Will the film adaptation of Loung Ung’s FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER do the heavy lifting of the memoir?

(HarperCollins)

BY NICHOLE L. REBER

Regardless of your opinion of the Hollywood celebrity, Angelina Jolie’s latest cinematic offering from the director’s chair might just be worth watching. Netflix will release her cinematic version of Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers on September 17. It is not her first time bringing a book to the silver screen but what makes this film different will hopefully be Jolie’s ability to see the historical lessons Ung’s book inspires. Even moreso, let’s hope the cinematic and/or film version inspires us to see the connections to today’s American climate.

Originally published as a memoir of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in Cambodia, the movie comes to us in the form of a biographical historical thriller. More important than the celebrity behind the camera, however, Americans don’t often hear—much less think— about the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal sweep through Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Few of us remember or even know that they are rumored to have killed up to a quarter of the nation’s population. Seventeen years ago we were reminded of the atrocities when Ung’s memoir hit bookstore shelves. It’s time to check it out again.

At the book’s beginning we learn how America’s bombing of Cambodian borders to destroy neighboring Vietnamese military bases fanned the flames of Cambodia’s civil war, already brewing for decades when the Khmer Rouge deposed the Lon Nol government, which Ung’s father worked for.

Khmer Rouge, an army of impoverished, generally uneducated Cambodians, formed a government called the Angkar, led by Pol Pot, a despot not unlike Uganda’s murderous ruler Idi Amin or China’s Mao Tse Tong. The Angkar executed, starved, and stole from the country’s citizens, forcing them into rural camps, labor camps, and military-training camps. The Angkar purged the country of technology such as radios, televisions, watches, and eight-track players. It denied other indications of social class such as jewelry, education, and money. It spread anti-American, -Vietnamese, and -Chinese propaganda throughout the camps and wrote songs deifying Pol Pot. Ung’s details about those camps in which kids and young adults were forced to see the songs will ripple your skin with goosebumps.

“‘The soldiers walked around the neighborhood, knocking on all the doors, telling people to leave. Those who refused were shot dead right on their doorsteps,’” Ung’s father tells her. Her family, a middle-class Cambodian family with seven children, was forced to leave their home, the capital city of Phnom Penh, and relocated to various types of camps. Instant death would have been imminent if any family members inadvertently revealed anything that bespoke their middle-class status (anathema to this supposedly Communist movement) and connection to the former Lon Nol government.

A reader wouldn’t be hard-pressed to find at least thread connections to the xenophobia, racism, sexism, etc. that has characterized many recent American news reports. The us-versus-them propaganda, the fault-finding in harmless characteristics, the incitement of angry and uneducated masses of the Khmer Rouge People indicate a country in crises. That’s only exacerbated when its people, encouraged to spy and tattle on others, grew suspicious of each other. The mother, for instance, has to live an all-but-mute life in the refugee camp because of her Chinese accent.
An odor of nationalism wafts from the pages of First They Killed My Father. It reminds us that racism isn’t something brought with babies into the world; it’s taught and reinforced by society. That’s why it’s possible for five-year-old Loung to find false security in believing that bad people look one way and good guys look another.

Ung writes: “Many have almond-shaped eyes, thin noses, and light skin, which suggests they might be of Chinese descent. Pure Khmer have curly black hair, flat noses, full lips, and dark chocolate skin.” (In Asian culture noses without bridges are considered inferior and, of course, the darker your skin the more maligned you’ll be.)

The new regime has no law and order and executes helter skelter. “‘The Khmer Rouge are executing people perceived to be a threat against the Angkar,” the father tells his family. “Anyone can be viewed as a threat … monks, doctors, nurses, artists, teachers, students—even people who wear glasses.” Why eyeglasses? Well, as the cliché goes, eyeglasses demonstrate intelligence. As dictators from Pol Pot to Fidel Castro know, an educated population threatens tyrannical rule.

The Khmer Rouge’s genocide came to a close when the Vietnamese, whom Cambodians were brainwashed into thinking were the enemy, entered the country and began rescuing citizens such as the five remaining Ung family members. The Youns (an ethnic slur for Vietnamese) smiled, talked to children, and sometimes patted them on the head, Loung wrote, saying they were not the “devils” she’d been taught they were. They freed their neighbors from the camps and quelled the Khmer Rouge.

It’s a curious thought to see how Jolie will handle the transition from memoir to Netflix Original movie. Until it’s September 17 release, though, you can learn more about Cambodia in the movie The Killing Fields (not to be confused with the Discovery series). To find out more about America’s connection to it, check out Noam Chomsky’s thoughts on the matter and why The Daily Beast claims both sides got Cambodia wrong.

Nichole L. Reber picked up a love for world lit by living in countries around the globe. She’s a nonfiction writer and her award-winning work has been in World Literature Today, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Lunchticket, and elsewhere. Read her stories on a Chinese cult, wearing hijab in India, and getting kidnapped in Peru at http://www.nicholelreber.com/.

Appalachia, noir, and fishing: an interview with David Joy

 

I read a lot of crime, but few novels impress me so much that I find myself still talking about them six months after turning the last page. David Joy’s The Weight of This World belongs to that small group. While the combination of grit, superb storytelling, violence, and beauty make this novel a must-read, Joy is also a pleasure to talk to, so I decided to dig a little deeper into some of his passion, his writing, and books in general. Here’s what he had to say.

GI: The Weight of This World is beautifully written, but it’s also packed with enough brutality to satisfy fans of horror fiction. How do you achieve such a wonderful balance?

DJ: As far as balance, I think that largely comes from the writers who most influenced my work. I remember the first time I read William Gay’s short story, “The Paper-Hanger,” which is one of the most disturbingly violent stories I’ve ever read, but I was blown away by the beauty of his prose. There are lines in that story where he’s describing a murdered child in a freezer, lines like, “Ice crystals snared in the hair like windy snowflakes whirled there, in the lashes,” where Gay is very deliberately creating that play between beauty and horror. I think ultimately he’s doing this in order to make the violence more palatable. If you can achieve the right balance you can coax a reader through all sorts of darkness.

With the comparison to horror, I think that boils down to the realism of the violence. I don’t hold back or shy away from presenting something exactly as it is. There is no grace in dying. I don’t live in some fantasy world where people double over from gunshots and writhe then still like the old cheesy Westerns. At the same time, my work certainly isn’t gratuitous. There is a very real danger in sugarcoating violence, in repeating that John Wayne bullshit that glorifies and dismisses the act of killing as something trivial and easy. This isn’t violence for violence’s sake. I’m making very deliberate choices. In Where All Light Tends To Go, I had an eighteen-year-old narrator who was ill equipped for the violence he found himself surrounded by. I wanted the reader to experience what’s happening with the same sort of shock as the character. With The Weight Of This World, that novel is very much a sort of treatise on violence. I want the reader to walk through the blood. I want to force them to confront it and to ask big questions.

I think Dave Grossman’s On Killing is one of the most important books ever written about violence. Everyone should read that book, but especially anyone who is going to write about violence and the act of killing. Anyways, there’s a passage early on in that book where he writes, “They are things that we would rather turn away from, but Carl von Clausewitz warned that ‘it is to no purpose, it is even against one’s better interest, to turn away from the consideration of the affair because the horror of its elements excites repugnance.’ Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, argues that the root of our failure to deal with violence lies in our refusal to face up to it. We deny our fascination with the ‘dark beauty of violence,’ and we condemn aggression and repress it rather than look at it squarely and try to understand and control it.”

That’s why it’s so important to present violence in all its horrible ugliness, because only through capturing that reality can we start to have real, meaningful conversations about it.

GI: There is enough great literature coming from Appalachia to keep readers away from New York white-rich-straight-male-finds-himself-in-Brooklyn narratives for years to come. What is your role in that movement? Do you even consider it that?

DJ: Michael Farris Smith and I have talked about this a lot, about the void that was left in the South over the last few decades. We lost so many writers in just a few short years—Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, William Gay, Eudora Welty, Harry Crews, Tim McLaurin. I think if there is a movement, that’s what it’s a reaction to; it’s a matter of doing our damnedest to fill that void. When it all boils down to it, those are the writers who influenced me most. I’m rooted in writers like Ron Rash, George Singleton, Lee Smith, Daniel Wallace, Brad Watson, Jill McCorkle, Silas House, Tommy Franklin, and so on. I think for all of the writers who’ve emerged out of the South and out of Appalachia over the past five or ten years, those are the people whose footsteps we’re following. You come out of a place like this and whether you like it or not you stand within a shadow. You stand in a shadow cast by everyone before you and all you can hope is that your work lengthens it, that at the end of the day your work adds to that conversation.

GI: You’re a mountain man and I’m from a barrio near the beach, but it seems like we both grew up surrounded by struggle and a rich storytelling tradition. How does that upbringing shape your prose now?

DJ: I very much ascribe to that Cormac McCarthy belief that, “The core of literature is the idea of tragedy.” I think bearing witness to struggle can, as hard as it is at the time, make for damn rich ground to mine. We’re not talking about not getting the car you wanted for your sixteenth birthday, or having to hold off a few months to get the latest iPhone. We’re talking about missing meals, about deciding whether you keep the lights on or buy a few groceries. We’re talking, as Rick Bragg once put it, “about living and dying and that fragile, shivering place in between.” That’s pay dirt for a writer. And coming out of a storytelling tradition like the South for me, or Puerto Rico for you, I think puts us at a tremendous advantage. I can’t imagine growing up in a place where story didn’t matter. What a horrible, horrible life that would’ve been.

GI: Your career took off pretty quickly. This makes newbie authors look up to you and ask for help, tips, blurbs, and probably a connection. How do you deal with this?

DJ: I’ve been incredibly fortunate both for the success and for the support from fellow writers. The hard truth is that there are plenty of writers a lot more talented than I am who haven’t gotten their shot, and quite possibly never will. I have no idea what makes certain books take off. There’s really no rhyme or reason to what makes a bestseller. Part of it is timing, sure, but then I think about a book like Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me last summer. Flat out that was one of the top two or three novels that came out last year. It was that good. Period. Even more it was about a gymnastics family and it released a week before the Rio 2016 Summer Games Olympics. Talk about timing. By all reason that book should have been in the top five NYT Bestsellers. Who the hell knows why it wasn’t? And that’s not to say that book wasn’t well received, because it definitely was, and rightly so, but I have no idea why some books take off and others don’t.

As far as other writers, I’ll never forget what it was like when that first novel was coming out and I got a blurb from Daniel Woodrell. I mean I idolize him. To think that he read my work still boggles me, and he didn’t have a reason in the world to do it aside from kindness. Another one is Ace Atkins. I think he’s one of the most talented writers I know. I respect the hell out of him on the page, but even more so as a man. He could call me right this second and ask anything of me and I’d be there. I owe him that much. I feel that way about Ron Rash, Tawni O’Dell, Frank Bill, Mark Powell, Michael Farris Smith, Silas House, George Singleton, Megan Abbott, Donald Ray Pollock, Eric Rickstad, Reed Farrell Coleman who are all a hell of a lot more talented than me and were kind enough to read my work and support what I was doing. I know what it’s like to not have an audience, to not have any work out there on the shelf, and I’ll never lose sight of everyone who supported me. I carry that with me and I carry that forward. Bottom line is that if I can help someone I help them because that’s the way this thing works.

At the same time, it’s rare anymore for me to go a day without someone I’ve never met asking me to read something. There are nine books sitting beside me on my desk right now that people sent me to read. So the truth is there comes a time when you have to say no and I think that’s a hard balance to find. I think it’s hard for most writers to say no, because most all the ones I know and love and respect are first and foremost damn good people when you get to the heart of it.

GI: Fishing is at the center of your life now. Every fisherman in the world has a different answer for this, and I’m curious about yours: what is it about fishing that keeps you going back for more?

DJ: Maybe the most beautiful passage I’ve ever read on fishing came from Alex Taylor and I can’t remember if it was in one of his stories or from his novel, The Marble Orchard, but he wrote, “There was now in him the desire to wrangle one thing out of the dark waters and have it leap and fight and finally be subdued by his hand. Because there is a kind of faith with fishing. It is the belief that the brevity of all things is not bitter, but a calm moment beside calm water is enough to still the breaking of all hearts everywhere.”

I think it’s exactly that and it’s always been that even when I was a kid. It’s chasing the same thing that Buddhists are chasing through meditation, it’s that moment of absolute thoughtlessness when everything else disappears and all that is left is the present. For me, I have a hard time reaching that place any other way so I’ve devoted a great deal of my life to being next to water. That’s the only place where I feel at ease. Fishing has always been my center.

GI: There is no fiction like that found in the “true” stories told by fishermen. What’s the most outstanding/memorable/incredible fishing tale you’ve heard?

When I was a little kid I used to always get up early on Saturday mornings and watch all the fishing shows—Roland Martin, Hank Parker, Bill Dance, The Spanish Fly with Jose Wejebe, Walker’s Cay Chronicle with Flip Pallot—but I remember one time when I was really little seeing this documentary on PBS about a noodling tournament in Oklahoma. It was the first time I’d ever seen anyone grappling catfish. People in my family jug fished and ran trotlines, and I’d caught plenty of catfish on rod and reel, but I’d never seen anything like that. I remember this one fellow on there saying you never knew exactly what might be in the back of one of those holes. Might be a catfish. Might be a snapping turtle. Might be a snake. He told how his brother stuck his arm in a hole once and a beaver got ahold of him and gnawed his forearm down to the bone clean up to his elbow.

Anyhow, there was a father and son fishing together and the boy might’ve been seven or eight years old, but they waded up to a hole and the father stuck his arm back in there and felt fish. The problem was that the hole was too deep and he couldn’t get back far enough for the fish to latch on. So this man took his son and shoved him down in that hole feet first and all of a sudden that boy got to screaming and hollering and the man dragged him out and that catfish was latched onto that boy’s legs. I’ve never seen anything like it. Here’s this father shoving his little boy down in a hole for a thirty, forty pound flathead to bite down on his legs. I just laid there in awe watching it, and I’ve never been able to shake that image in all the years since. Long story short, think long and hard before you go getting in a fistfight with an Okie.

GI: Your work is character driven, but there’s also a lot of attention paid to the beauty of each sentence, the cadence of each passage. How much of that comes out naturally and how much is editing/rewriting?

I think the ear for it comes naturally, at least for me. I hear a good sentence in the same way Thelonious Monk heard rhythm, or Dave Brubeck heard scales. Now I’m absolutely tone deaf when it comes to music, but I have a natural ear for language. Ron Rash talked one time about loving the way vowels and consonants rub up against one another. In the same way, I think I’m drawn to sound more than anything else, and that’s probably why I read so much more poetry than fiction. As far as writing it though, I don’t think that comes naturally at all. That’s very much a matter of shifting phrases, changing words, cutting articles, playing with things and tinkering with a sentence until there’s music. It takes a lot more work for me to construct a sentence than it does for me to recognize when one is working.

GI: Appalachian noir. Rural noir. Country noir. You fall into all of them and yet your work is clearly David Joy noir. Do you pay any attention to labels?

There’s a danger to labels that I think has led writers like Daniel Woodrell to distance himself from terms like “noir.” For too long merit has been measured by wine sniffing, elbow patch wearing, shiny shoed academics who turn their noses up to any label other than “literary.” Anyone with half a brain can recognize it’s snobbish bullshit. To dismiss someone like Ursula K. Le Guin under the guise of science fiction, or to dismiss a writer like Stephen King as a genre writer, that’s the danger of labels. Benjamin Percy had that great collection of essays last year titled Thrill Me where he did a wonderful service in addressing a lot of these issues. I think we’re starting to move away from that trend, and that’s a wonderful thing. I was on a panel with Megan Abbott in France last fall and she said she believed crime fiction had become the new social novel and I completely agree with her. So I guess what I’m saying is that as readers we need to be sure that we’re not carrying any sort of bias in regards to those labels. The book must stand alone.

At the same time, I’m not one to shy away from labels. I think my sentences stand for themselves and so if someone wants to talk craft we can talk craft. I like the idea of noir, especially as an emotional description capturing a sort of shadowed mood cast over a story. Benjamin Whitmer had a great essay a while back where he talked about the idea of redeemable characters and happy endings being a fairly new construct in regards to literature. Hollywood endings always hit me as such a cop out. So when a term like noir is used correctly I’m really grateful as a reader because it tends to point me in the direction of something I’ll probably dig. I also recognize that my work isn’t for everyone. I want to go to the darkest places imaginable and search out some small speck of humanity. I think it takes a brave reader to go to the places I want to take them. I hope there’s a payoff for venturing into the dark, and, for me, I believe that there is. Only through heartache and suffering do we arrive at any sort of philosophical awareness, and, in the end, that sort of revelatory moment is what makes it worthwhile.

GI: There’s a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to Appalachia, and part of that can be blamed on books that take place there and don’t understand the place, the people, the culture. Now that everyone writes about everything and everywhere, do you think authenticity still matters?

DJ: When I think of the truly great books, the truly great writers, I can’t think of one who wasn’t deeply rooted to place. James Joyce traveled all over Europe. He wrote Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake while living in Paris. But could you imagine him having not written of Dublin? You know, he said, “I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world.” Joyce’s idea that, “In the particular is contained the universal,” is exactly what Eudora Welty meant when she said, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.” I don’t want to live in a world where Faulkner didn’t stick to Mississippi. I don’t want to live in a world where Ron didn’t write of Appalachia. Those books are sopping wet with place. I think there is an incredible beauty in knowing a setting as deeply as those writers knew theirs. I think you can sense that connection on the page just as I think you can sense when someone’s bullshitting. There’s nothing worse than reading a book and having the language ring untrue. As soon as I hit that place in a book, I’m done. I’m not reading any further. Toss it to the fire. It’s kindling.

If the details aren’t right the reader will never buy the big lie. So whether the writer’s of that place or not, it goddamn better feel authentic.

GI: Your Twitter feed is a great place to find great authors other than yourself. Any names/books you’d care to recommend here?

I think it’s rare for me to find a book that I absolutely love, especially a novel. So I wind up rereading a lot more books than I do finishing something new. I go back and read Jim Harrison and Larry Brown and Cormac McCarthy. Recently I reread Benjamin Whitmer’s Cry Father. I’m obsessed with Daniel Woodrell and Donald Ray Pollock. As far as novels I’ve read this year that I loved, I really enjoyed stumbling onto your work. Zero Saints is a wonderful read. I think the best novels to come out this year were Michael Farris Smith’s Desperation Road, Steph Post’s Lightwood, and Mark Powell’s Small Treasons. Frank Bill’s got a new one titled The Savage that’s coming out this fall and it’s brilliant. I think the best story collection I’ve read this year was Scott Gould’s Strangers To Temptation. I thought that book was wonderful, kind of like if George Singleton had written a season of the Wonder Years. I think more people need to be reading Robert Gipe, Crystal Wilkinson, Charles Dodd White, and Sheldon Lee Compton.

But I’m going to do this a little differently than most novelists and name five or six books of poetry I’ve fallen in love with this year. One of my favorite poets, Tim Peeler, has a new book out titled L2, which is a sort of linear, novel-esque story told through poetry and I loved that book. Gritty as hell and just damn beautiful. Another one of my favorite poets, Rebecca Gayle Howell, has a new book, American Purgatory, that’s incredible. I think she’s one of the most powerful poets at work. If you haven’t read her already, read her collection Render: An Apocalypse and you’ll fall in love. Recently, I read a beautiful book by a South Carolina poet named Kathleen Nalley. The title is Gutterflower and it comes out some time in September, I think, but her work has really stuck with me. I stumbled onto a poet named Adrian Matejka and read a book of his, The Big Smoke, which was sort of the story of the boxer Jack Johnson. A wonderful press, Hub City, put out a book by Ashley M. Jones’ titled Magic City Gospel, and there’s a poem in there titled “Sammy Davis Jr. Sings To Mike Brown, Jr.” that will wreck your world in fourteen lines. Lastly, I finally got my hands on Ray McManus’ Red Dirt Jesus. I’ve always loved his poetry, especially the poems in his book Punch, but Red Dirt Jesus was one of those books I found at the right time. I was finishing my next novel, a book that’ll come out next year called The Line That Held Us, and I read a poem of his called “Missing Curfew” and as soon as I read it I knew the final image of the novel, I knew how I wanted the last words to sound. I have Ray to thank for that.

From the Café at the End of The World

BY ZACHARY JENSEN

I. The Café Owner

 

I think it would be best if we kept these things to ourselves

When one is dirty, there is usually a desire to become clean – to wash away the layers and coatings of one’s actions and begin anew. The ritual of it all can be rather soothing. Necessary. The turning of the right faucet valve to let the water flow, the turning of the left faucet valve to introduce the heat, waiting patiently for a time until the water has had a moment to warm up, the placing of the tips of one hand up to the water to check that the temperature is just right, withdrawing the hand because it is not, then after another moment cautiously enveloping the hands fully into the water and letting the stream flow over them for a moment, the feeling of the water as it attempts to pass through the hands in a wild cascade of futility, grabbing the bar of soap and rubbing it briskly against the hands, followed by rinsing the hands, sometimes repeating the last two steps once or twice until satisfied, and lastly,  grabbing a towel from the shelf, drying the hands with said towel, feeling the coarseness of the worn fabric against the skin as it absorbs the water, hanging the towel on a hook to let it dry for a few more uses, finally with the knowledge that it would just be a waste, throwing it in a basket with the other towels. His hands were dirty in this moment and he needed them to feel clean.

The sink looked like it had seen better days. The receptacle that was meant for cleaning hands, or faces, or sometimes in a rush (and he was always in a rush) bodies, was reduced to a sorry state. There was a blue glob of what was probably toothpaste sticking in one of the rounded corners. Large soap streaks lined the area underneath the faucet. Hair was coiled and sticking out of the trap. And if one looked closely you could almost see the pearl white texture of the porcelain that has long since been permanently stained. If that wasn’t enough, lackluster pink tiles – the results of a remodel in the sixties – with grout that has shifted from a white to permanent gray surround it, leaving plenty to be desired.

Nonetheless, he needed to wash his hands. So he did.

He did so with a vigor and frustration that dwelled quite deeply in his soul. He wanted so desperately to wash away all the faults and misunderstandings that came from his ignorance as a man. His indelicate way of misunderstanding the feelings of others, coated him so completely that the layer could not be washed off in a single scrubbing. It would take multiple washes. It would take multiple attempts. But he felt that if he washed frequently enough he could, in at least a small way, become clean. He had to become clean. If he did not succeed in this then he would surely never be able to be happy with himself. And if he could not become happy with himself, how could he be happy with another?

He looked at the mirror and sighed. It was not a sigh of resignation, but something similarly rooted in the certainty of failure. He held a gaze with the face looking back at him for as long as it took to place himself in the world. Any world. Some days it took but an instance to orientate, to know exactly where one was, others far more. Today was somewhere in-between. The face was unrecognizable at first. The hollowness of the eyes was foreign to him. For as much as he stared at himself every morning, he never really paid attention to his eyes. The eyes that held marbled irises were now a dull gray with the passage of time. They were collapsing under the weight of all they have witnessed. All that was done. The cheeks, like tiny hillsides, were succumbing to the burden of supporting the orbs above and were now concave. The rest of his face did not fare well either. It had been a while since he had shaved; leaving patchy stubble that created an extra layer of gruffness. He still had all the hair on his head, though he always left it unmanaged. His nose was slightly crooked from being broken in a fight. No one really noticed this fact, but he did. It was what anchored him in the mirror each and every time. For all his unremarkable features, he still had the occasional woman look his way as they passed through town.

You can look at something every day and never really see it for what it is.

It was time to prepare the café for the day, the final ceremony to the disquiet of solitude. To loneliness whose weight leaves a light depression on any surface that is unfortunate enough to feel its touch.

When contact is at a premium it is easier to accept what is given without questioning the cost. Without question he was short on time. Whatever remained of the town would be trickling in shortly expecting coffee, breakfast, conversation, silence, or most likely spirits.  He had to begin now. He hated it when he found someone waiting outside for him to open. It wasn’t the making people wait that bothered him. It was the fact that they watched him from outside and waited impatiently for him to prepare the café that got on his nerves. On days that it happened he would get the urge to close the blinds and tell the customer to get lost – he never did, though it did make him work slower and angrier than usual.

The last time it happened – about a month ago – he entered the café to find Tómas standing outside on the porch looking in expectantly. It was an unnervingly cold morning. The kind where one could see their breath become a warm mist that almost froze in the air. Perhaps Tómas just wanted to come inside so he could get warm, but that is not how it came off. Without setting up, save for starting the coffee, he let Tómas in. He got so frustrated at the situation that he snapped at Tómas for taking too long. I don’t have all day!  He yelled with an intensity that most people have not seen before. Not here at least. After taking the order, he stomped over to the coffeemaker to pour a cup, burning himself in the process. He smashed the mug on the floor causing the porcelain to create a starburst of shrapnel that flew through the air. In the cleanup his thumb was cut open leaving what is now a scar. Knowing what was good for him, Tómas made a quick retreat. No one has shown up early since.

He knew today would be no different.

He left the bathroom in his living quarters at the back of the building then sat down on his bed for a moment. The springs in the mattress had become curved and distorted. He liked to imagine that they were attempting to embrace one another lovingly. As they desperately tried to reach a partner it became clear that the distance was far too great and any further attempt would cause them to unravel. Or snap. Instead of risking it all they opted to play it safe and give up. In the end, they would just lie down resolutely, and sleep in the same position that he did – on their side. Alone. The truth was the mattress was far older than he’d care to admit and there were no means to acquire a replacement. It was still better than sleeping on the floor.

He picked up a pair of pants from a twisted pile of clothes on the floor. For reasons he could not recall, one leg was inside out – half in, half out. Split between two worlds. The fabric felt gentle and worn in. He grabbed a random shirt that was lying upon the desk opposite the bed and put it on. They felt like what he imagined home was supposed to feel like right before you burn it to the ground – Comforting and safe, although a place one knew they couldn’t rely on for long. Like the arms of a lover you are unable to be with anymore. Because of time, or space, or love, or some other specter that causes a shift. It feels right in the moment, but you know it won’t stay that way for long.  He slipped on some shoes and made his way to the café up front.

Entering the room he gave a half-hearted glance at the floor – did he need to sweep yet?  Most objects, whose size was of the inconsequential variety, would fall right through the cracks at some point. Everything fell through the cracks at some point. It was inevitable.  He opted against it and just kicked a few things around.

It’s the absence of a thing people usually notice – not the thing itself.

The café was a continuous work in progress. When he first came upon the building, it was not the least dilapidated, but it had the most potential in his eyes. By cannibalizing things he found lying around the town he was able to construct a building that fulfilled the purposes of living and working. No matter what work was done though, a perpetual state of disrepair seemed to overtake the building. Meaning that he constantly had to fix something. A barstool, the stove, a table whose legs gave out while a customer was dining, and most recently the jukebox that he had found one day on the other side of the small still watered sea he lived adjacent to. Even though it only took a quarter of a day to walk all the way to the other side not many people went there anymore, though excursions could prove very fruitful at times.

He turned on the antique jukebox, set it to random play and walked off. Outwardly, like his life, the thing looked to be held together with little more than desperation. As much as it was meant to fall apart, to cease all function, it had a will – no a need ­– to go on. And it did go on because for all its outward ugliness, its insides were not beyond an occasional tightening of a bolt, or shifting of a gear, and off it would go.

The selecting arm of the machine struggled for a moment, regained its bearings, then selected a 45, picked up the 45, placed it through the center spindle onto the platter, began to slowly spin, raised the needle arm, placed the needle onto the spinning black disc, and finally began to let the music fill the spaces in the room. The crackling from the speakers became the overlay for all that was struggling to live. Not quite perfect, but good enough.

Before unlocking the doors, there was one last thing he had to do. He pulled out a dusty bottle of scotch (the one that was not watered down) from under the counter, saved for the especially difficult days – though they have all been especially difficult for quite a while now. With a glass in hand he poured two fingers of the golden liquid in a cascade that caused tiny bubbles to rise to the top. He waited for the seas to settle before taking it all in one large gulp. In ceremony. The burn of the scotch as it slowly went down was a reminder that he was alive. That he could feel something. Time to open the doors. Time to face the day.

Zachary Jensen is a writer, journalist, and educator from Los Angeles, CA. He currently teaches English at Cal State University Northridge. His work has recently appeared in LA Record, Cultural Weekly, Entropy, and Palometa. He is the Managing Editor of Angel City Review and the Editor of the Animals chapbook series at Business Bear Press.

[REVIEW] Made for Love by Alissa Nutting

Ecco Books, 2017

REVIEWED BY MATT E. LEWIS

Readers familiar with Alissa Nutting know that she is not one to shy away from taboo subjects. Her novel Tampa delves into the mind of sociopathic English teacher Celeste Price, who despite having the “perfect” life, uses her position to prey on young boys. Price is, in Nutting’s own words, a monster – but despite all the contempt we feel for her, the point she ultimately makes is that she is still human, albeit based in a nature we prefer to deny than admit. In her newest novel, Made for Love, we are introduced to many more characters that are just as lacking in empathy as Celeste, but in a different kind of story – a near-future tale of a toxic relationship supported by omnipresent technology, delphinaphilia, and sex dolls, all set in what is ostensibly Florida, despite Florida never actually being named.

Hazel has just left her husband, technology guru Byron Gogol of Gogol industries, after his creepy embrace of new science has culminated in asking her to merge brains with him. She flees to the one place she hopes she’ll be accepted without judgement, her father’s trailer park, only to interrupt him on his honeymoon with his newest addition to the family – an inanimate sex doll he calls “Diane”. Embarrassed but with nowhere else to go, he allows Hazel to stay with him as she figures things out. Staying with her Dad causes feelings (both new and old) of anxiety to surface, which she attempts to stuff down with large quantities of questionable alcohol and getting to know the strange denizens of her father’s area. As if the process of divorce wasn’t complicated enough, she soon learns that Byron is not ready to let her go yet – and with an armada of smart devices at his disposal, cutting him off may become completely impossible.

Meanwhile, a man named Jasper is a few towns over celebrating his latest victory: another successful con of a lonely woman for her life savings. Before leaving for a new city to start his process of seduction and ensnarement all over again, he decides to take an indulgent dip into the ocean near his beachside motel. Unfortunately for him, things soon take a dangerous turn when he is attacked by a clearly-aroused dolphin, who bites him on the arm and nearly drowns him. He wrestles both himself and the dolphin back to shore, where a gathering crowd mistakes the event for Jasper rescuing the animal from beaching itself. But rather than accept the praise for the heroic act, he escapes, fearing his conniving past would be brought to light. Soon on the lam from the seekers of the hero and his angry exes, Jasper finds himself grappling with feelings for dolphins that are…complicated, to say the least.

Made for Love is filled with Nutting’s trademark dark humor and wry critiques of modern life. Hazel is a nuanced and complex character – her decisions are based on a kind of logic which ping-pongs back and forth between extremes. Ironically, she knows herself very well, but like too many of us, has made decisions counter to her wants and needs in the name of false stability. Of course, the extreme stability of a bland tech CEO’s life has her craving the kind of chaos that makes us all human, the messy equalizer that should be embraced in life rather than accepted in death. Jasper, on the other hand, is another study of the shocking lack of empathy that certain people can have for others. But in the process of events, Jasper goes from contemptable to pitiable as his affliction grows and turns him from con-man to a victim of his own emotions. Made for Love is really a book about how are choices shape and define our humanity, how our lives and those around us can be changed through the power of free will. It’s a celebration for the sympathy of self, an occasionally ridiculous and heartfelt study of being okay with who you are in the face of an increasingly technological, bureaucratic, and still just as puritanical, American society. In other words, it’s an island of sanity in a time that seems hell-bent on driving us all to the brink. Wherever you are, take a break, kick up your feet, and let the antics of Nutting’s world keep you away from your phone for a while. It’s her gift to us.

Assignments

BY MARION RUYBALID

A woman who I’ve always known as mother taught me how to wear a sari when I was ten. The purpose of my lesson was only partly for a connection with Bangladesh, my birthplace. Who knows when the excuse to learn such an involved task might have occurred if it wasn’t for a school project. My assignment was to research a famous person and dress the part. I’d picked Mother Teresa because she was from India and that was close to Bangladesh.

My white British mother took yards of white fabric and died a blue stripe on one side. When the cloth was ready, I stood in the middle of our living room wearing a tight fitting white tee shirt and underwear with a piece of white rope tied around my waist.

“Here’s where you tuck the corner of the cloth in,” my mother said. She pointed to the rope above my right hip.

I began to tuck clothing into the rope from right hip, to left, behind my body, and back around to the front of my right hip.

“You have to do that again.”

The process was already feeling tiresome and the cloth, though fairly thin woven cotton, had a lot of weight to it due to the amount fabric it was going to take to make me look modest.

“Okay, now make three pleats and tuck that into the front in the middle of your waist.”

I had no idea how uncomfortable a sari would be. Once I had what felt like a massive sailor’s knot against my stomach, I wrapped the rest of the cloth around the left side of my body and brought it around over my left shoulder.  It seemed impossible to imagine having to go through this process on a daily basis.

At ten years old, wearing a sari felt like a fun game. I was adopted into a British family who moved to a small town in New Jersey. I didn’t have much of a reason to think about what it might symbolically mean to wear so much fabric. It seemed elegant, and I felt like a slightly different version of myself.

When I entered graduate school at age thirty-three to complete my MFA in creative writing, I wanted to learn about memoirs and more importantly, my goal was to find a memoir written by a Bangladeshi author. I honestly didn’t even know if I’d find something in English, but I tracked down the title of a book called Meybela, My Bengali Girlhood, by Taslima Nasrin.

In Nasrin’s memoir, two different stories unfold, one is the story of Bangladesh’s fight for independence and the other is a little girl longing for women’s freedom.

Bangladesh gained its independence from India for the first time in 1971. Through a poetic voice, distant from the narrator’s emotions, the reader is educated about the historical climate of the country at the time. The atmosphere of daily life is blanketed with the constant feelings of unrest. However, despite many fears about the state of Bangladesh, there is hope for a future that will be better.

The narrator is a little girl during a formative time in Bangladesh’s history. Freedom for the country was supposed to mean promises of new practices in life, but as Bangladesh became free, change barely took place in a nation where women suffer from constant abuse. Her mother continues to eat scraps for dinner and isn’t respected. The narrator is raped by at least three different men, two of whom are uncles. Fathers want smart daughters and mothers want good religious wives for future mates. The desire to dream about a new life for the narrator is stifled in a culture that has no intention of changing.

The song “Joy Bangla! Bangla joy!” is chanted in the streets when the nation is finally free, but for the nation’s women, these words should have meant more. Women do not become free to fall in love and take jobs. Instead, their suffering becomes awkwardly intertwined with the nation’s freedom to show how even hopeful change may not result in transformation for everyone.

My own childhood didn’t include watching my nation be birthed. However, the circumstances of my actual adoption were at one time threatened. I was born in 1982 and there was talk about closing the doors to adoption. My dad, being a climber, planned routes over the Himalayan Mountains to get me out of the country if my British passport didn’t arrive. Nothing as extreme ever did take place because the paperwork to finalize my adoption did go through, but a few years later this would not have been the case. With my adoption, I was also freed from a culture that I still wanted to understand.

Years after my parents had moved away from Dhaka when I was nineteen years old, I went back for a visit. I was faced with the task of putting on a sari again. Yards of delicately patterned pink cloth surrounded a woman, who on the outside blended in with the women around me. People whispered about my perfect American accent and the way I walked so freely. They knew something was different about me even if I tried my best to fit in. Despite the sari, I knew what it was like to unravel the cloth and simply put on a pair of jeans and a tee shirt. True Bangladeshi culture for me would only be experienced through other people’s words.

Marion Ruybalid lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and seven children. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from UCR Palm Desert. Her work has also appeared in The Manifest-Station.

 

[REVIEW] The Dark Net by Benjamin Percy

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

REVIEWED BY JESSE LAWRENCE

I went into Benjamin Percy’s The Dark Net mostly unaware of what it was about (good start, avoid any “dark” and “blind” puns). The older I get and the more that goes on, well, the more dodgy my memory gets. It’s sort of apt, considering this novel deals so heavily with technology, and this also points out why I jive with Lela (“a technophobic journalist”) so well: technology has made it easier to access, store, and recall information and content of any kind, not to mention doing it all faster, but the human brain has a general peak, after which it slows down. That, and the ability to more easily access a greater variety of stimuli means there are more things competing for memory space/retention, and it’s an endless battle to keep up or get ahead or suss out some stasis.

The Dark Net is described as a “terrifying horror novel” and reads like a paranoid rollercoaster stuck on a loop. It certainly is that horror novel, but it’s also a face-in-a-sink-of-iced-water (I never thought I’d make a Huey Lewis reference that wasn’t also an American Psycho reference, but here we are) comment on our current technological landscape, how we use it (or fail to), and how it uses us, how it controls so much of our lives, and how we maybe shouldn’t blindly (yep, going there) trust in it. Also, more painfully but no less true, just how minor we are.

Some people get lost in the Internet, disconnect from the “real world” and “live” online, but maybe the Internet is just illuminating how microscopic and unimportant people ultimately are, perhaps even to each other (though we should always be excellent to each other). Or, maybe, it’s that we truly are nothing but stimulus and response, and the medium doesn’t matter. But the Internet is eternal, right?

Once it’s online it’s out there forever. That sentiment is not just a scare tactic to protect people or prevent them from publicly doing stupid shit. No. It’s true. Yet, many things are lost, or can be, in the advancing/changing technologies. This is something the film community has already had to start thinking about, between the first shot-on-digital-video movie and now. So, is it forever, if it’s on the Internet? Maybe not. Yet, even the physical, which we deem more “real”, like the printed word — or etched, chiseled, carved — is not immune to time, nor human behavior. Which, all of this further proves how microscopic we are, and thus one could so easily spiral into a mad descent of existential ennui, because, really, “the universe has been around for a long time before us — and it will go on without us. We’re the merest speck in the unfathomable reach of its timeline and geography.”

So, then, yeah, this is some heady stuff. But it’s heady stuff in the best sort of way: a horror novel under three hundred pages. I’m not dissing longer novels, or saying they are in any way “less” because they might be “too long” or anything. Definitely not. I will happily live in a thousand plus pages of horror, but if you can cattle prod my brain like this in a number of pages that I can consume in a single day/evening, well, you get major bonus points. Long story short (too late (that’s a Clue reference, and I don’t get to reference Clue nearly as often as I wish)), Percy writes with the economy that all writers should aspire to.

The Dark Net will no doubt be compared to The Matrix in some fashion, and I can see why, to the extents it will, and there are some whispers there, though they’re not unique to The Matrix. Where my mind is going, though, and it’s just too obvious, because it’s Portland, Oregon and it’s a reporter, but I keep thinking of Chelsea Cain’s Beauty Killer series (like Lela in The Dark Net, I also totally identify with Susan Ward in Cain’s books). That, and Sneakers, because breaking into places sometimes makes me think of Sneakers, though there’s that technology connection, so that could be why. Also, The Young Sherlock Holmes, because of ritualistic goings on. Ritualistic killings feature in a lot of stories, sure, but they always remind me of YSH.

Of all the things that The Dark Net is, the greatest is that it’s a Blob-swallowing thing. In filmmaking there’s the notion of the four-quadrant movie. It’s a story that hits all the demographics. Sometimes it gives us magic (think any animated feature that kids go gaga for but also has stuff in it for adult audiences, stuff that kids miss, or don’t understand — this goes for many films and shows since before “four-quadrants” was even an idea, because all of the stuff that kids watched was created by adults, and they probably figured it’d be nice to throw some stuff in that adults, specifically, would pick up on, because they’re probably watching along with their kids, and maybe on repeat ad nauseam), and sometimes it’s dreck. This? The Dark Net? It is so far from dreck. Oh so very far. I’m not saying it spans the four-quadrants. Kids might not dig it, maybe shouldn’t even read it, but to a kid who grew up on King this technological horror novel might just be the ticket for modern adventurers/darers/rebels. If it’s not, though, it certainly hits all points thereafter, and it hits other points as well. Horror? Check. Thriller (and, yeah, sometimes thriller is just the gutless way of saying horror — think Silence of the Lambs)? Check. Action? I’m going to say check. It’s not Die Hard, but there might be explosions, and it’s got all the suspense built in that good action has, so, then: Suspense? Check.

If you’re into Benjamin Percy’s work, you’ll love this, and if you don’t even know who Benjamin Percy is, this book will make you want to devour his other books (and for my final reference I’m using words familiar to werewolves, because Red Moon, though I probably would have gone there anyway, because werewolves are the non-stop ultimate (sorry, couldn’t help throwing in a Psycho Beach Party reference)).

Navigate it well, let it suck you in, explore, venture out, but remember: “the Internet is a landfill and a treasure trove. Every object and every person and every place and every thought, every secret exists there. Every appetite can be satisfied there. Unlike a body, unlike the world, the Internet is limitless.” So, yes, explore. Be bold. Be a pioneer, but remember: it just might be navigating you.

[REVIEW] Rumors of Empathy: Mariko Nagai’s Irradiated Cities

 

Les Figues Press, 2017

REVIEWED BY GIOVAN ALONZI

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
—William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18
the cracked face of an angel : the shadows of men left on walls
—Mariko Nagai, “The Specimen Nagasaki”, Irradiated Cities

 

Beloved apocalypse media, shall I compare thee to Sonnet 18?

More temperate—Roughs winds—Too hot—all that…

 

To prepare for it?—The apocalypse.

To experience it? —The apocalypse.

To savor it? —The apocalypse.

To feel the unfeelable apocalypse?

 

To consume, over and over again, especially if it’s fiction.

Especially if there are zombies.

Especially (especially in Hollywood) if a cut/gruff/hot/frumpy white man kicks zombie-ass to save the whole world?

 

If we can see a breathing apocalypse, does it give us life?

 

How about: sourcing an apocalypse? Anchoring it to nonfictional prerogatives, contemporary to us, dependent on testimonies and footage and technology? Truth may quickly decay into porn: despised, fetishized, commercialized, shunned, “interesting-ized”, e.g. “: it means that when you speak of your experience, some will say that you are selling your tragedy : it means that you keep telling the story of that day again & again, that your voice sounds mechanical & your story soulless :” (Nagai).

 

The fictional apocalypse bears a small, but powerful promise: that things might start over, that we may be able to see it through and start anew. This is the hope of the fictional apocalypse: redemption.

 

The apocalypses that have already happened on Earth, however, are far more fraught—after they are manufactured and dealt as paternalistic gifts and savage, entitled domination, they linger, fusing to us: European settler colonialism in North America and the eradication of indigenous peoples in modern day Dominican Republic and Australia were apocalypses; the African slave trades running through the Atlantic and Indian oceans were apocalypses; genocide is a people’s world ending.

 

These apocalypses bear no redemption. In fact, the through-line Mariko Nagai connects between the atomic events in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima, is that they all primarily bore suffering; meaning, they bore capital.

 

Irradiated Cities: a work at the epicenter of its blast, processing the start of its after, the beginning of its ending, the economic development of its shame: a book not intending to deliver new information (perhaps, more, conventionalized information from a series of ground-zeros); a book that reminds us that the culture of irradiation has only just begun, that irradiation has no truck with certainty, that treating irradiation in the human body as “deadly and unpredictable” creates a surplus of second-class citizens to be exploited by politicians and artists alike, that irradiation is handled like a fruitless aphorism (something like “knowledge demanded of the masses cannot be known as a mass”). For even if one does follow a path of certainty through an irradiated city, a mass of rumors irradiates everything.

 

Nagai’s meditations on the atomic history of Japan are presented in four parts: “Hiroshima”, “Nagasaki”, “Tokyo”, and “Fukushima”—“Hiroshima” and “Nagasaki” focus on their respective nuclear blasts on August 6 and August 9, 1945; “Tokyo” on post-WWII Japan, the U.S. lead Bikini Atoll nuclear test blast, and the slow embrace of nuclear energy in Japan; “Fukushima” re-centers the effects of the recent nuclear catastrophe in March 11, 2011. All four sections present a distillation of facts and rumors circulated in the wake of their respective tragedies, and the similarities these moments shared with each other. The writing resists purity, including constant repetition of phrases and lines, slightly modifying and mutating as the accounts progress.

 

The section “Hiroshima” starts with “: enough : enough has been told again & again : now it’s iconic, offering no space for an alternative : (but then, maybe there never was an alternative) :”. The “:” run through the entire book, simultaneously connecting and separating everything Nagai writes in Irradiated Cities, a crucial textual posture of the work—we are soaked in the illusion that things can be separate, that separation is safety, that separation is danger. For what do nuclear blasts and nuclear meltdowns yield more than paradoxes? One primary paradox being the immediate commodification of hibakusha [survivors of atomic bomb blasts / irradiated people] trauma: “: we make our living going through the rubble to find intact skulls, pulling out gold teeth, or keeping just the skulls to sell to the Americans, & they buy anything, including suffering, on this sojourning to the land of the bomb :” Nagai writes this early in the book, mindful of the history her book is attached to as another form of Japanese nuclear catastrophe media. This is where the stakes of the book are essential—in a history rife with exploitative documentation, how does one write about nuclear catastrophe? Irradiated Cities might be asking: How does one write about the experience of death en masse honestly? Honesty, connoting compassion as much as it should raw, untainted facts? As much as it should the superstitions built around the deadly unknowns a society is bound to after an apocalyptic event?

 

Nagai writes from the perspective of someone who has been listening for a long time (in her acknowledgements, she thanks strangers she met in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima who shared their stories with her), locating the lingering hum of nuclear tragedies, and at the same time fighting the trap of iconifying: the flattening of personal experience—the ultimate removal of empathy for those who’ve experienced nuclear catastrophes personally and survived.

 

In The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot writes “The disaster, depriving us of that refuge which is the thought of death, dissuading us from the catastrophic or the tragic, dissolving our interest in will and in all internal movement, does not allow us to entertain this question either: what have you done to gain knowledge of the disaster?” While Blanchot seems more concerned with a cosmic and pervasive existential disaster of the human condition, I think the part that resonates with real-life apocalyptic events that are survived is this removal of refuge. That death, before having its harbinger irradiate you, with twenty Sievert of radiation or burabura-sho (the loser’s disease), is one of the only things in this world that is actually simple. And though a book might be proof that someone has gained some type of knowledge, excavating the complexity of a material disaster does not have to be a gauntlet, nor do I think Nagai is attempting one. In it, she is far less concerned with knowledge as truth, and far more concerned with knowledge as the life of rumors and longevity (and simultaneous invisibility) of iconifying. “: this city :” she writes of 1945 Nagasaki, “: this entire city is a scientific specimen : […] : when will it be freed? : when will it be freed from the shadow? :”.

 

Many questions in this book remain unanswered. But, she does provide some: she tells us “How To Treat That Mysterious Disease”; she tells us “No One Talks About It, No One Can Talk About It”; she tells us “The Story of Hibakusha”; she tells us “What It Means to Be Irradiated”; she tells us “How to Build Nuclear Power Plants”; she tells us “Rumors of Distant Disasters”; she tells us “Things People Say”; she tells us “Truth & Lies”.

 

Her prose are cunning in their mutability—through imitation of guides leading atomic tours, or genuine reimaginings of a city at the moment a bomb dropped on it, or listing observations in sobering “how-to”’s, it always feels like Nagai’s solemn voice, not shying away from the culture of rumor-making in the wake of bombs and nuclear meltdowns; her writing treats rumors as a poetic form: amassing, contradicting, repeating the reasons for why, the reasons for why not. This way of speaking—perhaps the only way we might socially cope with apocalyptic events—produces cultures obsessed with scarring, however visible or invisible, especially among those who are not hibakusha, those who don’t have to deal with a gaze hungry for symptoms of an apocalypse.

 

The blunt sentences become morbidly adaptable in the flattened, physically square body of her prose: if one assumes the “:” means all of the sentences are connected, and goes on (as I did) to dissect the sentences from various parts of the book and re-connect them to other parts, out of the intended order, a sick momentum appears: “: they do not know that their bodies now carry a bomb inside : a ticking bomb :” (“The Living Calls to the Dead”, from “Hiroshima”), “: psychologists study the survivors & their ways of living : […] : 5592 bodies autopsied in 1948-1950 :” (“The Specimen Nagasaki”, from “Nagasaki”), “what is medicine? doctors ask themselves : […] : who are they doing this for? :” (“Eighty-Three Days in 1999”, from “Tokyo”) “: the men in suits came with promises :” (“Before the Beginning”, from “Fukushima” ) “: it is a good era : […] : workers at plants are quietly getting sick, leukemia, bleeding gums, bleeding noses, exhaustion, cancers : doctors tell them there is nothing wrong :” (“A Good Era”, from “Fukushima”). This is the nature of rumors Nagai portrays—they’re accessible; they’re far more about providing sense than any deliberate truth or falsity; they can be experimented with; mostly, especially when doctors are involved, we keep repeating ourselves.

 

In Cities, Nagai uses “before” and “after” as verbs (“: they come : they come to after the pika [before] & don [after] :”) and states of being (“: it is always beautiful on a catastrophic day : it is beautiful because the before is beautiful & the after dreadful :”). Though writing about events that occurred before Milton Friedman and The Chicago Boys’ academic development of neoliberal globalization, Nagai’s attention to U.S. interests dominating Japanese socio-economics hearken to Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine”: “America’s ‘free market’ policies [that have] come to dominate the world—through the exploitation of disaster-shocked people and countries.” Even after America bombs Japan, Japan justifies nuclear energy production as “: …American technology, no, it’s not the same as atomic bombs, it’s better, it’s safer, it’s cheap :” in order to get poor inhabitants of Fukushima to sell their land to TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company). The before is manufactured as soon as the after is; a two for one, detailed pointedly by one title in Irradiated Cities, “Hiroshima : ????” . Nagai equates the Katakana spelling to a “: synonym for tragedy : the first city :” connected to its original spelling (??) only by nostalgia for “the Before”.

 

Like this after-ing of a place, the production of rumors produce insatiable curiosity—“: suffering is photogenic :” Nagai writes in “Hiroshima : ????” . She follows this up in the piece “What It Means To Be Irradiated”, saying:

 

“: it means that every year, when those days come around, photographers take your photos without permission, as if hibakusha lost the passport to humanity the moment they were irradiated : & you see the faces of these journalists & photographers, their eyes gleeful because the more scars you have on your face, the more tragic you look, the more they can elevate you into an icon : it means to be told by politicians & doctors to be sterilized so that there wouldn’t be bad genes in the future :”.

 

Between pieces that list off descriptions like this, reimagined day-of-the-blasts in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bikini Atoll, and Fukushima, and references to pop phenomena like Hiroshima Mon Amour, Godzilla, Hiroshima Maidens and Nagasaki Maidens, Nuclear Power Plant Sweets and Radium Eggs, Irradiated Cities presents us with relentless crises of empathy, perhaps asking if its possible for a society to do catastrophe right. Towards the end of the book, I began to see Nagai as a detective dissecting a murderer’s devious plot—she is aware of all points of entry, times of death, suspects involved, their motivations, potential witnesses and outcomes of the crimes committed. But, instead of soliloquizing as an individual, she presents a poly-vocal deposition bound to its contradictions. But how does one put “the iconic” on trial anyway? More importantly: how do cities process shame? Cities are machines—the nostalgia for prosperity points to money and commercial development. Wealth becomes healing, treatment remains a commodity, and silence becomes the only indication of disaster.

 

Silence—imposed by American censorship of documentation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombs detonated, imposed by the trauma of the bombs themselves, imposed by one’s own community who doesn’t want to hear about the survivors of the bombs anymore—is everywhere in this book. Where silence may indicate shame though, Nagai looks to it as a way of writing about Japanese nuclear catastrophe without exploiting those directly affected. What can we find in the silence? “: stones sing their irradiated songs & enough will be said about this moment for years to come : but maybe it is not enough : there is never enough in this everafter story of one bomb & another bomb & the illumination of the night : & the silence :”. For every one page of prose, there are about three pages of black and white photography—all given full, square pages, and all taken by Nagai herself in the cities she is writing about. In all 133 pages of the book, only ten photographs have people in them—six of those only show the hands of the subjects, two only showing feet, and the only face not obscured by a blur or darkness is a face in an advertisement on a street in Tokyo. The photography, all mesmerizing, transmits total silence, simultaneously refusing to exploit humanity’s visible scars. It’s beautiful effect: the silence cuts through the sensational rumor-making and empathy documented in the language.

 

It’s important to know that Nagai isn’t fishing for epiphanies about nuclear bombs and meltdowns either—her book is much larger than that. More than anything, she’s written a way to feel the irreverent permanence of national traumas, a sense of trauma’s half-life in the flesh of these cities, as well as the minds, products, and industries of their inhabitants.

 

Blanchot writes, “when the disaster comes upon us, it does not come”—is it because it is already always here? Perhaps the primary effect of apocalyptic disasters, like bombs and meltdowns, is emphasizing a society’s existing alienations—from other cultures, as well from itself. That said, I do not think Irradiated Cities is posing as a model—at no point is Cities a general warning for those unaware of nuclear catastrophe, not an effort to universalize hardship and suffering; it is an attempt to feel and see the nuclear legacy of Japan without exploiting quotidian life—writing towards the constant paradox of capital (the person/commodity), the amnesia induced by obsessions with national wealth, and, if you listen like Nagai, the murmurings of cities: “: on this shore, all is well : because they tell themselves : on a distant shore : it all happens on the distant shore : it can never happen here :” (“Rumors of Distant Disasters”, from “Tokyo”).

Giovan Alonzi’s writing has appeared in VOLT, Entropy, and The Believer. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from CalArts, and currently teaches writing composition at East Los Angeles College.

The Mystery and Mythology of Found Audio by N.J. Campbell

INTERVIEW BY MANDY SHUNNARAH

Two Dollar Radio’s latest publication is hot off the press. Found Audio by N.J. Campbell is a Russian nesting doll of a novel with layers of mystery, mythology, madness, and suspense.

When three stolen audio tapes of questionable origin land on Dr. Amrapali Singh’s desk, along with a large sum of money to analyze them, she has two days to extract any clues as to the origin of the tapes and the identity of the unnamed journalist whose story they hold. Using her keen ear and expertise in antiquated audio formats, she transcribes the tapes, which form the majority of the novel.

From the murkiest bayous of Louisiana to the walled-in city of Kowloon to a chess tournament in Turkey, the unnamed journalist searches for the City of Dreams––a legend akin to El Dorado and the lost city of Atlantis. The clues to where this City of Dreams might be come sporadically, over the course of several decades, and each time he gets close to finding it, something mysteriously happens to affect his perception of reality. Whether under the influence of alcohol, mental illness or the energy-draining humidity of the bayou, our unreliable narrator is thwarted and the City of Dreams remains just that: a dream.

I read Found Audio in one sitting, completely engrossed in the story. Just as Dr. Singh was enraptured by the tapes, I, too, was Alice falling down the rabbit hole.

The novel is a brilliant work of metafiction, and the story within the story is as irresistible as gossip from a friend of a friend. The foreword and afterword are both in the form of letters written by the author, N.J. Campbell, which further add to the mystery by tinkering with the thread-thin line between the extraordinary and the realm of possibility.

There are degrees of truth in the otherworldly tales, which ignite curiosity and propel the reader deeper into the narrative. Found Audio reads like a modern-day version of “Kubla Khan,” where the fantastic is ever-present, just beyond reach.

Being the curious person I am, I Googled many of the myths and legends in the book and was amazed to find that many of them have been documented. The City of Dreams is a renowned myth, the walled city of Kowloon really was torn down in 1993 and The Turk was a chess-playing automaton from the 1770s, later revealed to be a hoax. I even found an obituary for an Otha Johnson in the Times-Picayune from 2003, which fits within the timeline and the location of the story. While his obituary didn’t mention him being a snake hunter, judging by the number of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren he had, it sounds like he lived to be quite old, just like the Otha character in the novel.

While each of these myths may seem disparate on the surface, Campbell weaves them together with a deft hand.

“I remember things that interest me, and they inevitably show up in my work. Stringing them together is partly happenstance and partly planned catastrophe,” Campbell says. “What I mean by the latter is that I’m very critical of my own work. I don’t want to get bored with it, so I’m constantly trying to push myself to see what might come out of further exploration. If I think I can’t do something, I have to do it. And a lot of this stuff all being strung together is me just trying to see in what way something can or might connect to something else.”

As evidenced in Found Audio, Campbell has found that his best writing comes from challenging himself to write his characters out of seemingly impossible problems.

“My friend Joey said it best: ‘If you’re an artist and you can risk it, you have to. You won’t be able to back down.’ That’s really stuck with me. So, in many ways I deliberately try to see how far I can push my narrative––what if that character tells me to get lost? What if I paint myself into a corner I know I can’t get out of? I can always go back and tear up the floorboards, but I want to see what might happen if I build myself into places that look like dead ends.”

Some of Campbell’s best ideas have come to him while at his day job, which is working for a small university press.

“I am 0% involved in anything to do with the publishing process. I literally pack boxes, take orders, and buy shipping supplies. That’s it. But that gives me total freedom to think all day about whatever I want,” Campbell explains. “My body is absorbed in a mostly physical task, and my mind wanders. It’s been majestic. I’ve worked manual labor jobs most of my life to keep my mind rested in order to write.”

The mystery doesn’t end with Found Audio. His next writing project is in the works, though he’s not quite ready to share. “For some people I know, talking about what they’re working on is helpful, but for me it’s not. I get self-conscious and that’s a distraction,” Campbell explains. “I will say that I work very diligently and very deliberately, but I don’t talk about anything until it’s done.”
––

Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though Birmingham, Alabama, will always have her heart. Her creative nonfiction essays and book reviews have appeared in The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, and The New Southerner Magazine, where she won Honorable Mention in their 2016 contest. You can read more of her work at her website, OffTheBeatenShelf.com.

 

[REVIEW] Mile-high with Mary Ruefle: a review of My Private Property

Wave Books, 2016

REVIEWED BY E.D. MORIN

A bad baby kicks the back of my airplane seat. Bad baby gurgles. A cacophony of jungle ululations (moist, hot and fretful) assaults my ear drums. Bad baby makes strident, vomity sounds as if his caregiver clutches him too tight.

I get it. I want to clutch bad baby tight too.

One time a bad baby howled for my entire long flight, not so much shrieking as emitting gulpy, infant cries meek enough to draw co-traveler sympathies. This bad baby is not sympathetic. An exotic hell-parrot foments in this bad baby. Bad baby howls, lazy and wanton, hatchling of lazy parents. I can just see it. All those tricks these parents perform at home to calm their squalling babe in arms (loud punk music, baby bouncer in the kitchen doorway) are inoperable here.

If I turn to peer behind me, I fully expect snap! a forest canopy. Down fall the oxygen masks. Rubber liana air tubes, snot-and-milk soaked and strung with fruit loops.

Don’t turn. Don’t even think about it.

In the air, time goes by as if in a dream, seconds and seconds and minutes and minutes and suddenly hours are gone. Somewhere above our destination and nearing the Greater Toronto Area, surely by now, I hold my book open, Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property. The writing here is reduced to essential, devastating truths. “You may decide to take up an insane and hopeless cause,” she writes in “Pause,” a piece about menopause.

“You may decide to walk to Canada, or that it is high time you begin to collect old blue china, three thousand pieces of which will leave you bankrupt. Suddenly the solution to all problems lies in selling your grandmother’s gold watch or drinking your body weight in cider vinegar. A kind of wild forest blood runs in your veins.”

The back dust-jacket flap tells me that Mary Ruefle lives in Bennington, Vermont, which Google later tells me is a town with two colleges and a population of just over fifteen thousand. In other words, small. Google will also inform me that Mary Ruefle is off everything, Facebook, Twitter, doesn’t even have her own website. Certainly not Snapchat. There will be images of Bennington’s fall leafage, the world’s tallest ladderback chair, a covered bridge. There are reports of a recent heroin scourge.

My guess is the town’s folk don’t know Mary Ruefle the star poet. They may notice she visits the same coffee shop every day. And if they know her as a poet, she’s approachable enough that the police headquarters will ask her to compose something for the chief, a “dry and understated” statement as she writes in “Little Golf Pencil.” Maybe people do ask such things. If they even know about her being a poet.

I yearn for such off-the-grid seclusion. What writer doesn’t yearn for seclusion these days? A reprieve from the endless distractions, cut off from WIFI, cell service. Incommunicado. This cross-country flight is a gift, then. And only now, when I’m almost at my destination, does my mind grow quiet enough that I’m able to even begin. My own private mile-high writing retreat, however brief.

And so I observe.

The man in the row ahead of me has just put away his bagpipes, an electronic device. A black stick and box with earphones so he can practice Prince Charles’ Welcome to Lochaber in silence. He opens a paperback and begins to read, but I can’t make out the title or author. One of the Scandinavian crime writers or British, could be. Likely a male author, bloody minded, perhaps with a military background providing a nice foil to the piper’s sensitive finger manipulations.

In the row ahead of the piper, another infant, pudgy and brimming with health. The tray covered with infant paraphernalia, which is a word in today’s crossword, paraphernalia running the height of the puzzle’s grid of black and white boxes. I can’t recall the clue for this word and I can’t look it up now because I just relinquished my paper to the flight attendant for recycling, assuming the airline actually recycles its papers. A national paper it was, originating in Toronto. I bought it in the Calgary airport where I began, and now here it is almost back home, like a return to Mecca. Such a short life for that paper. Only just begun, and now it’s about to be shredded and pulped and relegated to an enormous pile.

I didn’t finish the crossword. I might have kept it and, after a time, returned to scan the clues and they might have finally made sense such as happens sometimes. But instead I said, fuck it (inaudibly as I was still on the airplane), who needs an unfinished puzzle hanging over their head? It’s not like this crossword is Mount Assiniboine, the mountain I hope to summit two months from now. “We’ve begun our descent. Hope you enjoyed the flight. Welcome to Toronto,” the pilot’s disembodied voice announces, and as usual the voice is male.

So I guess that’s it for my private writing retreat. Only a few minutes left to pull that long, long ribbon out of the carpet bag and examine it. Never mind that there’s a barf bag in the slot at my eye-level, there are seeds at my feet from the sandwich I brought with me on this no-frills flight, or that my toes are ensconced in no-nonsense footwear. Menopausal sandals, the kind of sandals that have small, rubbery, self-massage bumps on the footbed, and a wide cover over the toes to protect them and so that no one can see, heaven forbid, any of my nail fungus.

My younger self wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing these sandals. Or maybe, just maybe, she would have worn them ironically the way young women dye their hair gray these days. I don’t know what they’re getting at. I sometimes still wish I was a full brunette.

——

Winner of the 2007 Brenda Strathern Writing Prize, E.D. Morin co-edited Writing Menopause: An Anthology of Fiction, Poetry and Creative Non-fiction (Inanna Publications, 2017.) A native Albertan, she is a director of the long-running Calgary reading series Writing in the Works. Her work has appeared in such publications as The Antigonish Review and Fiction Southeast and has been produced for broadcast on CBC Radio.

[REVIEW] We All Just Want to Be Touched: Courtney Maum’s “Touch”

(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017)

 

REVIEWED BY DAVID PLICK

I’m sitting here in this café on my laptop typing out a review of Touch, remembering that as I walked in here I inquired whether or not they had wifi, and when I heard the answer was no, I had to force myself to not be annoyed. “Okay,” I thought to myself, calming down. “I can do other things . . . Like, write that review for Courtney’s book. I don’t need internet for that.”

Let me describe this horrible café with no wifi. It has high ceilings with exposed heating vents and painted steel rafters—the obligatory industrial chic décor—atmospheric geometric art everywhere, Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky” is playing on the radio (I remembered how much I loved that song), a large communal table with plants all over it. Actually, come to think of it, living plants are everywhere. The windows are open, and the summer heat isn’t stifling. Also, it’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, so there are interesting characters moving in and out of the café and on the street (I’ve been here twenty minutes and I’ve already seen a French woman yell at a man for nearly spilling his coffee on her). This is all to say, what reason do I have to want to leave this place—the present, where I am, with these wonderful people—to disappear into the world of the internet? Is it because I’ve been programmed to be that way (and is that an acceptable excuse?)?

This is what Touch is about—how we’re moving further and further from each other, yet all we truly seek is intimacy, for someone else to know and understand us deeply, our true selves, not our avatars, or our feeds, or our digital presence.

Touch tells the story of Sloane Jacobsen, a trend forecaster who lives the life that most cosmopolitan people dream of. A self-identifying “anti-breeder” who moves from Paris to New York to lead a technology/commerce behemoth (imagine if Amazon and Google had a baby) called Mammoth through a three-day conference with trendsetters from around the world called “ReProduction”. Their tagline: “What will we make when we stop making kids?” Mammoth also carts her around New York in a self-driving AI automobile named Anastasia who becomes her best friend. On the surface, her life sounds thrilling.

Not to mention she also has an overachiever French boyfriend named Roman, a sex-intellectual (a “neosensualist”) who gets 700,000 likes on his Instagram posts, has his articles published in New York magazine, and is into Zentai suit onesies (As ridiculous as some of the characters seem in this book, they are rendered with absolute truth and humanity.).

But of course, it’s not that easy. She and Roman haven’t had sex in eighteen months (he doesn’t believe in penetration). Practically every time he opens his mouth to tell her how amazing his life is, she wants to scream. He won’t touch her, so she eventually finds someone willing to. This person, at first, is herself. Touch has some playful and intimate masturbation scenes with Sloane, told by Maum in a fearless way. For example, there’s a scene where Sloane watches pornography while pleasuring herself (her stupid boyfriend ends up walking in), and while she snidely and subtly mocks the artfulness of the porn, she absolutely revels in it. Sloane, after being restrained and quieted in her desire, bursts to feel something. Anything.

Also, after living in Paris for ten years, she’s completely alienated from her family. Upon returning to the US, Sloane is reminded constantly of the death of her father. It’s clear that she’s never been able to process his death in Paris, that she never spoke to Roman about this. For years she quietly mourned the loss, but now that she’s home she tries to reconnect with the people who understand what she’s going through—her mom, her sister, her brother-in-law. But after ignoring them for years, it’s not like they’ll just forget what happened, and take her back with open arms. There are a lot of wounds being reopened, and resentments that are rising to the surface.

Sloane’s final trend forecast in the book, something that makes the CEO of Mammoth furious, is that people will seek to abandon technology for human interaction. Sloane has achieved legendary success, lived in the fanciest neighborhoods in the most chic cities in the world, a true fashion and social elite, yet all she wants in this world is to be touched.

Much like the film Her, Touch is funny but also a warning sign of things to come. An important reminder that we should go into cafes with no wifi, and revel in the simple and beautiful art of spending time with another human being.

 –

David Plick is the founder and editor of the online lit and humor magazine Down & Out, and a former Henry Roth Fiction Scholar at The City University of New York. His work has been in Fiction, ArchDaily, The Collagist, Entropy, Fiction Advocate, Word Riot, Philadelphia Review of Books, and other places. A New Jersey native, he currently lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at Guttman Community College.