George McCormick - The photographer–narrator of George McCormick’s haunting, inspiring Inland Empire sees into the landscapes, ruins and life of the American West with a visionary urgency. As in the essay–novels of Sebald, questions of history and imagination are charged with understated and overwhelming emotion
George McCormick, Inland Empire, Queen's Ferry Press, 2015.
Like the smog that forms the subject of an acclaimed photographic exhibition, Inland Empire is what it isn’t. The novel isn’t about a young landscape photographer who leaves the concrete vistas of his California suburb for a community college teaching post in Oklahoma. It is a spiritual journey into place and time, guided by grain elevator signifiers and horizon lines. The American West. Religion. Skateboarding. War. Masculinity. Loss. The indelible image. A deeply evocative tableaux, Inland Empire does what only the best art can: it resists classification.
"I thought I would feel more. What I wasn’t expecting was this disconnect between the blankness of these nearly anonymous spaces and the depth of sorrow they were supposed to contain. It was with this in mind that, after selecting a dozen photographs, I developed them into 16’ x 20’ Type C color prints. As I organized the show and thought about what to include on each photograph’s placard, it occurred to me that what I had been fighting against, what had created such unease in me, was the realization of how a historical it all felt. Here were these spaces that were supposed to be defined by the human events that had happened within them, yet they refused
to act or look their part. Increasingly, these landscapes, as photographed, seemed indifferent toward the narratives that had marked them on the map. My unease came from my guilt that I was actively making photographs that encouraged the act of forgetting. Yet that guilt led to a compositional choice: maybe by refusing political geography and not naming these spaces on the placards, the
photographs might begin to restore some other narrative: some story that was perhaps previous, or beside the historical one; one that wasn’t totally recognizable but still signified."
"Inland Empire is an astonishing book. Haunting and formally inventive, it has become one of my favorite novels of recent memory. Imagine the ghosts of Woody Guthrie and Roberto Bolaño scribbling poems together on the back of a Taco Bueno wrapper, and you begin to imagine George McCormick’s Oklahoma."—Bayard Godsave
"An exquisite meditation on place and history, a meticulous character study of an artist, a momentum-gathering page–turner—Inland Empire is all of these. McCormick somehow makes the inchoate process of creating art into the basis of an urgent private investigation drama. A distant cousin of W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo, Teju Cole’s Open City, or even Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, this book is deeply imagined and felt, its places and people richly textured. I savored every word, every revelation."—Jerry Gabriel
"The photographer–narrator of George McCormick’s haunting, inspiring Inland Empire sees into the landscapes, ruins and life of the American West with a visionary urgency. As in the essay–novels of Sebald, questions of history and imagination are charged with understated and overwhelming emotion. Reading this book, you feel your eyes open and open."—Rob Roensch
George McCormick messes around with Inland Empire sentences and changing narratives–complete with a time stamp:
The title for the book came late; after the last page had been written or sure. I’m going to embarrass myself and disclose the fact that the working title had been, for about a year, The Blue Grackle. It’s a bad title for everyone except me, but I needed to know that. I was worried that because Inland Empire (which is a real place in Southern California where I am from) had also been the name of a David Lynch film, I couldn’t use it. It took reading Ed Skoog’s fantastic poem “Inland Empire” that I realized it was fair game. Thanks, Ed!
While I’ve tinkered with different drafts, mostly revising sentence-level things, I basically sent QFP what in my mind was a realized book. I believed in it. It is a small book, but I believe in it now, and I believed in it when I sent it. Which is part of the reason I sent it to QFP in the first place: I love their work and I love the chances they take. Period. I wanted to be a part of that.
The stories were written over a five-year period. From there I consolidated them into four “big” stories. It should be understood that when I began writing the book I hadn’t any notion that I was writing something that would actually be made into a book. More than anything I was messing around with sentences, with passages. Then I started to realize how much I needed the act of writing in my life. I had just moved to a very strange city in Oklahoma, and I was freaking out, to put it bluntly, but I thought, okay, if you can make a piece of art out of this place, then you’ve really done something. Now I know that people do this all the time with the less-than-ideal places they live, but for me it was a matter of survival—and as soon as I saw it in those terms I knew I had something. Now I won’t live anywhere but shitty places (kidding).
Two of the sections have been published: “The Train Singer’s Song” in This Land; “Inland Empire” in Arcadia. I could not be happier with the working relationship I’ve had with the editors of these fine publications. Oklahoma is a special place, a funky place, when it comes to the arts. There’s almost not pretension, no turf battles, and in turn the community is amazingly strong.
I didn’t arrange the stories until the end, but by then the structure of the book had revealed itself and it was relatively simple. Here’s the thing with Inland Empire: I wrote and rewrote and rewrote each page until I felt comfortable going to the subsequent page. It was that simple: finish one page, go to the next. I thought in terms of thirty lines per page. My faith was that a structure, over time, would emerge. Thank God—and I’m not kidding, I pray all the time before I write—one did.
I sent the book to the Queen’s Ferry Press because that’s who I wanted to publish it. I had an agent who didn’t want me to do this, I ignored that agent, and now I am happy. I do want to say one last thing about the book that I think is important: I finished the book at four in the afternoon on the 24th of November, 2013. When I finished the book I was so happy, so proud, that I called a friend of mine and read him the closing passage. He was stoked, and I was on cloud nine. I thought I will always remember November 24, 2013 as the day I finished my book. Then my daughter was born that night at 11:03, and as they say, the narrative changed.
Research Notes: Inland Empire
George McCormick, Salton Sea, Noemi Press, 2012.
story The Mexican
"These are stories of the American West, a 21st century West where everyone works a shit job; whose denizens know all too well that the dreams they've dreamt of that place are just that, dreams; where the natural world has all but disappeared--often because we refuse to look up and see it. Like the inland sea that gives this collection its name, whose algae blooms 'cumulous, bloody forms just under the surface, ' there is beauty in their ruin."--Bayard Godsave"George McCormick's writing as clear and direct as a fast-moving river, but the lives of his characters never run straight. As his narrator tells us, 'In the West what we love most are lies. What we love are images of a stampede, of animals running; of what we think are the right stories of stealing away.' Don't let these marvelous stories slip past you."--Jesse Lee Kercheval
At the official book launch for George McCormick’s Salton Sea, I sit on a plastic chair in the Leslie Powell Gallery, a surprisingly neat oasis in the midst of a semi-deserted street in Lawton, Oklahoma. The gallery is comfortable and smart, if not elegant – happily offering a stay against the seepage of culture here on the southern plains. It occurs to me that this setting is appropriate for this inaugural reading. McCormick’s characters also struggle in futile wastelands, though they fail to fully understand their plights. Bayard Godsave introduces George, and he points out how the characters in Salton Sea are often “oblivious” to the way in which their surroundings affect them. But Godsave also points us to the “beauty in their ruin.”
The author stands behind the podium and acknowledges two guiding influences in his life: his mother, a librarian, from whom he gained the love of story, and his father from whom he learned to appreciate topography, and to read maps. These influences seem pertinent as George begins to read. This thought stays with me as later I would read and reread the entire collection. As others have noted, McCormick’s characters inhabit a western landscape though their relationship to it is often beyond their appreciation. They are dots on a map.
With something like boyish charm – yet with an all-grown-up-now voice of one who knows his craft, George begins to read his story “Birdy.” His manner seems to say: “Hear me. These characters have come through my soul. I have imagined them for you, and they are a lot like us.” Indeed, these are good stories. They exhibit control. They flourish with rich but understated characterization. Four of them were first published in respected literary journals. One of them, “The Mexican,” won a 2013 PEN/O. Henry Prize. “Birdy” displays lines like “the stink was sweet and awful.” This is the story of a would-be family man trying to sell pot to make ends meet. His less than powerful presence is routinely highlighted by phone calls with his wife who is concerned about their sick child. This is a story about money, about getting enough to make a happy life for an ordinary couple. Of course the drug deal goes unfulfilled, not in a clichéd, violent way, but in a weird confessional in which the main character washes the dishes and cleans up a bit in the apartment of Birdy, his contact who fails to provide the agreed upon money, and who is obviously in a worse situation than the main character. His impulsive cleaning of the place somehow rudely compensates for his own apparent lack of attention to his wife and daughter back in Bozeman, Montana. Readers feel the anguish of a man trying to be two places at one time and get away with it. Double lives divide us in half, don’t they? The story begins with the admitted failure of the main character: “these mistakes came from my hand.” And so we see the mock-heroic attempt of an ordinary guy trying in vain to make up for his sense of failure. With a sincere but quiet voice, George ends his reading. We all applaud. We recognize the necessary subtle vanity developed in his characters. Members of the audience line up to buy their copy of Salton Sea. I am anxious to read the remaining four stories.
I had heard George read a draft of “The Mexican” once before, so I was anxious to see its final form that garnered its prestigious award. As I contemplated my reading, I decided that this story should be required reading for every American. It is a story that represents not only our failure to understand, but our intentional manipulation of reality. The story is a simple plot. A worker on a train finds a Mexican hiding among a train-car full of oranges. Nothing more, nothing less. But in the eye contact of the two characters lies a history of political distrust, and more important, the ironic goal of what it means to be human. McCormick’s handling of this plot leaves readers profoundly affected. The peril of the lonely and vulnerable immigrant – desperate and now silently brought face to face with an ordinary American. What will he do? The story takes a marvelous turn. We see how “years later” this encounter becomes legend. How the solitary immigrant becomes a cattle car of Mexican steers that bust out and run wild from their boxcar prison. As the narrator tells us, “in the West what we love most are lies. What we love are images of a stampede, of animals running; of what we think are the right stories of stealing away.” I repeat. All Americans should read this story.
“DC” is the next story. It develops an everyday dilemma of whether or not to take a good job in Washington DC, or to stay put in small-town Idaho. Of course readers soon begin to realize that the move will never take place. The move cannot happen because the principal is forever defined by a place. The dream of bettering an economic situation dissolves into illusion before it is cancelled by the familiarity of logging trucks, estranged Mormon in-laws and a favorite barstool. The clever appeal of this story is the undeniable feeling that Orofino, Idaho contains the pulse of America – not DC.
The title story, “Salton Sea,” is set in Fontana, fifty miles east of Los Angeles where “there is no sky.” The story revolves around an oddity: an inland sea, a place where the narrator has “come to hate.” The mundane reverberates in this story. There seems to be no life, no color. The irregular community of Salton City mirrors the main couple of the story whose search leads only to futility. They are explorers who never find anything significant or useful, and wear themselves out in the process. The fifth story of the collection boasts my favorite line: “Montana winters are hard on women and machinery.” This story also presents my favorite title: “You are Going to Be a Good Man.” Like each of the five stories of this collection, this context demonstrates the futile present tense. Someday, in the undefined, vaguely imagined future, things will be better. Someday, there is the faint hope of change, but not only does betterment always seem to be just out of reach, it also seems to finally not be worth the effort. Maybe a redeeming irony of these stories lies in their mirroring effect they provide the reader. Maybe we should sense the precious importance of who we are now, in the contexts in which we find ourselves. Certainly all the stories use memory in significant and very interesting ways. Along with McCormick’s skillful use of memory, the domestic tension within these stories is gripping. It is a joy to read such masterful tributes to a flawed and common humanity. - Ken Hada