Four Fathers by Dave Housley, BL Pawelek, Ben Tanzer, and Tom Williams

Four Fathers

By Dave Housley, BL Pawelek, Ben Tanzer and Tom Williams

Andrew Keating, Editor

Cobalt press, June 2014

158 pages

ISBN-10: 1941462006

 

An Interview with Dave Housley and Ben Tanzer by Linda Michel-Cassidy

Four Fathers is a collection of poetry and fiction on fatherhood and the experience of being parented. In Tom Williams’s “Where You Should Be,” we see an angry and lost adult son holding his father accountable for his own inability to stay sober or keep a job. In the final piece, “What it Means to Be,” Williams again shows us this son, grown and with his own child and coming to some sort of realization of why his father had pushed him so hard.

Williams’s bifurcated story makes a fitting bookend for the three middle pieces. The gap gives the reader time to consider other versions of parenthood. While the son in “Where You Should Be” does not show any immediate signs of getting his life together, the hope offered by “Puzzles,” “The fourfathers1-300x300Princess,” and “Everything Is Getting Worse” allows the reader to consider the possibility that the man we see in the lead story will survive, and perhaps accept his past.

“Everything is Getting Worse” by Dave Housley is packed with all kinds of irritants for the lead character, Burns: his son’s adoration for Justin Bieber, Real Housewives on the television set, hallucinations featuring a preachy Ryan Seacrest. “Everything is different now. Worse,” he thinks. Housley throws trouble after trouble at poor Burns: an about-to-deliver wife, the possible loss of a job he neither likes nor is good at, a nasty addiction to Adderall. “He could have gotten himself addicted to a grown up drug. Heroin, cocaine, booze.” A citation for public urination—during a business meeting—comes as no surprise. While father and son experience Bieber Fever, their neighbor, who faces an inevitable foreclosure, plans a majestic and horrible exit.

“Puzzles” by Ben Tanzer is a series of vignettes about finding out what having children does to one’s life. “You do not understand how different that kind of love is, how all-consuming and overwhelming it can feel. How hard it is to not want to merge with them in every possible way, because to not merge is to not live.” (“Consumption”) In “Loud,” the narrator wants to share his love of punk music with his son, which isn’t going to happen—at all. “His rejection of X may feel like a rejection of what makes you, but it’s not, not exactly.” AC/DC might be the solution, thinks the father. But it is not. “His taste in music may suck, but he’s trying to find his way.” As hilarious and touching and strange as they are, these stories in “Puzzles” are about discovering who the child is—that they are not simply a shorter version of the father, but their own person.

 

Dave Housley and Ben Tanzer were kind enough to entertain my questions about the collection, which is compelling both in the manner in which it is assembled, and in the content itself.

 

Linda Michel-Cassidy: I’m curious to hear how the project for the book came to be. Were the pieces already in existence, or did you come up with the idea of a collection based on fatherhood and gather and/or write the pieces towards that end?

 

Dave Housley: I had what was either a long story or a short novella—the piece “Everything is Getting Worse”—and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. Complicated origin story: I had been asked by a publisher to write a longer piece to anchor a collection I was shopping around, and then another publisher accepted it (without the “anchor” piece, my collection If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home, which was published by Dzanc in January). After I had the longer piece half-written, and I abandoned it for a year or so. When I picked it up again, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I liked it, and then moved forward and finished it, but with the book already in the process of being edited, the long story/short novella was kind of orphaned. At the same time, I was realizing I had put a lot of work in this thing, and I really kind of liked it, so I didn’t want for it to just die on the vine, and it was a really tricky length—not quite a novella and too long to publish as a story.

I had read a book called “Shut Up Look Pretty” on Tiny Hardcore Press, which is composed of separate sections, and thought there might be a chance to put something similar together, with other writers who were working with the idea of fatherhood.

I talked to Tom about the idea at AWP and then we recruited Ben. I think Ben had just published “You Can Make Him Like You,” and I had read it and was just blown away with what a fun, interesting, raw, honest exploration it was of the idea of fatherhood. We kicked the idea around over Guinness at the AWP hotel bar. I think this was Chicago. The idea was four people writing about fatherhood from a kind of no-holds-barred perspective, each of us working in different forms. Ben suggested BL (Pawelek) as the poet, and I think by the end of two pints we had the idea ironed out. Over the next several months, we all polished or finished our pieces, and the next year at AWP we were signing a contract with Cobalt. The moral of this story, obviously, is to spend as much time as possible at the bar at AWP.

 

Ben Tanzer: Lounging around bars at AWP, and lounging around bars in general are key, for many things, though having friends who are great writers that you really admire and like to initiate cool projects is also quite helpful. The invitation came at an interesting time for me. A lit journal had just asked me to write a piece of flash fiction for them and I had never written anything of that length. As I was thinking about what I might write I had this misunderstanding happen with my younger son, and it was super tense, for me, and teary, for him, and it was rainy, so John Cusack would have been happy to star in the short film version of the moment, and the whole thing had all this great feeling and imagery packed into this very brief scene, and I thought that’s it, that’s perfect, what’s the flash fiction version of that? It was really invigorating and new and shortly thereafter, Dave asked me if I wanted to contribute a section to what became Four Fathers and so for the next six months, whenever there was a moment, or memory, that seemed especially fraught, emotional, or electric with my kids or wife or mom or dead dad, I tried to unearth a story that captured the feeling. Sometimes this even happened in bars.

 

Linda: I’ll say that not being a dude had no effect on my appreciation for the book, as it speaks to all parenthood, but also to having parents. Can you talk a bit about the decision to open with a story that was from the adult child’s standpoint?  

 

Dave:  I believe all of the pieces in the book are really from that “adult child’s standpoint,” in that in general the narrators are men who are parents who are thinking about the idea of fatherhood and whether they’re doing a good job, or as good a job as their fathers. They can’t turn off their internal editors. I think the default setting would be “actively questioning” whether they’re doing an okay job and how they got here.

 

Ben: I’m glad to hear it had no effect on your appreciation, because that’s important if people are actually going to read it. That aside, I think there are a number of reasons that make this piece the right one to open the collection with. The most boring reason is also the aesthetic one: Tom wrote two companion pieces and so they naturally provide bookends to the collection. They are also a sort of beginning and an end in and of themselves in terms of content, so there’s that. But then to Dave’s points, and yours, Tom’s story sets a tone for the collection by saying we are all writers caught in trying to make sense of our present roles and lives by trying to understand our past experiences and identity struggles. Which again to Dave’s point, few writers working today do as well as Tom Williams does.

 

Linda: I love the bookend structure that you use. In the opening story, “Where You Should Be,” by Tom Williams, the narrator is the adult child of a seemingly difficult father. In the last piece, time has passed and that narrator is now a father himself, visiting his own father with his son. It was a wonderful way to allow the reader to experience that gap in time, rather than merely using a flashback within one story. What about this structure choice? The ordering of the collection as a whole?

 

Dave: I love all the pieces in the book, but of everything in there, Tom’s two pieces are probably my favorites. Tom had the first piece written and an idea about the second one. I believe it was Andrew’s idea to break them up and have them literally bookend the entire book. Initially the idea was to have sections, so each of us would have a section. I think that decision to bookend the entire thing was brilliant, and that was all Andrew.

 

Ben: It seemed to me, that it would be really cool beyond having four different writers explore being fathers, to have four different authors do so in different mediums or genres – novella, short story, poetry, and flash fiction, with each section then not only in the voice of a different writer, but with different rhythms and beats. And in that way, the bookend approach also allows the writing and the rhythms to go in any number of directions, but still end where it started, full circle, packaged, and wrapped-up.

 

Linda (For Ben): Your stories, collected as “Puzzles,” show the process of figuring out each child. “Lies” epitomizes it, how you have to be a cultural translator for the whole beginning of their lives. And “Loud”—I so get that, where the parent’s version of cool is so very different than the child’s. Talk if you will, a bit about using these very specific vignettes to get at the larger idea, and managing to avoid sentimentality.

 

Ben: The larger idea for me, though I didn’t consciously think about this when I was working on these pieces, is that as a parent, and especially when your children are younger, you’re always in a scramble, work, writing, wiping noses, picking-up socks and dishes, overseeing baths and brushing teeth, getting your children to sleep, and on and on. And while so much of it is automatic, or done on autopilot, you’re not an automaton either, you’re tired, and confused, and frustrated, and some times, even much of the time you feel real anger. You don’t quite understand how you got into this, and why there are moments that you feel so much rage. But then there are these amazing jolts of happiness and awe. They’re like slivers or little diamonds, and that’s what I was interested in, the jolts and the slivers, and all stories for me start with that. Not unwrapping a story, but wrapping the layers around an idea. The thing with flash fiction is that you need to nail the one idea, kill it, wrap it more tightly, and blow it up. So, not a conscious effort to tell any larger idea per se, but capture the endless small ones. Which are not small in the moment, they’re everything, and all you can see and feel, yet, ultimately, and inevitably, also reflect something larger, even if you don’t know what it is when you start.

 

Linda (for Dave): I don’t even know where to start. Self-medicating father, Bieber Fever, neighbor in a downward spiral, rage, a baby on the way. In “Everything is Getting Worse,” everything is getting worse, but one presses on. You’ve thrown all of it on this character Burns, who doesn’t quite seem like he’s up to the load. I’m wondering whether we (or I guess I mean, I) feel for this guy, who in some respect made his own chaos, because he is a father? Or are we really rooting for the son?

 

I hope you do feel for him! He’s my only recurring character, actually—he was the protagonist of a story called “Ryan Seacrest is Famous,” which was the title story in my first collection, and a story called “Toyota” from my next one, Commercial Fiction. I believe at one point I tweeted “my only recurring character is a terrible asshole.” So yeah, he’s kind of a terrible asshole who mostly obsesses over what other people have and how easy it all looks, about the choices he’s made and the fact that he can’t unmake them and they didn’t lead to him being a lead guitar player, or a news reader, or a shortstop. They didn’t lead anywhere his eighteen-year-old self would have thought was cool. They led to the normal places and he has all this resentment and self-loathing about that. He’s terrible but in my mind, at least, it’s mostly self-loathing.

I really tried to put pressure on him in this story. A lot happens in terms of plot, especially for “literary fiction.” I pictured the progression of the story as this magnifying glass that was shining light on him, getting hotter and hotter, backing him into a corner, until he either has to figure out what’s important to him or just lose it altogether and in the process lose everything he still does have. I hope readers feel for him because you can tell that beneath his stupid, pill-popping, wine-drinking, selfish facade, he really does want to do the right thing. Or, he wants to want to do the right thing.

There’s a thing that happens at a Justin Bieber concert, and I don’t tend to love moments of my own writing, but I’m still pretty happy about how the turn happens there, and after that I hope you can see him acting in a way that’s more worthy of our sympathy or feeling.

I think the son is going to be okay. Or at least, I hope at the end of the story you feel like there’s been a movement toward a place where Burns is actually going to change and by the time the son is old enough to wonder what all of that was about, Burns will have it together for good. .

 

Linda: Why do we have so much sympathy for parents, but fathers in particular, who are such hot messes?

 

Dave Oh, I think we have sympathy for mothers, too! I think Immediately of Paula Bomer’s work recently. I think she’s really amazing at that kind of “warts and all” writing about motherhood. I hope in this book readers have sympathy because the characters are complicated and conflicted and real. It’s not a Ward Cleaver version of fatherhood, but it’s not an Al Bundy version either. It’s messy and rewarding and terrifying and frustrating and wonderful. I can’t speak for everybody but that’s what I was hoping people would see when they opened the book.

 

Ben Let me start by giving Paula a shout-out as well, for both the blurb and her amazing work, and not even just the “warts and all” elements of her work, though that’s true, but also her ability to craft the stories she writes, they’re just electric. Similarly, Greg Olear who wrote the introduction, also a compliment to us for sure, and he too, just a terrific writer, with such insight into what make parents tick. All of which is to say, that most of us have sympathy for most parents because it seems hard and overwhelming, and culturally speaking, men are given less of chance to be perceived as competent at the job of parenting, which is not a complaint by the way, so when dads seem like a hot mess, they are living down, or up, to our below level expectations, and that may be sadder to the greater public than the person who actually surprises us with their fucked-upedness.

 

 

Mama and The Hungry Hole: An Interview with the Author

Mama and TUnknownhe Hungry Hole

By Johanna DeBiase

Wordcraft of Oregon, 2015

Mama and The Hungry Hole by Johanna DeBiase is at once fabulist and realist, socio-political and pure story, cautionary and comforting. The story takes place in northern New Mexico in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristos Mountains, in a multicultural farming community, which, like many others, is on the verge of extinction. DeBiase gets at these issues with the use of elements of a speculative nature, including an empathetic tree and an impossibly deep sinkhole that later closes itself up.

DeBiase tackles several heavy issues: environmental destruction, depression, loss of rural traditions; and yet the reader never feels preached at. The novella remains, despite the fact that it carries a mandate, an excellent piece of storytelling.

Linda Michel-Cassidy: Were you imagining a particular reader as you wrote this story?

Johanna DeBiase: A literary fiction audience who also loves fabulism, surrealism, fairy tales, and readers who are interested in the cultures of the Southwest. The book is dedicated to moms, as I wanted to address some of the specific issues of early motherhood.

LMC: You’ve lived in some rather interesting places, most recently settling in northern New Mexico.

JD: I spent the first 22 years of my life growing up in the Lower Hudson Valley region of New York. I moved to Seattle for 2 years and worked in indie bookstores. Seattle ended up being a gateway to Alaska. I lived on the road system in Talkeetna, AK for three winters and six summers and in a fly-in Athabascan village on the Yukon for two long winters. That’s where I met my husband. He is originally from Denver and wanted to move back to the Mountain West for a couple of years. We’ve been in Taos County, New Mexico for 10 years now.

LMC: You write around several weighty topics: ecology, the loss of the rural, mental illness, and family responsibilit
y, to name a few. You manage to get all this in without being polemic. Could you tell us a bit about writing a story that has a conscience but, first and foremost, must engage?

JD: I did not set out to write a book about heavy issues. I think I was just in a heavy place in my life at the time. I was living remotely in the mountains, I had a 3 year old—my first and only child—and a lot of emotions and questions were coming up for me. I wondered if every new mom felt this way or was I the only person terrified of reliving their childhood? Writing this book was my way of processing what I was going through. So issues of depression, post-traumatic stress, the connection between the way our culture treats women an
d nature, and the whole spectrum naturally became a part of the story.

LMC:  Let’s talk about the location of your story. Assuming it’s New Mexico (and I’ll go so far as to guess Peñasco) how does one write a place that has a certain amount of weirdness but also a beauty like no other? Did the setting encourage you to include fabulist threads? Does it matter that you and I both live in a place where one can turn around and there are acrobats right there (as in the story), but most of the reading public does not live in such a place?

JD: I lived in Peñasco for six years in the mountains of northern New Mexico, a village thirty miles over mountain passes to the nearest town. It’s one of the most beautiful, lush places I’ve ever seen, right on the border of th
e Pecos Wilderness area. We lived on a river, under the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Yet, I soon learned that one of the reasons this area stayed so beautifully underdeveloped (despite its relative closeness to Taos) was the unique community of people devoted to preserving their way of life, including hardy transplants of artists, hippies, and organic farmers. The place itself already supported its own strangeness and complexities. I merely did what speculative writers do—I asked, “What if?” I think most people in the United States have no idea what a unique culture we have in New Mexico. We’re pleasantly under the radar here and we like it that way.

LMC: I’m interested in how you go about writing the fabulist and surreal into truth. The issues you are driving at are very real and imminent, yet in your book they are encased in extra-worldly features, namely, the massive hole and the empathetic tree. So, this mix you do, of both urgency and speculation, feels precarious, yet it works.

JD: Adding surrealist elements requires a subtle hand. I never wanted it to feel contrived, and in order to do that I needed to not think of any elements of the story as symbols. I hope no one ever asks me what the hole represents and, if they do, I hope I have the restraint to tell them that I don’t know, that it needs to mean something different for every person. That’s for my readers to determine for themselves. I worked naturally from the place of a storyteller, which is really a nonsensical realm of being. I incorporated memories, dreams, and fairy tales into the novella to further accentuate this idea. When we dream, we assume it means something. When we read fairy tales, we assume that the glass slipper represented this or that, but
ultimately, just as in dreams, these images come from a place in our collective consciousness much deeper than we can easily understand. This is why we read fiction, after all: to explore our cultural and personal mysteries.

LMC: Lets talk about that tree for a bit. I can’t help but think it has a curious, limited omniscience (a term I totally stole from the Free State Review’s tee shirt). It senses when things are going awry in the environment and describes how it is becoming sick. This isn’t exactly personification, at least not in the “oh, look, there’s an angry cat driving a convertible,” way, nor is it magical realism in that “now the seashell is talking” manner, either. I wonder if maybe the leap of logic is not that large—and that the magic is tha
t we can imagine what extinction might feel like.

JD: For a long time, I had mulled over this idea of writing a story from the perspective of a tree. What would a tree think of if given sentience? There is the obvious restraint of a character that can’t move. I solved this by assuming trees communicate with wind. It didn’t feel like a stretch as we hear the wind in trees and we hear the leaves rustling in the wind. They give voice to each other.  In this way, Tree could learn about things going on in other nearby areas. The less restraining element of the tree character was the wonderful fact that they live so long, over generations of humans, giving them an element of wisdom and, perhaps, omniscience. Because the tree was a domestic apple tree, it relied on humans to take care of it. This inspired the empathetic nature of the tree. An aspen grove would have a very different personality than an a
pple tree or even a willow. Additionally, I am a proud tree hugger. I don’t know if embracing an ancient lodgepole pine is going to align my chakras but it feels good. I think of trees as healers. So, I developed the character organically (pun intended) and it became not only a voice for nature and place, but a maternal substitute.

LMC: We see Julia, the four-year-old lead character, discovering the rural landscape as well as her mother’s sadness, which, manifests as severe depression. I’m interested in this strategy, wherein the child’s viewpoint is narrated in close third so that the reader is presented with fragments of comprehension and has to puzzle together the situation.

JD: Writing from the perspective of the child was probably a practical decision at the time to distance myself from the mother’s character. I didn’t have anything as serious as postpartum depression but I struggled with my own feelings of isolation and fear and having to learn how to cope with these feelings—while taking care of a child. I think every mother feels this on some level. We lose our happy pregnancy hormones and suddenly realize we are responsible for this fragile creature we love impossibly much. It’s difficult to ta
lk about, not just because it’s so personal, but it’s literally difficult to put into words, and is is something that we often try to hide.

LMC: What are you reading right now?

JD: I’m headed to Iceland so I’m reading Under the Glacier by Haldor Laxness and McSweeney’s #15, which features Icelandic authors. We’re also listening to Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth in the car with our seven-year-old daughter.

The Unreliable Narrator’s Stuff

Objects in First-Person Fiction, oThe Unreliable Narrator’s Stuff

Pablo Neruda’s poem “Ode to My Socks” demonstrates not only that specific objects carry emotional weight in the physical world, but that their significance translates onto the page. When in I Remember, Joe Brainard writes, I remember a shoe store with a big brown x-ray machine that showed up the bones in your feet bright green, we know this thing, this moment in time. Even if the memory isn’t held by the reader, they can at least picture the object and, if the rendering is precise, know its size, its texture, its smell.

The placement of things is no less powerful when the world being written about is fictive. That character has an agenda: to tell their version of the story and to get you, the reader, on their side. They want to show you what they know about the world and that their story is like none other. I would argue that the reader (and therefore the writer) should consider every item mentioned as an active choice by that narrator, backed by either their subconscious or willful intent.

In first person, with a narrator whose credibility or lucidity is under question, the writer’s careful selection of objects can serve a number of purposes. Consider the fact that this narrator has not only chosen or noticed the objects, but probably shows them to the reader to elicit some specific response. They are part of that character’s testimony about himself.

In A.M. Homes’ The End of Alice, repetitive object placement offers instances of the concrete among the not-particularly-lucid memories of the adult criminal. The yellow truck, for which the narrator gives but the barest of visual cues, is a physical object that seems to be part of reality (in terms of this novel). It acts as a sort of paperweight against all of the flutter of the rest of the story. The fact of the recollection and reporting shapes our idea of the speaker: that he was once a child, an innocent. As were you.

Real-world objects, familiar and easy to picture, tamp down a piece that is based on fragmented recollection, lore or conjecture, as well as bolster the case made by a narrator in whom we are not inclined to place our trust. Here are my facts—but I am a liar! But here is this thing that you can imagine, you can know its heft or place it in your own pocket. What better an offer of proof than some piece of evidence that the reader can visualize, has seen in the physical world, may even own.

The items that those narrators notice are important, as is the reason that the character chose to show them to us. In George Saunders’ “Pastoralia,” the narrator’s day turns one way or another based on the appearance of a dead goat. Whether or not the goat is left in the narrator’s drop slot—the umbilicus between the theme park cave where he lives and the rest of the world—is the barometer for the his success at his job. While most, or hopefully all, readers have not had this experience, we have suffered dreaded supervisor reviews or emails from that crazy witch in H.R. We are able to put aside the fantasy of the cave situation and sympathize with the narrator on a psychological level. The goat is important to us because it is important to the narrator; on the third no-goat day we know that things can only go downhill and we are worried.

While Madame Bovary is told in third, the noticing, selecting, and reporting is close and specific enough that it warrants a look. Emma first tastes the life of the upper classes at the home of the Marquis d’Andervilliers. We don’t see what the other guests actually look like, but rather the things with which they have decorated themselves: …little gold-stoppered bottles twirled in half-opened hands whose white gloves showed the outlines of their nails and hugged their flesh at the wrist. These items inform what we know about both the party guests and Emma; their mention gives the writer much more mileage than would a description of the partygoers’ hair color or height and it tells us that Emma cares about and is in awe of this luxury.

The narrator in “Feathers” by Raymond Carver, while not necessarily unreliable, does give a rather fragmented representation of the critical evening, a dinner at a coworker’s home. The title urges the reader to pay attention to the peacock, which eventually is let into the house to peck at the couple’s unattractive baby, yet right there on the mantle rests a plaster cast of the host’s wife’s “before” teeth. The fact that the model is even in plain view, let alone displayed like a trophy or heirloom, is much weirder than having the a peacock visit the dinner table, and its presence opens the door for a glimpse of the wife’s backstory as well as implications of socio-economic status. Here again, a psychologically weighty object shows us more than an overblown scenic description.

In crafting a story, all objects should be thoughtfully chosen, curated even, and considered in light of their context. If the object is unsurprising—a jock having a letterman’s sweater or a nurse having white squishy uniform shoes—then its inclusion adds nothing. By pointing out the gold-stoppered bottles and the absent goat, the authors ask the reader to make a visual image, the payoff coming in terms of singularity. I would argue that the object would need at least one quality to set it apart, either an extremely precise description (the gloves so fine that the wearers’ nailbeds can be detected through the leather), a memory trigger (almost anything in I Remember) or being so out of place that its image is forever burned into the reader’s brain (crazy dental model).

In the first-person narration scenario, the writer must take into account that the character has singled the object out. If that narrator is unreliable, and here I include juveniles as well as the uninformed or outsiders, another layer of intrigue is added: how do we ‘take’ their assessment—Grain of salt? Gospel? A child stating that there was a solid gold goblet on the dining room table tells us no more than that they interpreted the scene as sumptuous. An appraiser reporting that the vessel is made of solid gold means a different thing all together.

If the item is the narrator’s own, then one must also consider whether that ownership is calculated. In Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, (Basic Books, 2009), Sam Gosling analyzes personal environments that are intentional and compares them to those that arise more organically. A writer can use similar strategies to think about how to present the duality of the unreliable first person narrator. Consider this bifurcated character in terms of how they want the recipient of the story to see them versus how they actually are. Even as “unreliable,” can be too strong a term, it is hard to imagine a first person narrator without a stance, since the telling itself is in effect the taking of a position. The fiction writer should not only form the lens the narrator/character uses to view the world and thus the way they tell the story, but also set up some facades that such a narrator would use. Where Gosling seeks to break through people’s presentations of themselves in order to find out who the subject really is, a writer uses this information to actually build up the layers of the character. To simplify: there is the character and there is the face that first person character shows to the world via selective narration.

In “Impression Management,” according to Gosling, a person actively highlights their positive attributes or hides their negative ones. This is an intentional manipulation where they are actively shaping the story, which is a hallmark of an unreliable narrator. This would be useful to consider when a narrator’s stance is damage control or they are in a defensive mode.

“Self-Deceptive Enhancement” describes a more benign form of character presentation: the characters/subjects portray themselves favorably as before, but here they actually believe in their own purity of purpose. One could think in these terms with a narcissistic, delusional, or juvenile narrator. While this narrator’s version cannot be assumed to be true, the reader will not automatically assign blame, thus creating a more sympathetic character than that described in the preceding paragraph.

Gosling examines how identities are created not only by how people present themselves, but by their physical world (their stuff)—and again, consider intent. Items that make a statement or show an allegiance could show a character’s true position or they could be an attempt to create an image. Once revealed by the character/narrator in dialog or by some instance in the character’s past, we can see the effort to create a gloss. This narrator becomes like funhouse paired mirrors: reflecting back and forth until everything about them is in question.

Gosling also posited the idea of “Behavioral Residue,” which refers to material conditions that show how people conduct themselves. An example he gives is the dinged-up bumper implying recklessness (or poor depth perception?) as more telling than a bumper sticker. The first instance shows evidence, whereas the second is wholly created, and is not at all proof that the car “will stop for yard sales” or that the driver has been to the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz.

Gosling (quoting McAdams) says that identity is the story we tell ourselves in an effort to make sense of our past and who we are now. There is a huge difference between who the narrator thinks they are and who they actually are. Navigating the distance between the two has everything to do with the narrator’s purpose, what they chose to show and how they want their audience to think about them.

Against my will, my thoughts go towards Heidegger. In his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art,” he addresses what he calls the “thingness” of things, a concept so jello-like that it required a new word. While not a terribly accessible essay, I can glean at least this: There is a sense we get, even from the mention of objects, causing connections between people and events and all manner of cultural clues. “The temple, in its standing there, first gives to things their look and to men their outlook on themselves,” he says. I would argue, that while Heidegger talks about actual items (art objects, in particular) this notion extends to things positioned within stories. He writes about a quality that cannot be defined, but like the goat in the slot, the yellow truck held by the future pedophile, or those crazy teeth, we know the well-placed resonant object when we see it.

 

0Linda Michel-Cassidy is a writer, visual artist and sometimes-teacher living in Arroyo Seco, New Mexico. Her fiction has been, or will be, published by: Prick of the Spindle, Jabberwock, Blackheart’s ten-year anthology, Jet Fuel and others. Her nonfiction has appeared in: Eleven Eleven, The Provo Canyon Review, Heavyfeathers, the Tahoma Review, as well as the anthologies New Mexico Voices and Seeking Its Own Level.

She is a regular contributor for The Review Review and her book reviews and author interviews are scattered about the interwebs. She performs with the comedic spoken-word group, Lit-up Writers, in Taos, NM.

Linda was a New York State Summer Writer’s Institute Scholar in 2014 and in 2011 was the Resident Writer for the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference. She has received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train, was a Rose Metal Press chapbook contest finalist, received second place prizes in the Southwest Writers contest and the James Still Prize for Short Fiction, and a number of other close calls.

She holds a dual MFA from Bennington in Fiction and Nonfiction, and another, in Visual Arts from the California College of the Arts.

 

 

 

 

On “Research” by Joseph Riipi

Research, A Novel for Performance, by Joseph Riippi

(Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2014)

Review by Linda Michel-Cassidy

Research is both a play script and traditional text, the two forms of the same story presented on opposing pages, with the scenes aligned. Riippi initially envisioned Research as a play—not exactly as a script but as a text piece to be spoken out loud, in layers, or “palimpsestically.” After that initial effort, the work was reformulated into a script, “so that the actors might like me more,” says Riippi, surely joking, but also realizing that perhaps the actors wanted more direction. Eventually, he settled on providing the play script and the prose running side by side in a book form, the version we see in Research. He, in effect, translated his own work back and forth several times. Here, the two versions work not so much in parallel but rather as if shaped like a DNA strand furling around itself. They seem similar up to a point, but by chapter/act four they shift in direction and intensity.

The story opens with adult Lucy being questioned regarding her father’s death, which she witnessed as a child. The line of inquiry seems to imply that Lucy is at fault, although she acts oblivious. In fact, she is either not at all lucid, or simply messing with the moderator.

In the play, the interrogation is watched by her brother and mother from behind a one-way mirror, further splitting the readers attention; it practically becomes a performance with three stages running simultaneously. When these observers break the fourth wall to address the audience, it feels like an off the record, between-you-and-me bit of evidence. Games are indeed being played.

By this twinning of genres, Riippi forces the reader to consider which is more effective, and therefore, closer to the truth. This tactic acknowledges that there is a state of reality to work toward in fiction. It isn’t about factual veracity so much as revealing the guts of the story with clarity and in the manner which best suits the story. To be honest, I am not sure which felt more like life. In the earlier chapters or acts, the effects are fairly similar, with the exception that I could envision the characters and setting in the play format with more specificity. When reading a play script, one thinks of a performance and actors on a stage; it does feel funnelled toward a particular experience. I will say this: as a play, I never forgot that I was reading a script, whereas with the text, I fell into the story and the characters.

The central character, Lucy, who may or may not have assisted her father’s death by her lack of action, is observed and assessed by the peripheral characters. As readers, we do the same. The two forms seek the “truth” within constructed frameworks, and in doing so prove how critical form is. Is a play less realistic because its very model is artifice, or by admitting that it is a construct, is it somehow more “honest”? I would argue that it depends—but it sure is interesting to think about.

The author’s notes tell us that neither he nor the editor were sure how to best present the work. After the initial stage performance, the author translated the work back into prose. The final form, the book, wherein the play and text are presented side by side, allows the reader to see a different aspect of process: how to best serve the concept.

Riippi merges performance and process arts, because in reading the script section of the book, the reader will experience it in its performative mode (as much as we can, given that it is on the page), and we can also experience the author’s process when we compare play versus text.

In fact, one might find the question of form more compelling than the questions posed by the story itself. It is possible that the story of Lucy exists primarily as a vehicle by which Riippi can talk about presentation. Which, as it happens, is the underlying question in Lucy’s story as well. The facts as she knows them are not based on what she witnessed, but rather on the legend of her own history offered by other people who have their own motivations and ideas of the truth.

By reading the text and the notes and viewing the two forms in tandem, the reader gets a sense of the writer’s struggle to choose the right form, a challenge similar to a conceptual artist’s decision-making process regarding choices in media, such as material, scale and presentation. Whereas other books have tackled the process of being an artist (Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?) and the process of being a human (Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick), this project shows by its binary presentation the struggle to best offer an idea.

I appreciated the author separating himself from the project, in that his personality wasn’t wrapped around the work. The two forms play off of each other, and that, along with the psychological aspects of the story, gives the reader plenty to think about.

On Writing Towards Both the In-group and the Outliers

Pulphead EssaysOn Writing Towards Both the In-group and the Outliers

“Getting Down to What is Really Real”

from Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan, 2011

 

In the first sentence of “Getting Down,” Sullivan mentions both a location and a person, neither of which meant anything to me. The Avalon Nightclub in Chapel Hill (no state given, but I assumed North Carolina, because I knew the author to be from the south), sounds like a certain kind of sweaty, bad-dance-music kind of place, and because my family lives in an Avalon in a different state, my brain substituted a long-gone nightclub in that Jersey town, famous for nearly-naked waitresses and pricey Long Island Iced Teas.

The club isn’t the important part; “the Miz” is. Sullivan tells me that the essay is about this Miz person, and here, the writer’s challenge is to be interesting to those who know what he’s talking about as well as those who do not. Sullivan manages a position where he informs the novice (me) whilst feeding information of a near-gossipy nature to the readers who already know who Miz is, and who already have an opinion about him.

The Miz isn’t given a context in the first paragraph. The author gives not one clue as to why this guy is or should be recognizable by his irritating moniker and why I should care. Because I have family in New Jersey, as admitted above, I have a certain experience with guys having dude-ish nicknames such as this—and because of this history of mine, I am disinclined to read an essay that’s about such a person. It’s up to Sullivan to hook me in some other way.

In that first paragraph, Sullivan introduces information one grain at a time, and while still not telling me, the uninitiated, just who this mug was, he creates weird visuals by using ordinary language—but in odd ways. He hooks me by the style of his writing, rather than by the content—at least at first.

In the opening sentences, Sullivan implies that there is an event about to happen, “…the Miz was feeling nervous. I didn’t pick up on it at the time—I mean I couldn’t tell.”  So this Miz person is known to the writer, if not personally, in a way that the author had some sense of him. Then we hear that he looks like he did since “his debut season”, so: TV, which explains why I don’t know who he is. Here I would have been ready to move on, but then the rest of that sentence happens: “…when I first fell in love with his antics: all bright-eyed and symmetrical-faced…”(Symmetrical-faced? What is that?! I thought of those photos you used to see in magazines where a star’s face is bisected to show true mirror images and we see how weird that would be. To what point? Well, who knows. Mostly, it cracks me up, which is enough for a bit.)  The description continues: “…fed on genetically modified corn, with the swollen hairless torso of the aspiring professional wrestler he happened to be and a smile you could spot as Midwestern American in a blimp shot of a soccer stadium.”

There is so much to like in these italicized sections. I see that the writer will march right up to poking fun, but will stay on the proper side of things. He knows from decorum and he knows what picking-on looks like. We know that the writer is smart and a bit snarky on the inside, but he is a gentleman and therefore will not make fun of those less, shall we say, reserved. Sullivan then goes on to describe the Miz’s hair, using phrases like: sort-of-mousse-Mohawk and ridgelet of product-hardened hair emerging from his buzz cut. It’s like Sullivan knew that people who don’t watch a lot of TV are visual and/or interested in language-play; which is counter-intuitive, but maybe also makes sense. We can make our own fun, or something like that.

It turns out that the essay is about “The Real World” or rather, the humans behind the characters on the show. He dissects reality TV for the non-reality that it is, but briefly, because we already know (because we are smart like that) or he doesn’t want to disenfranchise those people, whoever they are, that think the whole business is real.

Later in the essay, Sullivan talks of several characters and shows that I know nothing about, but as I’d already been hooked by his voice, as well as our aligned perspective (here, I’m totally imagining things), I’m unconcerned by feeling disoriented. When he reveals that he is a huge fan, I’m surprised, but not appalled.

In an essay such as this one, where prior knowledge affects the reading, the writer has a few choices. They can address those in the know, for example, in sports writing, or they can be informative to readers who may not have encountered the material before, such as a Smithsonian article about spelunking, which would likely be boring to a seasoned cave enthusiast. Sullivan, here, dares to write for the Real-World-ists (a group that can be subdivided into believers and not) AS WELL AS those of us who think their brains are too big for reality TV. It’s a risk, one that has to be met very early in the piece, which Sullivan does by sort of bifurcating: the content is largely for the followers, but the style and the viewpoint make it interesting and accessible to those who enjoy a good piece of writing just for the sake of it.

 

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