Pushcart XL: Daniel Lusk, “Bomb” (essay) from New Letters #80.3/4

Keiji Nakazawa's autobiographical manga on Hiroshima

Keiji Nakazawa’s autobiographical manga on Hiroshima

The night the atom bomb nicknamed “Fat Man” fell from a plane over Nagasaki in faraway Japan, Kay DeWitt got her first period. I know because I was outside her house, kneeling on a concrete block beneath the downstairs bathroom window, when she burst in.

~~ Complete essay available online at the author’s Facebook page

A couple of years ago, I took a dogmatic hard-ass stand over a non-fiction piece titled “Corn Maze”, a Pushcart-winning article that was more or less the author’s admission that non-fiction isn’t necessarily truth, but an arrangement of reader-hooking elements around a core of truth, and who cares that the people quoted in the article on adventure vacations didn’t exist and the quotes were made up, the people who did exist gave boring quotes and it’s all about what makes a better narrative. I got pretty self-righteous about it, tried to figure out what I was missing.

Just about a week ago, one of the non-fiction pieces I wrote about opened with a little girl getting very sick and sitting on dirty towels usually used to clean up the dog’s muddy paws. The article was full of details about deaths and illnesses caused by work conditions around the world, then the piece ended with the sentence, “The only part of this essay I have invented is the dog Lynx.”

I was again perplexed: why include that detail, then? What was the truth: were the towels clean? Do Were they muddy for another reason? Do towels muddied by a dog’s paws make the story so much better than, say, just taking used towels with that hamper smell, or ruining perfectly clean towels? Were there towels at all? I wondered if I should address any of this in my post, but I decided no, the essay was available online, the dog was a small detail (so why inclulde it?) and the ending sentence made a pretty cool ending, answering the question of why it was included, and it truly had absolutely nothing to do with the subject of the piece (which was important and serious) and I really wanted to discuss the subject, not rant about non-fiction should be non-fiction again, and anyway, if you admit something is invented, is it still cheating? And it was a pretty cool ending, a kind of pulling-the-rug-out thing.

And now I run into it again, except this time, it isn’t one detail in this short (less than a page) piece that’s changed and the rest are true, it’s one true thing and the rest is invented, with the mea culpa again tacked on at the end:

You can believe that this is true. So even if I admit that I’ve lied about everything but the bomb and not having sisters, the bomb is so big it would make you believe any small, human story I told you. Even if there was a Kay DeWitt having her first period, saying I was outside her window on that August evening in 1945 is still a lie. But hearing that the bomb killed more than 75,000 people, as it reportedly did, that would be unforgettable for anyone, even if they weren’t alive yet when it happened. That part, the bomb part, is the truth.

I’m so confused. At least the bomb is the truth. Wait, what am I saying??!?

I have to admit, I’m not even 100% sure this is categorized by Pushcart as non-fiction. It’s not fiction (they label fiction, but not poetry or non-fiction, as part of the byline for each piece). It’s listed as an essay in the back material. But Daniel Lusk is primarily a poet, and I’ve been fooled before by prose poems. But it doesn’t read as a prose poem. It reads as an essay, and maybe it’s ok to make things up in an essay (which isn’t journalism, after all, it’s point of view, and isn’t this the same as including dreams and wishes, which aren’t true but are appropriate when labeled such?), especially a self-referential essay about it being itself a lie.

I have to say, this is the only piece, fiction or non-fiction, I’ve ever read about the US dropping the bomb on Hiroshima that had me thinking about something other than the US dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. I’m not even trying to figure out whether it’s grotesque or ironic or some other artsy thing to compare Lusk’a view – or, non-view – of a girl bleeding from her vagina to the view experienced by six-year-old Keiji Nakazawa as his world burned and melted before his eyes, later shared with the world in the mangas I Saw It and Barefoot Gen.

What is the purpose of an essay, any essay? To persuade, evoke, inform, amuse, invite, confound? What was the purpose of this essay? I have no idea. Is it “good”, whatever that means?
I’m undecided: It’s brilliant. Or a deception. Or a brilliant play on deception. The only thing I’m sure of: I think I want to read more by Daniel Lusk. And, just as the ultimate goal of a biological organism is to reproduce, that may be the ultimate goal of all writing. Or at least of all writers.

True, or false?


3 responses to “Pushcart XL: Daniel Lusk, “Bomb” (essay) from New Letters #80.3/4

  1. I remember your post on Corn Maze because I thought it was great. This too. It’s all very complicated but I tend to your side of the fence. There was an example that bothered me much more—the name escapes me at the moment–oh yes, Judy Blunt and her ex father in law. Do you remember that one? This isn’t going to get resolved of course. Not in our time. Maybe ever. It’s tricky: where is the line?

    • Hi Susan – I’m still working through this one. I’m still working through “Corn Maze” for that matter. I’m probably still working through just about everything I’ve ever read, but some things are more front-burner than others.

      Lusk’s essay bothers me a lot less than “Corn Maze” (I was unaware of Blunt, but I see she took the lead-in essay out of later editions of her book, admitted it was a lapse in judgment) because his essay, as I see it, is a lot more of a meta-essay. Maybe. I’m still not sure what it’s about, which is why I almost would like to consider it more of a prose poem. A story about a kid seeing this scene on that particular day would evoke all kinds of images and reactions; to say “But it didn’t happen that way” evokes the response, then takes it back and asks, “What was it you were reacting to? Why did that combination seem so powerful? Isn’t the thought of killing tens of thousands of people in the blink of an eye enough? If not, what is it that some freak of timing adds?” It’s an interesting question, and asking it by immersion doesn’t bother me anywhere near as much as beefing up the drama in a memoir with stuff that never happened.

      I wonder: if we’re going to use labels, maybe we need to more clearly define genres of “this isn’t a fictional story” to include something that isn’t true, but isn’t a typical plotted story either. In fact, I’d like to see this as fiction, with a huge meta-fictional component, except that would create another character who would be telling the story, whereas with an essay, Lusk is the speaker.

      Just the amount of thought it’s generated for me makes it thumbs-up for me. But it’s like second person: it has to be done just right to work.

      By the way, I should clarify: “Corn Maze” itself wasn’t the problem; it discussed her non-fiction collection (and other pieces she’d published elsewhere) that I saw as a problem, because it was only, what did she call it, 82% true? I didn’t like that practice she defended in “Corn Maze.”

  2. Pingback: Finishing Pushcart XL | A Just Recompense

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