Hossain’s DJINN CITY satires & encapsulate’s today’s zeitgeist

(Unnamed Press)

BY NICHOLE L. REBER

Saad Z. Hossain’s recently released Djinn City from Unnamed Press builds on his 2015 novel Escape from Baghdad! This Bangladeshi writer captivates with his often humorous blend of satire, sci-fi, fantasy, and mythology that takes place in 2066 underground, at ground level, and in the skies.

The novel opens with the backstory of Indelbed, a child who lives with his widower dad and a few ghostly servants in a decrepit house in Bangladesh’s capital. His father is a very learned and very drunk man, possibly because he misses the boy’s mother, and he refuses to allow his son a traditional education. Dr. Kaikobad won’t even educate his son about his own mother, other than the fact she died giving birth to him, which people love to joke about as “death by Indelbed.”

When Kaikobad falls into a coma, Aunt Juny, Uncle/Ambassador/GU Sikkim, and cousin Rais take the little guy under their wing. They initially seem to resist doing so, less so upon learning he’s related to djinns and his father is a djinn emissary.

Who/what the heck are djinns, anyway? A survey course in mythology might convey their various villainous characterizations. In Hossain’s novel, they are indeed villainous. They come in human form with a powerful aura that surrounds them and works as a weapon. It’s their human qualities that bring out Hossain’s funny, satirical encapsulation of today’s zeitgeist. They’re a litigious lot who think nothing of creating 743-page contracts, they have no allegiance with family members, and they politicize seemingly everything. Capable of becoming embroiled in frequent existentialist debates, they argue about evolution and creationism and djinn superiority over all other creatures.

Here’s an example that takes place when Rais and his mother are on the trail to figuring out how a sort of overlord evil djinn named Matteras killed Uncle/Ambassador/GU Sikkim.

“What if humans and djinns are just related species, or even just mutations of one specie?” Rais says. “Most djinn don’t believe in evolution or genetics. They wouldn’t like this at all. I mean, it might tear them apart.”

“Even the most tolerant, humanized djinn think they’re inherently better. Imagine if there was irrefutable proof that they’re just like us? I don’t think they could accept that, as a specie,” Aunt Juny responds.

These debates go on throughout the book. For instance, Matteras throws Indelbed into a labyrinthine underground murder pit of Matteras’s own creation. There rock wyrms threaten to eat the boy, who’s been there long enough to become a man, and Givaras, who’s apparently been there for at least a millennium. Givaras, a pedantic, Dr. Frankenstein type, has tried and failed in his attempts to breed various forms of creatures who are placed down there with him. Failed, we learn, means killed.

Now the rascally character, who flagellates between likeable and despisable, plans to try again– this time with Indelbed. Before he does so he says: “I will try a technique of heating your blood, essentially boiling it. The pain is going to be rather horrid; I think some of the sensations will get through despite your damaged spine. However, you should survive, which is the main thing. It’s only pain, eh?” This time Givaras succeeds. In fact, from Indelbed’s perspective, he could construe the experience as a lesson captured by that old platitude “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Matteras’ attempt to convince the other djinn at a major conference that there’s an overpopulation of “Humes.” They’re destroying the earth, he wants other djinn to think. Continuing on with Hossain’s themes of superiority and evolution vs creationism Matteras wants to get the OK to commence massive natural disasters that will ultimately destroy the human race. “Are we to end our days in obscene couplings with jumped-up monkeys? Chosen by God, I say! Chosen by fire!” he says.

Then there’s the existential perspective of Kaikobad, the little boy’s comatose father. He is actually alive as a sort of ghost. Walking through parts of the capital city he sees “buildings winking out of sight overnight, entire streets turning to mist.” People were disappearing as well. He “saw them fade in front of his eyes, dissipating into a kind of alternate existence, or to some purgatory.”

On a final note, Hossain’s humor is just one more reason to read this book. Its light-heartedness echo the Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, especially when he mentions technologies actually in use today:

“Us djinns are more free spirit antiestablishment types…We don’t go in for big government.”

“You follow Twitter?” “Follow? We’re the ones who invented it! Djinns love brevity. It’s a racial trait, I’m sure you’ve discerned.”

My only complaint is that there are too many characters to saliently keep up with. To be fair, though, that very complaint marks me as a Western reader. We aren’t used to such a high number of characters. Among subcontinental literature, however, it’s inherent.

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/.

Shanbhag’s first novel to be translated from Kannada into English lingers in its intimacy

(Faber & Faber)

BY NICHOLE L. REBER

The intimacy Vivek Shanbhag creates in his 118-page novel Ghachar Ghochar lingers in a way many of today’s first-person fictions or memoirs don’t. But it’s the realities he shows in this fictional account of rising India that arrest the reader first.

His first novel to be translated from the Indian language of Kannada into English (by translator Srinath Perur), Shanbhag’s story centers around one family’s entrance into the middle class, a popular theme in contemporary Indian literature. There is the traditional Amma (mother), who dotes on her family from her kitchen throne; Appa (father), who’s been forced into early retirement; uncle, Chikkappa, the family breadwinner; sister, Malati, the epitome of spoiled brats everywhere; and the unnamed narrator.

Before opening a profitable spice company, the family used to rely on earning household staples like an iron, a clock, and a suitcase as employer prizes for Appa’s good sales record. All financial decisions were made together. The family even discussed how many rupees Appa could give each person for holidays and on what they’re spent—a pair of pants for the narrator (the son) a cooking spoon for Amma, a sari for sister.

The first sign of the family’s success is a gas oven. Bringing a gas oven into the shabby house, Amma can cook standing up for the first time (in very traditional Indian households cooking is still done whilst kneeling). Soon they move into a house large enough for each person to have a bedroom all his/her own, though not all is marvelous.

“We were leaving something behind, though I couldn’t say what,” the narrator tells us. “The house was huge in comparison to the one we had left. Two stories. A room for each person.”

The furniture brought from their old lives is ill suited to their luxurious life. Neither does their new décor: when Amma and Malati are given free range at the furniture store the results are more mix-it-up, less match-it-up.

Moving into the middle class is more than cosmetic, of course. This is apparent in the quick demise of Malati’s marriage. When she moves in with her new husband’s family, she throws temper tantrums, acts superior to them. “Maybe she had gotten used to having whatever she wanted and it diminished her capacity for making the inevitable compromises that accompany marriage,” the narrator tells us.

Then we come to the narrator’s own marriage, arranged by class not by caste—evidence of modern, newly-middle-class India— occurs for similar and also quick reasons. His wife Anita finds out that despite the big title he has with the family business, he has no bona fide responsibility there, and feels deceived. She can’t relate to a man who doesn’t have to work, who lives off family members, and so she leaves.

It is primarily through the narrator’s relationship with his wife that he conveys the deepest intimacy to readers. It starts, however, long before that. In fact, by the second page, we’re learning how inexperienced he is with women. We meet him after he’s skulked away from his first would-be girlfriend. There’s no conversation, no argument, no nothing except his seeming to disappear from her life. Hanging out at the café afterward, he hopes to find confidence in the adages of the waiter Vincent, which bring supposed therapeutic clarity like American bartenders do for their patrons. “Part of me longs to speak to Vincent but I’m holding back— what if his words hint at the one thing I don’t want to hear?” he says of the man who doesn’t know beyond a superficial level.

The narrator’s a bit wimpy, but in the vein of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, we fall for him because of his imperfections, because of his intimate confessions. He gives details of his marriage, not in sexual ways but with gentle self-reflection: “A woman I didn’t know had chosen to accept me, in body and mind.”

“Her arms tightened around me. I could feel her bangles pressing into my back. Through touch, this unknown woman began to be known to me.” Their intimacy is still nascent when she tells him the family story behind the meaning of ghachar ghochar, which is one of the most universal parts of the book.

Later, Anita clashes with the females of the narrator’s family, causing shifts in his own dynamics with them. But he couldn’t stand up for her or against his sister and mother. When Anita leaves town, the narrator and the family reestablish those dynamics.

“It was as if Anita’s absence had allowed us to be ourselves again, without inhibitions.” They’d rather remain an interdependent unit, unbroken by outsiders. Like any intimate unit does.

Read the novel to see if he’ll fight to get Anita back. Read it to learn more about the realities of rising Asia.

Shanbhag is the author of eight works of fiction and two plays, all held to critical success in his native South India. He held a 2016 residency at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Workshop.

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/.

[REVIEW] How Seidlinger’s MY PET SERIAL KILLER Slays a Whole Genre—Then Reanimates It, Better and Gorier

(Cinestate, 2017)

REVIEWED BY MICHAEL NATALIE

As befits a gory dissection of horror films, Michael J. Seidlinger’s My Pet Serial Killer opens cinematically.

Lights up on an ennui-stricken graduate student. We’re given a few cryptic words—Claire, student, master—and an impressionistic portrait, its features subordinated to a pervasive sense of unhappiness. Over the next thirty pages, this misery takes shape: What begins as dissatisfaction becomes misanthropy, what begins as loneliness becomes a profuse yearning. An attending psychologist would revise his diagnosis from depression to narcissism; a malignant strain of narcissism with a litany of other issues percolating underneath—but leaving the patient somewhat anchored in reality.

Through Claire’s perspective, we are given the terms of a conversation we can’t yet understand: “I,” “you,” “woman,” “man,” “master,” “pet,” “fight” and—crucially—mystery. Twenty-odd pages in, another character takes shape: Victor Hent, the Gentleman Killer. We’ve seen Victor before, in prior literary and film incarnations. His dark, slicked-backed hair and the shallow world into which he wades evoke Patrick Bateman—particularly as portrayed by Christian Bale.

Predictably, Victor and Claire forge an instant attraction. A reader scouting for tropes might read Victor as Claire’s karma; the runoff of her own toxic psychology into the real world, here to punish her for her narcissistic power fantasies—fatally so. One might expect Claire to join the ignominious ranks of the foolish dead, the slasher victims who could’ve averted their sad fates simply by locking their front doors.

Nope. Seidlinger bucks our first expectation by quickly and firmly establishing Claire as the dominant half of the pair.

But it’s not just that Claire dominates Victor: Her power fantasies are so fully actualized it quickly becomes difficult to picture her suffering any kind of comeuppance, even at the end of the story.

What follows My Pet Serial Killer’s cryptic (but suitably disturbing) opening scenes is a gory romp which explores not only the psychology of murder and murderers, but also the psychology of horror films and audiences; a the literary answer to the burgeoning film canon of self-referential horror flicks: Funny Games, Behind the Mask: the Rise of Leslie Vernon, Cabin in the Woods, and so on.

Without giving too much away—in fact, we can file this comment under Captain Obvious—Claire’s attraction to Victor stems from his capacity to kill. He kills, she watches. More critically, Claire applies her forensics expertise in order to enable and preserve her clumsy, impulsive “pet.” She’s not just complicit; she’s in charge, and the manner of her voyeurism implicates the audience in her mindset.

Specifically, she tends to watch the murders as a filmgoer would—through camera. Seidlinger makes the deft decision to incorporate old-school cassette tapes here, recalling the early days of slasher flicks. Furthermore, Claire demands Victor cultivate a certain aesthetic, ramp up his Patrick Bateman flair—to her, this isn’t just murder; it’s art, and it doesn’t count if it fails to project an aura of mystery.

At his most direct, Seidlinger cuts the narrative with italicized reflections, which he maddeningly labels “optional.” To oversimplify: These reflections raise Claire’s voice up to the level of the author’s, with deranged allusions to the novel’s critical underpinnings. In these rants, Claire frequently imagines how her work would play with audiences. If Seidlinger’s “optional” tag regarding these italicized rants reflects a genuine ambivalence—as opposed to just a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor—that’s understandable. The old maxim goes “show, don’t tell.” However, it’s My Pet Serial Killer’s direct and deeply interior moments that transform the novel from a violent, audience-shaming slog into a visceral think piece.

For example, the first of the italicized segments contains a satirical advertisement for the horror genre, a darkly hilarious rant which blends Claire’s fetishes together with the fascinations of the audience. Crucially, Claire’s ramblings inch close enough to sanity that the reader can—in some sense—“get” her. From this union between Claire and the audience springs one of the novel’s principal obsessions: mystery.

 In Nothing Ever Happens, you live a life of certainties until you come across a mystery, and whatever you do to make sense of that mystery only ever feeds that mysteryin Nothing Ever Happens,the mystery is really the only reason to livewith such a state of mind, its a good enough reason to let deviance be our director.

Implicit in this fascination with ‘mystery’ is the admission that the horror genre is popular, not because we enjoy pain, but rather because we hate boredomand mystery rescues us form that boredom. Horror’s guided by the same core motive force as any other genre; the impulse towards escapism. The fact that the novel admits this early on salvages it from potential silliness—the ridiculousness inherent in a comparison between the average reader and the deranged Claire.

But as the novel unfolds and Claire’s actions become increasingly brutal, the distinction between hating boredom and enjoying pain becomes murkier. Seidlinger’s attempts to incriminate the audience become more potent. And here lays the novel’s true monster: Not Victor or even Claire, but the sense their macabre performance exists because only because we want it to.

In other words, the novel’s real horror is the fear that attends guilt.

And it works.

Seidlinger achieves this black, guilty fear through many channels—not least, a provocative narrator and the bare, brutal facts of the plot. But Seidlinger’s most subtle success lies in his novel’s structure; a well-made two-room insane asylum to house the narrative’s philosophically-demented screams.

My Pet Serial Killer has two parts: Be Mine and Youre Mine. The aesthetics of Be Mine concentrate mostly on blood, Dexter style. Youre Mine is more honest about what happens when people die—all those other, somehow less sanitary, fluids. Both stories have an interplay of sex and violence, but the sex becomes more prevalent in the latter half. While both arcs have a docudrama element, Be Mine plays out many of the classic slasher film tropes, while Youre Mine is heavier on snuff and found footage elements. Furthermore, Claire’s reflections on the genre change in emphasis—from the film to the television format. This seemingly inconsequential shift actually belies an important theme of the novel: That the violence never stops.

In other words, while the novel is never a comfortable read, it gets progressively less so. We graduate from the familiar horror tropes and their attendant fantasies, moving into cruel and uncharted waters. All the while, from beginning to end, Claire mocks—or, more precisely, sarcastically applauds—the reader for staying with her on her journey even as it rockets beyond sterile, commercially-accepted fantasies towards something far worse. In the end, you’re left wondering if you’ve crossed a line—Claire’s line.

The line between hating boredom and enjoying pain.

It’s no mystery—My Pet Serial Killer wants us to feel complicit in Claire’s crimes.

And we always are, even more than we would be than if we were watching them in filmed form. After all, its a novel. Our own imaginations are doing the work of conjuring everything that happens. And there lies the story’s principal strength: In the manner of a true nightmare, doubts and fears linger on. Even now, as I slowly reaffirm the difference between the audience and the monster.

After its original release by Enigmatic Ink in 2013, My Pet Serial Killer has been re-published by Cinestate today, Halloween 2017.

With EXIT WEST, Hamid turns eye to Europe’s mishandling of asylum seekers

 

(Riverhead Books)

BY NICHOLE L. REBER

Once again Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid has captured the zeitgeist. In his latest novel, Exit West, he continues to pull no punches. His earlier novels put the US and “rising Asia” under the microscope, but this time the culprit is Europe. In this novel he puts us in the shoes of the Middle Eastern refugees and we get a glimpse into what it must be like to be forced to flee from one’s homeland, the perils faced at the hands of other terrified, desperate asylum-seekers, and then being cast aside by Westerners, who prove they’re not as glamorous or as kind as Hollywood movies portray.

Hamid’s rigorous observations and capacity to represent diverse perspectives come from having lived in London, the US, and Pakistan. Those experiences appear throughout his corpus as examinations of the turbulent bumps of globalization. Altogether, he writes compelling, if not cutting, stories. His talents result achieving universality in observations and compassion of the human condition. That’s surely helped him achieve international acclaim.

Let’s consider Exit West. His latest release, based on the Syrian refugee crisis, features Nadia and Saeed, two young sweethearts thrust prematurely into a relationship when unrest roils through their city. With a bit of magical realism the couple finds secret doors leading to the safety of Greece, England, and then the US. (See if these doors don’t conjure thoughts of Being John Malkovich.)

Hamid’s essays in The Guardian and Time also take Westerners to task. In fact, most readers will find themselves looking at their patriotism in a way they’ve never been challenged to do before. His scathing essays raise a mirror to us, causing us to wonder if/when we stopped being the land of opportunity. He writes:

“A pair of runaway slaves fleeing the antebellum South, arriving in Boston. A family of Jews fleeing the Third Reich, arriving in New York. A baby boy fleeing the destruction of his home world of Krypton, arriving in Kansas. Most Americans know what must be done with such people. They must be taken in. Given a chance. Allowed to become an equal part of the ­American story.

“How many Americans today would think it right to send the slaves back to the plantation, the Jews back to Europe, the infant Superman back into space? The very idea seems abominable, absurd—un-American.

“Why, then, is there such an outcry over accepting refugees from places like Syria?”

Hamid’s other novels are also tales sprung from today’s news headlines. Consider The Reluctant Fundamentalist. (Director Mira Nair turned it into a gripping film starring Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, and Riz Ahmed.) This story takes place primarily in New York before and in the months after 9/11. Told from the perspective of Changez, a Pakistani immigrant who graduates from Princeton, earns a position with an elite Wall Street firm, and falls for WASPY, wealthy Erica. Changez exemplifies the American Dream we still want to pretend exists. Until two planes tear into the World Trade Towers, transforming him overnight into a persona non grata.

“I ignored as best I could the rumors I overheard…: Pakistani cab drivers were being beaten to within an inch of their lives; the FBI was raiding mosques, shops, and even people’s homes; Muslim men were disappearing, perhaps into shadowy detention centers for questioning or worse. I reasoned that these…(things) were unlikely ever to affect me because such things (didn’t) happen to Princeton graduates earning eighty-thousand dollars a year.”

Quotes like this give us a refreshing perspective from an immigrant, a non-American in the country’s saddest moment in almost 60 years. It sheds light on that line between nationalism and patriotism, imploring readers to more deeply consider which side they stand on.

Next comes How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, also published by Riverhead. It’s a modern day version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, structured in twelve mocking steps on how to rise to the ranks of the middle class. The author has left the setting deliberately unclear: is it India or Pakistan? Nonetheless setting matters only insofar as we get to know a young man, born into a destitute family, the kind who live in the slums that Westerners often assume are the only kind of housing in India. As the man becomes street smarter, he builds a lucrative water business and climbs the social ladder in ways that would have made Ayn Rand beam.

Hamid plugs into humanity’s natural tendency to envy/dislike the wealthy. He allows us to coast on our assumptions that they got that way by skipping morality, respect, and integrity, by marrying for convenience rather than an emotional engagement. He captures the zeitgeist by making us feel like we’re reading about a country transmogrifying before our eyes.

His use of the second person brings us still deeper into the action. Such is the case in a particular scene depicting backroom deals and corrupt alliances that form the backbone of capitalism:

“Yet he suspects it is not these obstacles giving you pause. No, the brigadier thinks, you are wary because you know full well that when the military-related businesses advance into a market, the front lines change rapidly. We get permissions no one else can get. Red tape dissolves effortlessly for us. And reappears around our competitors. So we can move fast. Which makes us dangerous commercial adversaries.”

Hamid’s debut novel was Moth Smoke. He’s also written a collection of essays, Civilization and its Discontents. His work has won or been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Foundation award, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and others.

 

 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2032557/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

The Reluctant Fundamentalist film

 

http://www.mohsinhamid.com/trfexcerpt.html

Excerpt of the book

 

http://www.mohsinhamid.com/htgexcerpt.html

How to Get excerpt

 

http://www.mohsinhamid.com/ewexcerpt.html

Exit West excerpt

 

http://time.com/collection-post/4527253/2016-election-refugees/

Hamid’s essay in Time

 

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/.

Myriam Gurba’s MEAN traverses a vast world

 

(Coffee House Press)

BY NICHOLE L. REBER

It’s hard to say which quality makes Myriam Gurba’s Mean such a stellar read. Her dark sense of humor? Her unique perspective as a queer Chicana from California? It could also be her structure. She compels the reader through her nonfiction novel without letting us merely settle into the book as entertainment. Instead she engages our intellects, which makes an altogether enjoyable experience.

Gurba weaves topics together in the forms of found poems, prose poetry, news reports, memoir, and lists. Once we’ve connected enough strands we see patterns emerging: racism, misandry, class, and sexuality.

The story begins with a young, petite Latina with long clothing walking in a Little League baseball diamond at night. A man follows her, chases her then bludgeons and rapes her. News reports leave her nameless, call her a transient. Gurba finds out this woman’s name is Sophia (Torres) like Sophia the capital of Bulgaria, like Sophia Loren, like the Sophia in the Bible; she’s 5’2” and Mexican, and the young migrant worker had already had a rough life before it came to a close there in Oakley Park, not far from Gurba’s house. It’s what the two women have in common that allows readers to connect the strands Gurba weaves into a larger picture, especially in the chapter “Strawberry Picker,” where we see race, misandry, and class.

“Sophia is always with me. She haunts me.

“Guilt is a ghost.”

Guilt ties in to the multiple meanings of privilege Gurba shows us. Daughter of a Mexican teacher/mother and half-Mexican school administrator/father, she and her siblings enjoy a middle-class life. There’s a large gap between her family and the Mexican migrant workers who pick produce in the California fields. Privilege, she intimates, isn’t just for whites.

Privilege doesn’t, however, equal invincibility. It couldn’t save her sister or Gurba herself from eating disorders. Nor could it shield her from the grade school classmate who repeatedly molests her and fellow female classmates; or the history teacher who, despite witnessing the boy’s actions, does nothing. Nor could it shield her from having an unfathomable empathy for Sophia Torres.

Not all is tragedy though. The author’s sense of humor gives this book an equal amount of levity. Sometimes that means taking pot shots at race and gender: “Of course an elderly white dude taught anthropology,” she writes in the chapter “Nicole.” “Who better to explain all the cultures and peoples of the world than he who is in charge of them?”

Sometimes humor means taking pot shots at sexuality, eating disorders, feminism, misogyny: “Good girlishness resists pleasure. Good girls prove their virtue by getting rid of themselves,” she writes in a Catholic-heavy chapter. “Death by anorexia is a fail-safe sexual-assault prevention technique,” a line that reverberates like a nail-studded boomerang later in the book.

Gurba continues to bust balls, provoke, and raise readers’ eyebrows throughout the book, and she traverses a vast world. She takes us from the Japanese style of art known as Ukiyo-e, her great-great-grandfather’s role in a 19th-century Mexican revolution in support of Communism, and masturbating to the Diary of Anne Frank. She makes us ponder what would make an appropriate gift for the grave of the rape victim. Even Michael Jackson makes an appearance.

Read Mean for its humor and stimulating structure. Read Gurba for her unique perspective and literary stylings.

 

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/.

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/.

[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.

[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.