it with tenderness and even humour. Hats off to Jenni Fagan! I will be recommending this book to everyone I know." -Eleanor Catton, author of The Rehearsal
"This is a wonderful book – gripping and brilliant. Anais’s journey will break your heart and her voice is unforgettable. Bursting with wit, humanity and beauty as well as an unflinching portrayal of life as a ‘cared for’ young adult, this book will not let you go." -Kate Williams
"Best debut novel I've read this year." -Irvine Welsh
"Uncompromising and courageous...one of the most cunning and spirited novels I’ve read for years. The story of Anais, a fifteen-year-old girl blasting her way through the care-home system while the system in turn blasts her away to nothing, looks on the surface to be work of a recognizable sort, the post-Dickensian moral realism/fabulism associated with writers like Irvine Welsh. But Fagan’s narrative talent is really more reminiscent of early Camus and that this novel is a debut is near unbelievable. Tough and calm, electrifying and intent, it is an intelligent and deeply literary novel which deals its hope and hopelessness simultaneously with a humaneness, both urgent and timeless, rooted in real narrative subtlety."–Ali Smith, TLS – books of the year
"If you’re trying to find a novel to engage a determinedly illiterate teenager, give them this one. Anais, the 15-year-old heroine and narrator, has a rough, raw, joyous voice that leaps right off the page and grabs you by the throat…This punkish young philosopher is struggling with a terrible past, while battling sinister social workers. Though this will appeal to teenagers, the language and ideas are wholly adult, and the glorious Anais is unforgettable." –The Times
"[A] confident and deftly wrought debut…The Panopticon is an example of what Martin Amis has called the “voice novel”, the success of which depends on the convincing portrayal of an idiosyncratic narrator. In this Fagan excels…Her voice is compellingly realised. We cheer her on as she rails against abusive boyfriends and apathetic social workers, her defiance rendered in a rich Midlothian brogue." –Financial Times
"The most assured and intriguing first novel by a Scottish writer that I have read in a decade, a book which is lithely and poetically written, politically and morally brave and simply unforgettable…Anais’s voice is an intricate blend of the demotic and the hauntingly lyrical…There are moments which are genuinely distressing to read, which return the reader to a painful sense of how mindlessly and unspeakable cruel people can be. But it is marbled with cynical, smart comedy…Fagan is exceptionally skilful with bathos, a notoriously difficult literary register; here, however, it manages to be funny and heart-breakingly tender at the same time…Naturalistic and pleasingly oblique. Life, as Stevenson said, is “infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant”. To render this novelistically is a rare achievement…The Panopticon appeals to writers since in some ways the novelist is the prison’s arch-overseer, able to look into the minds of the characters. But that comes with a duty: to keep your eyes open even when you’d rather shut them. Fagan is gloriously open-eyed about immaturity, maturity, sexuality, crime, dispossession and more. Her ability to capture the cross-currents of language, the impersonations of consciousness, is admirable…As a debut, The Panopticon does everything it should. It announces a major new star in the firmament." –Stuart Kelly, Scotsman

"[The narrator] is engagingly drawn by Fagan, who has created a character possessed of intellectual curiosity and individual quirks…Written with great verve…Fagan has a clear voice, an unflinching feel for the complexity of the teenage mindset, and an awareness of the burden we impose on children…What’s intriguing here – particularly in a Scottish fiction landscape that can display too much of the plodding everyday – is her effort to lift the story of teen misadventure into a heightened realm of intellectual aspiration and quasi-sci-fi notions of sinister social change." –Scotland on Sunday
"What Fagan depicts in her debut novel, The Panopticon, is a society in which people don't just fall through the net – there is no net…Fagan is writing about important stuff: the losers, the lonely, most of them women. [Anais] maintains a cool, smart, pretty, witty and wise persona." –Guardian
"Reminiscent of Girl, Interrupted…The novel is as bold, shocking and intelligent as its central character…The institutional details (magnolia walls, screwed-down chairs) anchor The Panopticon in realism, giving it a greater bite. Much of Anais’ life is the stuff of tabloid shock stories and The Panopticon’s strength lies in giving you an insight into the lonely, damaged girl behind the headlines…This week’s winner." –Stylist

"An indictment of the care system, this dazzling and distinctive novel has at its heart an unstoppable heroine…Fagan’s prose is fierce, funny and brilliant at capturing her heroine’s sparky smartness and vulnerability…Emotionally explosive."–Marie Claire
"Fagan's writing is taut and controlled and the dialogue crackles." –The Herald

This is the best debut I’ve read this year...and all because of the character of Anais, who is one of the best narrators I have ever come across.  An essential read."–Living North

“Anais’s story is one of abandonment, loss, and redemption, well suited for a paranoid age in which society finds itself constantly under the microscope.” –Publishers Weekly
“Dark and disturbing but also exciting and moving, thanks to a memorable heroine and vividly atmospheric prose…Fagan [paints] her battered characters’ fierce loyalty to each other with such conviction and surprising tenderness.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Told in Anais’ raw voice, Fagan’s novel peers into the world inhabited by forgotten children, and, in Anais, gives us a heartbreakingly intelligent and sensitive heroine wrapped in an impossibly impenetrable exterior. Readers won’t be able to tear themselves away from this transcendent debut.” Booklist (starred review)
"Anais's ongoing internal dialog, her periodic reimagining of her life and situation, is enthralling...James Kelman's How Late It Was, How Late meets Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. Not to be missed." Library Journal (starred review)

Jenni Fagan, The Dead Queen of Bohemia, Blackheath Books, 2010.

The Dead Queen of Bohemia is Jenni Fagan’s extraordinary follow up to her debut collection Urchin Belle, released last year on Blackheath Books. This new collection of poems, explores the peripheries of life with an unpretentious, lyrical brutality.
The Dead Queen of Bohemia takes in homage’s to 17th Century Chinese poetry, pornography in a Scottish caravan park, murder, first time sex in a hotel room, armed robbery, Elvis, native Indians, underage prostitution, coal mines and factories. Fights in wastelands, squirrels in the walls, bazookas, corpses, wife beaters, gang bangs and a white fox. There are dildos, moons, Eskimos, finest Bolivian, witches and stilettos, the ripped out heart of a Victorian debutante, quietude, despair and voodoo.
Fingerprints and butterflies; the covers of Fagan’s books mirror the contrasting defiance and fragility of her poems. Poems that document a disconnected fractured existence and what happens when there are no second chances.”

Five Poems

Jenni Fagan, Urchin Belle, Blackheath Books, 2009.

“Urchin Belle is a debut collection that combines a genuine poetic originality with a startling no bullshit clarity. This is a voice born out of a life lived on the extreme peripheries of society.
The poems are as touching as they are heroic and as fragile as they are tough. The erotic and mundane collide with the surreal and extreme to produce a voice at once beguiling, shocking and entirely unapologetic.
The poems take you from downtown Cairo to Glencoe, to a world where sawn off shotguns, underage prostitution, dealers, pimps, bent cops and brutality are the norm. The stories of those living within and outside the system recur alongside the kind of raw erotic base need that leaves the reader wanting more.”

“Blackheath Books’ reputation as discerning independent publishers climbs another notch with a bruising first collection of poems by Jenni Fagan.
The back cover is proudly stamped with words from the Chairman of Edinburgh & Midlothian Young Offenders Report 1993: “Miss Fagan is a considerable danger, both to herself and to all of society.” In a Bart Simpson way, I’m thinking “cool”; except it’s not cool. Fagan’s accounts of abuse, violence and prostitution in childhood are far too real and unsettling to get off on some vicarious kick.
You can feel the danger throughout Urchin Belle as the fizzing tension and pressure builds like a can of Tennent’s booted down the stairs, ready to explode. It’s not all doom and gloom though; there are moments of snatched tenderness and the end poem about nicking lights from police cars provides a defiant, funny, and triumphant two-fingered finale.”

The Panopticon (chapter one of a novel ) by Jenni Fagan

Jenni’s blog

Amy Hempel - What seems dangerous often is not, while things that just lie there, like this beach, are loaded with jeopardy




Amy Hempel, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, Scribner, 2006.

"Amy Hempel is a master of the short story. This celebrated volume gathers together her complete work - four short collections of stunning stories about marriages, minor disasters, and moments of revelation.
With her inimitable compassion and wit, Hempel introduces characters who make choices that seem inevitable, and whose longings and misgivings evoke eternal human experience.
For readers who have known Hempel's work for decades and for those who are just discovering her, this indispensable volume contains all the stories in Reasons to Live, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Tumble Home, and The Dog of the Marriage. No reader of great writing should be without it."

"Hempel's four collections of short fiction are all masterful; while readers await the follow-up to last year's acclaimed The Dog of the Marriage, this compendium restores the full set to print. The first of Hempel's books, Reasons to Live (1985), is justly celebrated by Rick Moody in his preface as a landmark of its era's "short-story renaissance"; it introduces Hempel's unmistakable tone, where a "besieged consciousness," Moody says, hones sentences to bladelike sharpness "to enact and defend survival." The second, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990), is the main reason to buy this book: used copies are scarce, and the collection contains stories like "The Harvest." Hempel's genius, whether in first or third person, is to make her characters' feelings completely integral to the scenes they inhabit; her terse descriptions become elegantly telegraphic—and telepathic—reportage, with not a word wasted and not a single fact embellished. Her great subject is the failure of human coupling, and she charts it at every stage: giddy beginnings, sexy thick-of-its, wan (or violent) outcomes, grim aftermaths. Seeing it laid out kaleidoscopically in this volume is an awesome thing indeed, and a pleasure lovers of the short story will not want to deny themselves." - Publishers Weekly

"With the publication of her first book of short stories, Reasons to Live (1985), Hempel earned a strong position in the vanguard of the minimalist school of fiction writing, in vogue at that time and especially significant in the short story genre. Her three succeeding collections of stories, the most recent being The Dog of the Marriage (2005), maintained her high stature as a short story writer. She generally continued to compose tightly hewn stories despite the fact that minimalism as a stylistic movement was shrinking around her like a drying riverbed. The stories from her previous collections are gathered here into a single volume, and her achievement in the form is now boldly obvious. She has never imitated, never been just a somewhat anonymous member of a pack of talented storywriters. She is an original, having found--and kept--her unique way of expressing her not so much cut-and-dried as deeply penetrating vision. As the 70-page story "Tumble Home" testifies, Hempel can write longer than usual for her, and certainly that interior monologue by a patient in a mental institution is arresting in its pristine tracing of a pattern of thought. Nevertheless, she is at her best by far in the short, highly imagistic, sparely plotted, stiletto-keen slice of narrative that in her hands glistens in its sheerness, and for that she has made short story history." - Brad Hooper

"A quietly powerful presence in American fiction during the past two decades, Hempel has demonstrated unusual discipline in assembling her urbane, pointillistic and wickedly funny short stories. Since the publication of her first collection, "Reasons to Live," in 1985, only three more slim volumes have appeared - a total of some 15,000 sentences, and nearly every one of them has a crisp, distinctive bite. These collected stories show the true scale of Hempel's achievement. Her compact fictions, populated by smart, neurotic, somewhat damaged narrators, speak grandly to the longings and insecurities in all of us, and in a voice that is bracingly direct and sneakily profound." - The New York Times

"The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel gathers together the complete work of a writer whose voice is as singular and astonishing as any in American fiction. Hempel, fiercely admired by writers and reviewers, has a sterling reputation that is based on four very short collections of stories, roughly fifteen thousand stunning sentences, written over a period of nearly three decades. These are stories about people who make choices that seem inevitable, whose longings and misgivings evoke eternal human experience. With compassion, wit, and the acutest eye, Hempel observes the marriages, minor disasters, and moments of revelation in an uneasy America.
When "Reasons to Live, " Hempel's first collection, was published in 1985, readers encountered a pitch-perfect voice in fiction and an unsettling assessment of the culture. That collection includes "San Francisco," which Alan Cheuse in "The Chicago Tribune" called "arguably the finest short story composed by any living writer." In "At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, " her second collection, frequently compared to the work of Raymond Carver, Hempel refined and developed her unique grace and style and her unerring instinct for the moment that defines a character. Also included here, in their entirety, are the collections "Tumble Home" and "The Dog of the Marriage." As Rick Moody says of the title novella in Tumble Home, "the leap in mastery, in seriousness, and sheer literary purpose was inspiring to behold.... And yet," he continues, ""The Dog of the Marriage, " the fourth collection, is even better than the other three...a triumph, in fact." "The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel" is the perfect opportunity for readers of contemporary American fiction to catch up to one of its masters. Moody's passionate and illuminating introduction celebrates both the appeal and the importance of Hempel's work." - www.booksandbooks.com

"I recommend The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. I read Hempel’s story “Havest” last year in my senior English class. It was the best thing I had read in years. Hempel writes only short stories and she is a master of the craft. She writes in a minimalist postmodern style that forces the reader to become involved in the story, always telling him to ask “what” and “why”. Each story is personal. They draw out emotions and can leave you crying then laughing then crying again within the span of ten minutes. After you read just one of her stories you’ll sit and think. How long has it been since you’ve done that? How long has it been since you’ve sat and taken a minute to see how you’re feeling? It’s probably been a while. Her stories force you to do this. I love her stories so much so that if I could bring three books on a desert island I would bring The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel to read, a military survival guide and Twilight to burn." - The Oxford Spokesman

"All four of Hempel’s books (Reasons to Live, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdon, Tumble Home, and The Dog of the Marriage) are contained in this this volume. Reading it all at once is a feast. It’s gluttony, really, but you probably won’t be able to help yourself either. It’s also a prize: inexplicably, some of her work had fallen out of print.
Hempel is the kind of writer other writers love: sentences to die for, but not the most prolific output on earth. (Though, if pressed, who wouldn’t want more stories from her?) In Stranger Than Fiction in an essay called “Not Chasing Amy” Chuck Palahniuk tells us:
At first, “The Harvest” looks like a laundry list of details. You have no idea why you’re almost weeping by the end of seven pages. You’re a little confused and disoriented. It’s just a simple list of facts presented in the first person, but somehow it adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Most of the facts are funny as hell, but at the last moment, when you’re disarmed by laughter, it breaks your heart.
She breaks your heart. First and foremost. That evil Amy Hempel. That’s the first bit Tom teaches you. A good story should make you laugh, and a moment later break your heart. The last bit is you will never write this well. You won’t learn this part until you’ve ruined a lot of paper, wasting your free time with a pen in one hand for years and years. At any horrible moment, you might pick up a copy of Amy Hempel and find your best work is just a cheap rip-off of her worst.
So, yes, Hempel is amazing. She can smack you up side the head, and you had no hint, no warning you should duck. Mostly these surprises are in the writing, the precise turn of phrase, though once it was because I recognized the story she was telling. Having a fictionalized piece of that from another point of view was jarring, but then good stories can result in twists in your gut, can’t they?
It seems wrong not to quote Hempel here, because she does really write lines to die for, the kind that are so good you want to babble about them to other people. Thing is, taken out of context (and perhaps coherency, it’s easy to get worked up once you start quoting) they just maybe sound not quite so genius as they do in the story, where they were made and belong.
Part of my reluctance, too, is that I want potential readers to have the pleasure for themselves. If you love short stories, good stories, go get this book. Whether you slowly savor it, or finish it as fast as you can hardly matters. You’ll be reading it again. Highly recommended." - 12frogs book reviews

"The characters in this collection's 48 stories are full of odd bits of advice. A few of these are little more than cute - plug an ice cream cone with a marshmallow to keep the bottom from dripping -- but many bring the reader a resonating, smile-dissolving chill. "Here's a trick I found for how to finally get some sleep," a character in one story says. "I sleep in my husband's bed. That way the empty bed I look at is my own." A woman in another story passes along a police officer's advice to always keep your doorknobs polished: "When someone breaks in," the officer told her, "we can get clear prints."
Hempel's stories are both low-key and off-key, and part of their power comes from the author's ability to give characters unexpected routes to essential realizations. "Once I had food poisoning," a character recalls, "and realized I was trapped inside my body."
There are many brief stories here, including several that come and go with little impact, but the collection's treasure is the 70-page novella "Tumble Home," in which a young woman in a psychiatric institution writes to a famous painter she met just once. Like the others in this rich and original collection, she attempts to endure both bad advice -- "buy oversized furniture so as to look small and delicate when curled up in a chair" -- and her own essential realizations: "No one has ever told me that I am good with children." This book's characters seem always to be responding to such things, and the reader is grateful to Hempel when the very occasional breather arrives, when we can practically hear a character's abiding sigh. "What can I say about myself today?" the woman from "Tumble Home" wonders to her letter's recipient, before arriving at this lovely image: "That I am the last to close a window when it rains." - Stephen Schenkenberg

"Few fiction writers are as intensely admired by their peers as is Hempel, though she's never published a novel. Her reputation rests solely on the four landmark collections of short fiction gathered here, including the long-out-of-print At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (used copies of which are both rare and expensive). She will forever be tagged a minimalist, which is accurate enough if largely unrevealing, since there's both great and execrable minimalist fiction. True, a ruthless economy characterizes her writing, but it's owing not to a studied lack of affect (an attribute that marks the most predictable and lazy minimalism) but rather to a lapidary precision and a severe, poetic aesthetic. Often she startlingly punctuates that aesthetic with a wit, reminiscent of Deborah Eisenberg's, that has evolved from the sly and often loopy to the dark and mordant (Hempel has a gift for the off-kilter one-liner; in a story in her most recent collection, the narrator deploys one on a man who's raping her). Dogs are Hempel's career-long obsession, and no one has written of them and their relationship to human beings with more exquisite sensitivity and clear-eyed affection. Another constant is loss: nearly all her stories, written in a perfectly modulated voice, circle around broken people and the dissolutions, disillusionments, and bereavements they endure. Although leavened by a wry rue, Hempel's is a hard-boiled sensibility, and each of her stories -- many only a few pages long, and one of which consists of a single sentence -- will leave the reader shaken, for they're all spot-on exemplars of V. S. Pritchett's 1982 description of the genre as "the glancing form of fiction that seems to be right for the nervousness and restlessness of modern life." - Benjamin Schwarz

"Although Amy Hempel is little known outside the world of American fiction, she is deeply respected, even revered in her native US, as Rick Moody's effusive introduction to these collected stories indicates. Hempel, whose economic, oblique style of writing is most often compared to Raymond Carver, began to publish in the mid-1980s when short fiction, with Carver the doyen, was at its zenith. Following the millennial vogue for disproportionately long novels, the genre is reclaiming attention in a more self-consciously pared-down age. Hempel is, therefore, subject to some retrospective scrutiny.
In this volume, which comprises her four extant collections, dogs abound in almost every piece. And not simply dogs; animals here exist as catalysts, bystanders, protectors: "saints, guardian angels, my saviors, my friends".
Set mostly in the small beach towns around San Francisco, with its unique "eucalyptus fog", the voice in each tale – sometimes no more than a paragraph long – is generally that of a woman, sardonic, disaffected, lived in and lived through, often finding herself in blackly comic situations with neighbours, parents, in cars, and hospitals; always at the fag-end of a relationship. As one narrator comments: "I don't want to meet men. I know some already."
In "The Harvest", a woman involved in a horrific car accident is abandoned by the man she has been seeing for a week. "Do you think looks are important? I asked the man before he left. 'Not at first,' he said." Later the narrator explains in a coda that she has, in fact, exaggerated many of the circumstances of the piece. In what amounts to a sedulously neat masterclass in writing, this is a revision which amplifies, rather than detracts.
As Moody asserts, the brevity Hempel employs is almost Japanese, haiku-like in its precision. That is, until you get to "Tumble Down", the title story in Hempel's third collection, which at first glance is a ruminative letter from a woman hospitalised after a breakdown to a renowned artist she has met only once. In between the daily asides, oddball characters and petty humours of the institutionalised, we slowly learn of her grief at her mother's recent suicide.
In its length, pace and pathos, there is a semblance of an earlier, graver tradition of European writing. "I wish it never got any darker than this," she writes, "the moment that you can no longer tell that grass is green." In sleep she adopts the position her dead mother was found in, her anguish the more piercing because it is evident that theirs was a bitter relationship.
Hempel cleverly explores a similar ambiguity in two final stories – "The Uninvited", in which a childless woman approaching 50 suspects she might be pregnant as the result of a rape, and the erotic, exquisitely painful "Offertory". A relationship is ignited, then bleakly determined by the man insisting that the woman relate, each time they make love, the intimate details of her long-ago ménage à trois with a married couple. "Unimprovable," he says at the end. An adjective which – dogs notwithstanding – can be easily applied to the majority of these stories." - Catherine Taylor

"This could be a very short review. Read this book. But don't read it as I did. Please, not as I read it. All right: I guess I had better explain.
Book reviewers must have deadlines. Readers, luckily, do not. Amy Hempel's "Collected Stories" is made up of four slim volumes: "Reasons to Live," published in 1985; "At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom," 1990; "Tumble Home," 1997; and "The Dog of the Marriage," 2005. More than 20 years to accumulate just over 400 pages: it's no wonder these stories, which often have the outward appearance of fragments, move with such contained power. They are eerie, unsettling, always original and perfectly expressed. Each one sets itself off like a depth charge in the reader's head. Each deserves time — quite a lot of time — to be allowed to do its work. Reading these stories one after the other — as I sometimes had to — carries two unfortunate risks. The first is that the stories, most of them narrated in the first person, may blur into one another — though in reality there is only a slight chance of this, so vivid and true is Hempel's voice. The second, graver, danger is that spending too long at a stretch in Hempel's disquieting atmosphere will give you what I can describe only as a case of the literary bends. Hempel's world is modern, set in a vivid present that only very occasionally feels historical. ("Him?" a character sneers. "The only book he ever read was the first chapter of 'Iacocca.' ") Yet the overall sense of this book is one of almost classical tragedy. Here, to be sure, is beauty, and pity, and fear.
Maybe I'm being too serious. Because Amy Hempel is funny, too, blackly funny, and her humor hits you right away. Her stories snap open: "The first three days are the worst, they say, but it's been two weeks, and I'm still waiting for those first three days to be over" —that's the start of "Du Jour," which at three pages is a fairly characteristic Hempel length. Her temporal universe is quite her own: "The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me" — there's the first sentence of "The Harvest." "Breathing Jesus" begins (of course): "Things turned around after I saw the Breathing Jesus." These opening sentences give you a feel for her work: Hempel's narrators are smart, damaged loners whose lives have a sense of being salvaged from a wreck. The humor is mordant, rather than what is commonly called redemptive; indeed, if you were to simply describe many of these stories, there would seem no hope of redemption anywhere. But hold on.
So first: how to describe them? The "events" of the stories aren't really the point; it's better to talk about Hempel's recurrent themes. Simple to start with death, the abiding presence of this book, particularly as it is the wellspring of the novella "Tumble Home," set within the walls of an asylum. "When I go to sleep, I sleep on the side of the bed my mother used to sleep on. Sometimes, at dawn, I wake up and find myself in the pose my mother died in — lying on her side, her arm reaching from under her head as though she were doing the sidestroke in a pool, the pills she had swallowed weighing her down like so many pebbles in her pockets." When you come to this passage, it will seem familiar; it appears too in "Tom-Rock Through the Eels," a glimpse of the narrator's life before she is confined. The cause of her confinement — you would not call this narrator mad — may be her mother's suicide, may be a failed relationship with an artist to whom she writes obsessively; the whole tale is addressed to "you." The locutions of one of her fellow inmates convey her spooky flair for language: "Warren says, when he is angry, that he's as mad as all outdoors. He says do I want to meet him after dinner and chew the rug? He says he can't always follow the threat of my conversation."
Mortality is everywhere here; "The Most Girl Part of You" might just be about two necking teenagers, Big Guy and the narrator — if it weren't for the nearly casual mention of Big Guy's mother's death. (When the necking happens, "we take the length of the couch, squirming like maggots in ashes.") Whose is the dead baby in "The Annex"? It's never quite clear. The annex itself is the annex to a cemetery; the narrator lives across the street; perhaps this is the same cemetery that is across the street in "The Uninvited," although the two stories originally appeared in different volumes. What use is "perhaps" to the reader? A great deal, in Hempel's case; it allows the reader room to move, to think, to feel.
The fear of human connection — especially the connection between mother and child — is another theme of Hempel's. "The only time the word baby doesn't scare me is the time that it should, when it is what a man calls me," says the narrator of "Tumble Home." That fear is a failure of empathy, a failure that haunts the powerful story "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried." This story is the very first one she ever wrote, which might give aspiring writers pause for thought. In it, a woman doesn't quite rise to the task of supporting a dying friend; it's as simple, as awful, as that. As the narrator of that story says: "What seems dangerous often is not — black snakes, for example, or clear-air turbulence. While things that just lie there, like this beach, are loaded with jeopardy." There it is again: the threat of Amy Hempel's conversation.
There are mudslides and earthquakes; the ground itself is unstable. In such a universe, where can hope — or the tricky business of redemption — be found? In "the clean way a dog enlists your heart," for one. The pure love (love of, love from) animals, and especially dogs, is a healing vein through this volume. The narrator of "The Dog of the Marriage" trains guide dogs: "I work with these dogs every day, and their capability, their decency, shames me." It's no wonder, with the kind of human beings found here; this book's closing story, "Offertory," is a freezing, burning tale of sexual obsession; the narrator's lover persuades her to tell stories of a past affair with a married couple. Hempel's plain, unexplicit language somehow conveys the madness of desire; and so, it is in just such a story — apparently harsh, seemingly cold — that Hempel's genius, and a kind of redemption, can really be found.
For here is the redemption of real art. You could call Hempel part of a movement in the trajectory of the American short story, and Rick Moody, in his intelligent introduction, places her alongside Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Ann Beattie and others — women writers who rise above what he sees as the "rage" and posturing of their male counterparts. But in the end such comparisons don't matter. Amy Hempel is herself. You read her stories and wonder, Why are they so wonderful? The answer comes to you at the very end of this volume, in a line toward the close of "Offertory." "Because a human being made this." That's all you need to know. Take it slowly. You'll see what I mean." - Erica Wagner


Amy Hempel: The Most Girl Part of You

Chuck Palahniuk on Amy Hempel

Kelli Deeth's Response to Amy Hempel's "In A Tub"

[very negative] "Review Of The Collected Stories Of Amy Hempel" by Dan Schneider


The Paris Review Interview

Intervie by Suzan Sherman


Interview by Jessica Murphy Moo



Interview by Nathan C. Martin



"Forty-Eight Ways of Looking at Amy Hempel" interview with Amy Hempel by Dave Weich

"A Long Time Coming" Interview by Rob Hart

Collected Stories Read it at Google Books

Tumble Home by Amy Hempel

The Dog of the Marriage: Stories

"In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried" by Amy Hempel (story)

Allegorithms - Oscillating between the algorithmic & the representational, the human agent navigates its environmental niche in a way which is conducive to its further psychological, social, & biological existence

Allegorithms , ed. by Vít Bohal & Dustin  Breitling, Litteraria Pragensia, 2017. Contributors: Alexander R. Galloway, Marco Donnarumma...