David Foster Wallace: “The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax” (Madras Press, 2013)

From what I understand, I’m supposed to explain how I arrived at this career. Where I came from, so to speak, and what the Service means to me….
I was pretty much of a wastoid. Essentially, I had no motivation, which my father referred to as “initiative.” Also, I remember that everything at that time was very fuzzy and abstract. I took a lot of psychology and political science, literature. Classes where everything was fuzzy and abstract and open to interpretation and then those interpretations were open to still more interpretations.… The whole thing was just going through the motions; it didn’t mean anything – even the whole point of the classes themselves was that nothing meant anything, that everything was abstract and endlessly interpretable.

Leave it to David Foster Wallace to make tax accounting interesting.

I feel like I’ve read a fair portion of The Pale King in excerpts and stories, though in fact these are only a small fraction of the book’s 500+ pages. I have trouble approaching Wallace’s work (intimidation, you know, and some other things), but I’m always happy to encounter it when it’s thrust on me; thus I was pleased that this long excerpt was included in this year’s quartet of teeny-tiny book releases from Madras Press.

I don’t think my father loved his job with the city, but on the other hand, I’m not sure he ever asked himself major questions like, ‘Do I like my job?… ‘ He had a family to support, this was his job, he got up every day and did it, end of story, everything else is just self-indulgent nonsense. That may actually have been the lifetime sum-total of his thinking on the matter. He essentially said ‘Whatever’ to his lot in life, but obviously in a very different way from the way in which the directionless wastoids of my generation said ‘Whatever’.

For those familiar with the novel, The Howling Fantods reports it’s ” arguably one of the most polished sections of The Pale King… the Chris Fogel chapter.” That name isn’t given in the first-person excerpt, so I’ll take it on faith. The Howling Fantods wouldn’t steer us wrong.

We follow Fogel, a self-admitted “wastoid,” from his unfocused adolescence and scattershot college education to the moment he finds his calling in tax accountancy. If that sounds strange, that’s the magic of the story – it’s completely believable. You can almost see the light glowing, the angels’ voices singing, when he realizes, having stumbled into the wrong classroom to fake his way through another exam in a subject he doesn’t care about, he unexpectedly encounters wisdom he can assimilate via a literal and metaphorical substitute father. Literally, a Jesuit father, substituting as the teacher of the final Advanced Tax class in which Fogel has no business (he’s in the right room in the wrong building).

The substitute continued, ‘To experience commitment as the loss of options, a type of death, the death of childhood’s limitless possibility, of the flattery of choice without duress – this will happen, mark me. Childhood’s end. The first of many deaths. Hesitation is natural. Doubt is natural…. I wish to inform you that the accounting profession to which you aspire is, in fact, heroic. Please note that I have said “inform” and not “opine” or “allege” or “posit”. The truth is that what you soon go home to your carols and toddies and books and CPA examination and preparation guides to stand on the cusp of is – heroism.… Enduring tedium over real-time in a confined space is what real courage is.… Welcome to the world of reality – there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth – actual heroism received no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.’

This would not be anywhere near as dramatic, of course, had we not earlier learned the circumstances of his actual father’s death by subway. I already knew from having read the earlier (and unrelated) “Incarnations of Burned Children” how devastatingly Wallace can write a horrific scene in a relatively objective style, so that I don’t realize until it’s over that I was holding my breath. It’s quite amazing. Horrific, but amazing. Literally, the train wreck you can’t help but watch. And then, there’s the aftermath, which is even worse.

The manufacturer’s specification for the doors’ pneumatic systems did not adequately explain how the doors could close with such force that a healthy adult male could not withdraw his arm, which meant that the manufacturer’s claim that my father – perhaps out of panic, or because of injury to his arm – failed to take reasonable action to extricate his arm was difficult to refute.

Following his inspiration in the wrong class, Fogel pulls out all the stops to enter an IRS training program, the first obstacle being a binder full of “low-toner Xerox” instructions, regulations, and requirements due in twenty-four hours, the second being a snowstorm. It almost makes you sympathetic towards the IRS.

As a story, it can seem meandering, but much of the meandering is engaging in itself – the foot sign, the Christian roommate, the Obetrol experience. Oh, and the feminist bookstore Fogel’s mom and friend set up. If that sounds like something out of “Portlandia,” well, yeah. I found the second read much more cohesive than the first, since I had a sense of where things were going, and how what seemed like digressions would fit into the whole.

‘Gentlemen, you are called to account.’

As always, net proceeds from Madras Press editions go to a non-profit selected by the author (or in this case, his estate). Granada House, where Wallace spent time in recovery (fictionalized in Infinite Jest), is the beneficiary of this volume.

Lydia Davis, Harry Mathews: Stuffed Animals (Madras Press, 2013)

Cover art by Heather Alexander

Cover art by Heather Alexander

If she comes, I will smile and smile…. I won’t even be happy, because after the preparation of the meal I won’t have the strength. And if, with my sorry excuse for a first course resting in a bowl in my hands, I hesitate to leave the kitchen and enter the dining room, and if she, at the same time, feeling my embarrassment, hesitates to leave the living room and enter the dining room from the other side, then for that long interval the beautiful room will be empty.

~~ Lydia Davis, “Kafka Cooks Dinner”

Madras Press knows how to make me happy, in so many ways.

In this part of their 2013 collection we find two books in one (if teeny-tiny books), upside-down-back-to-back a la Steve Almond’s This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey; matte cover (go ahead, rub it against your cheek, you know you want to), five stories by Lydia Davis (who won the Man Booker prize a few months later) and one by sole American Oulipo member Harry Mathews… all about cooking and food. This perfectly coincided with my Science of Gastronomy course – though I suppose I should’ve waited for Top Chef season. But once I read it, I just couldn’t wait.

The stories are reprints from over the years, and most are available online, but it’s still nice to have them in a single thematic package. They’re all slightly absurdist, the kind of thing you smile at because people’s neuroses are, when you get right down to it, pretty funny. At least other people’s are; our own neuroses aren’t neuroses at all, of course, but the concerns of a careful, engaged mind. Or so I keep telling myself.

First, Lydia Davis:

The Mice

Mice live in our walls but do not trouble our kitchen.… Although we are pleased, we are also upset, because the mice behave as though there were something wrong with our kitchen.
…In fact, there is so much loose food in the kitchen I can only think the mice themselves are defeated by it.… They are faced with something so out of proportion to their experience that they cannot deal with it.

It concerns me that I understand the shame of feeling one’s kitchen isn’t good enough for mice. And I definitely understand the feeling of being overwhelmed by bounty. It’s only a paragraph long, but it’s quite a paragraph, to go from here to there.

Meat, My Husband

My husband’s favorite food, in childhood, was corned beef. I found this out yesterday when friends came over and we started talking about food.… But I’m the one who cooks most of his meals now. Often I make him meals with no meat in them at all because I don’t think meat is good for us.
But generally he doesn’t like what I cook as much as what he used to eat in diners and certainly not as much as what he used to make for himself before he met me.

I’m pretty sure this story is about more than food. The metaphor “home cooking” comes to mind. Does this mean I’m unusually perverted?

Happiest Moment is a flash so short, and so perfect, that I won’t attempt to extract a quote.

Kafka Cooks Dinner

I am filled with despair as the day approaches when my dear Milena will come. I have hardly begun to decide what to offer her….
The thought of this dinner has been with me constantly all week, weighing on me in the same way that in the deep sea there is no place that is not under the greatest pressure. Now and then I summon all my energy and work at the menu as if I would be forced to hammer a nail into a stone, as if I were both the one hammering and also the nail. But at other times, I sit here reading in the afternoon, a myrtle in my buttonhole, and there are such beautiful passages in the book that I think I have become beautiful myself.

I suspect most people will find the situation funny. The angst-ridden overthinkers will not. Trust me on this. Sometimes the world can seem to ride on the choice between potato salad and bratwurst, but in the end, we finally realize it doesn’t matter if we do everything perfectly: no one’s going to like us anyway because we’re nervous wrecks.

Eating Fish Alone

I love fish, but many fish should not be eaten anymore, and it has become difficult to know which fish I can eat. I carry with me in my wallet a little folding list put out by the National Audubon Society that advises which fish to avoid, which fish to eat with caution, and which fish to eat freely.
When I eat with other people I do not take this list out of my wallet, because it is not much fun to have dinner with someone who takes a list like this out of her wallet before she orders. I simply manage without it, though usually I can remember only that I should not eat farmed salmon, or wild salmon, except for wild Alaskan salmon, which is never on the menu.

Or, “Kafka Dines Out.” Eating is very confusing these days, isn’t it? Not only does everyone have very rigid ideas of what is or is not ok to eat whether for reasons of health or morals, but everyone feels a need to explain their beliefs in detail and a mission to convert everyone else to their cause. That isn’t what the story is about, of course – it’s the “Alone” part that makes it fascinating, how we relate to others, how we fear we might be relating to others – but it’s a great hook. This story originally appeared in Tin House #29, and they just posted it on their blog last May to celebrate Davis’ Man Booker prize. I bookmarked it to use for a future Top Chef recap, but destiny has forced my hand in another direction.

Then we turn the book over and upside down, and lo and behold, we have yet a whole other story:

Harry Mathews, Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double), available online in text and audio.

Carefully lower the lamb into a 25-inch casserole. (If you have no such casserole, buy one. If it will not fit in your oven, consider this merely one more symptom of the shoddiness of our age, which the popularity of dishes like farce double may someday remedy.)

Cover Art by Sippanont Samchai

Cover Art by Sippanont Samchai

This should give you some hint that the piece is not entirely serious. I’ve observed (via the wonders of the internet and various Jeffrey Steingarten and Anthony Bourdain books) a fair amount of complex cooking in my time, from Grant Achatz making raspberry glass to French farmers cooking a pig in the Provence countryside, but nothing comes close to this recipe. It includes what might be every ingredient in the known universe – from the extremely common like parsnips and garlic, to the unexpected but not unusual like juniper berries, to the imaginary, like a mouthless fish captured by underwater boomerang. Not to mention the clay that must be molded to contain the quenelles. And for those unfamiliar with the kitchen: I’m pretty sure cooking anything at 445 degrees (445?) for five hours will reduce it to cinders.

Stuffed within this elaborate recipe is the plot of a folk song sung by the people of La Tour Lambert while the lamb roasts. The song follows a young man who, initiated into sex by his stepmother, goes searching for his dead mother via the beds of beautiful women of all hair colors, until he comes upon a humble shepherdess with the answer he seeks. You can see where the “farce double” of the title comes from now, right?

In a 2007 interview with The Paris Review, Mathews talks about his invitation into Oulipo:

He asked me if I’d be interested in joining. After all, he said, I had unwittingly written some purely Oulipian pieces. One of them was excruciatingly hard to do: I took two texts, Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and a cauliflower recipe from a Julia Child cookbook. I made a list of the vocabularies in each piece and I rewrote the poem using the vocabulary of the recipe and vice versa. It was agony. But I discovered something very important, which is that once you start on a project like that, no matter how insane it is, you rapidly become convinced that there’s a solution, which is, of course, nonsense. You have to make it happen. When I first visited the Oulipo, I told them about this. And what I had thought had been a shameful, secret habit was, to them, perfectly fine.

I’m not sure if this is that story or not – no cauliflower, and no Keats vocabulary – but it might be along the same idea. The interview also makes some connections I’m not sure I want made. Then again, he’s the author, I suppose he should know.

All in all, a wonderful little packet of culinary reading.

Susan Daitch: Fall Out (Madras Press, 2013)

Cover Art by Valerie Spain

Cover Art by Valerie Spain

Years ago I read an article about the unexpected effects of the nuclear testing this country did in New Mexico and Nevada in the 1950s and early 60s. Because of rain patterns, the radioactive fall out was blown far to the other side of the continent, and this would later lead to a spike in certain diseases. That this would occur so far from the location of the testing sites was completely unanticipated. I wanted to explore the idea of unintended and far reaching consequences through a triptych of interlocking stories that became “Fall Out.”

~~ Susan Daitch

Susan Daitch found herself interested in fallout. Initially, the radioactive kind, but, because she’s a writer, it spreads out from there. This is the first of the Madras Press 2013 releases I’ve read, a set of quick stories that follows literal and figurative fallout.

It’s a story-suite that seems like one thing, then another: techno-rant, science fiction, industry exposé, comedy, family saga, social commentary. The overwhelming theme is that actions have consequences: even the smallest thing we do today might echo into years into the future, just like radioactive fallout no one knew existed in the 50s when they were setting off all those bombs. Each of the four sections chains together, showing how characters in the “present” of any one time are affected by what happened in the past.

Zweig wanted to reproduce that ephemeral moment when you hope the hand that extends itself will not crush instead, that the audience’s fear and heightened anxiety will fight with the desire to trust,… He couldn’t quite get it right.

“Conduction,” the first segment, is very short – a few paragraphs – and starts with factual information before segueing into an anecdote that forms the first link of the narrative chain. “Night of the Avengers” carries forward the chain, in a zig-zag way; the descriptions are wonderful. It leads into “Dust Devil,” which is where I started to catch on to the narrative chain. Inspired by a movie, Melman changes his major to archaeology, heads to the desert for field work, and unwittingly walks into a nudist camp. His search for artifacts is fruitless, looters having beaten him to it over the years, but when offered an opportunity to do something about that, he demures. The final section, “Tourist Attraction” tries to pull it all together.

If he took it, or anything else, from the site, he couldn’t donate the objects to a museum whose security would probably be poor, or sell the artifacts and wave goodbye as they traveled to a life in a vitrine in Tokyo, or Paris or Moscow. Once loose in the world they could, just like Palmer’s stolen babies, go anywhere. When he walked out of the cave around nightfall, he took nothing with him. He rolled a few boulders over the entrance to the cave, so looters would miss it, though he knew, as he drove back into town and later to the airport, that this is never possible, and sooner or later everything worth exposing is unearthed.

For me, it didn’t quite come together as a whole; it became another case of the parts exceeding the sum. Still, it was an enjoyable read. Susan Daitch has a fondness for the history of art and film: her novels and stories include frequent elements of film restoration, illustration, and restoration. It’s quite possible I’m just missing a crucial element that’s necessary to get the full impact.

Madras Press always stretches out my comfort zone. This year, they’re using that matte cover I so love (it seems to be catching on everywhere with indie publishers) and the cover art led me to the wonderful website of Valerie Spain where other treasures awaited. As with all Madras Press books, net proceeds benefit a nonprofit organization of the author’s choosing. Daitch’s book will help support Women for Afghan Women, “securing and protecting the rights of disenfranchised Afghan women and girls in Afghanistan and New York, particularly their rights to develop their individual potential, to self-determination, and to be represented in all areas of life: political, social, cultural and economic.” I can see the significance of fallout all over that.

That’s what I love about Madras Press: it’s more than a book, it’s an adventure, and even if the story doesn’t land squarely for me, I fully enjoy the conversation. What more can you ask for from seven dollars.

Kevin Brockmeier: “The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device” (Madras Press, 2012; originally from Words and Images and The View From The Seventh Layer)

You have a pet theory, one you have been turning over for years, that life itself is a kind of Rube Goldberg device, an extremely complicated machine designed to carry out the extremely simple task of constructing your soul. You imagine yourself tumbling into the world like a marble, rolling with an easy momentum over the chutes and ramps of your childhood… then flying like a shot from the cannon of your adolescence and landing with an ungoverned bounce on the other side, where you progress through all the vacuum tubes and trampolines and merry-go-rounds of your adulthood… and all the while changing, changing at every moment, because of the decisions you make and those that fate makes for you, until faintly, with your dying breath, you emerge from the mouth of the machine and roll to a stop, as motionless as you were before you began, but scarred and colored and burnished now with the markings you will carry with you through an eternity.

Hello, I am Zin, and I get to do the comments on this story because it is a Zin story! And a Second Person story!

The first thing you need to do is plan how you are going to approach this teeny-tiny book. Because it is special! It is a Choose Your Own Adventure style book! I have somehow managed to avoid these all my life! When I was doing The Second Person Study (I am going to include this book with those because it is of course second person), my primary sources Professors Richardson and Fludernik kept referring to CYOA books as archetypes of second person literature – and now I finally read one! And I love it!

No matter what – whether you walk in the woods or go to a coffeehouse or McDonalds or call a friend or simply spend a quiet day at home – you will end up on Page 73: You will die. How would you like your memories of your last few hours to play out? Because:

It will be several thousand years before the human race develops a procedure to retrieve the memories of the dead from their bodies. By then the age in which you lived will be recollected as a time of barbarism and brute physical destruction, of interest to only historians of cultural degradation. But in the name of scientific research, a few sample bodies from your century will be exhumed for memory reclamation, and among those selected will by your own.

To the surprise of everyone involved, you will prove to be a very popular exhibit. People will wait for hours to get a glimpse of you, some of them returning many times.

You will come to be regarded as a sort of cult phenomenon. There are days when the line to your gallery will reach all the way through the entrance hall and across the courtyard, fading like a plume of smoke into the broken red skies of the city.

Now, your decision as a reader of this book is, how will you approach it? It contains maybe 30 sections, 2-3 pages each, which become 14 story lines with six “chapters” each (and one orphan section, partly quoted above, which belongs to none and to all). At the end of each section, you decide. Sometimes it is a simple action decision: go for a walk or stay home? Go right or left? Sometimes it is more involved: If you have ever really been happy, or if you have not? If you would like to go out and test the air, if you are comfortable where you are? These join with the second person voice to put the reader into the story more than most stories!

And it is a very interactive book! I suppose you could just read from page 1 to page 131 (do not worry, it is a teeny-tiny book so they are teeny-tiny pages) but what would the fun of that be?

So, if you are like me, you start at the first page and then make a decision on page 3 to go to page 21, then on page 23 you go to page 45, etc etc. And when you finish that set of “chapters” you go back to page 3 and jump to page 89 instead, and go where that leads you! It took me about two hours to read this, because I kept trying to put little notes and pictures on the pages to show where I had come from and how many jumps I had made. And then I went back to see if I had missed anything, which is a good thing, because otherwise, I would not have realized there was an orphan section! And a very important one!

And no matter what, every story line ends up at page 73. Now, I have to say: Margaret Atwood covered similar territory a lot more quickly, in her flash fiction “Happy Endings”:

The only authentic ending is the one provided here:
John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.

But this book is not just about “whatever you do, you die.” It is, as the opening quote says, about how you build your soul! Is that not a cool thing? We learn a lot about the “you” of the story, who obviously is not “you” and thus does that whole subversive thing Richardson likes to talk about a lot. It does keep you – uh oh, it keeps the reader off-balance. And I think some people might become annoyed by this. But I enjoyed it! I love weird techniques! But the thing is, there is a character here, with a childhood, an adolescence, a past we learn something about, and in the present are specific events that are sometimes repeated in the story lines: kids playing soccer, an ambulance, the fall air. Whether “you” is home to take the phone call from the guy who dialed the wrong number, or whether “you” merely hear his answering machine message later, or whether “you” are out all day so never know about it, this is an event that happened! So “you” is a real character! We get to know this character, and I came to like him/her (I assumed he was male for some reason, probably because the author is male, but I am pretty sure he could be female as well, though I will have to check). All the while it is, well, “you”!

I forgot how much I love playing with second person!

Sprinkled into the story, in every arc, are wonderful little gems. “You” muses that the best SF writers “practice literature as a form of nostalgia” – and this is in a book designed to remind us of books from our childhood! Is that clever or what? When “you” sees a girl with a T-shirt that says “Life Is A Bedtime Story” “you” want to ask her: “If life is a bedtime story, then what kind of story is death….? A horror story? Or simply a mystery?” This, in a story about dying!

Then we have this:

How often, you wonder, has the direction of your life been shaped by such misunderstandings?…Sometimes you imagine that everything could have been different for you, that if only you had gone right one day when you chose to go left, you would be living a life you could never have anticipated. But at other times, you think there was no other way forward…It is as if some invisible giant has taken control of your existence, setting his hands down like walls on either side of you. He has changed your course with each bend of his fingers.”

And is that not exactly what the reader is doing, literally and physically, with the story? This kind of character-reader interaction reminds me a little of the very end of Sophie’s World (not to be confused with Sophie’s Choice which is a very VERY different thing!) except that there I think the writer was controlling the characters (I have not read that book in a long time, maybe it is time for another round, it is another wonderful fun book!)

I so enjoyed this! I first read Kevin Brockmeier about a year ago when “Ryan Shifrin” from The Illumination was in Tin House; I ran out and bought the book immediately – and it is still waiting, so patiently, to be read, because I foolishly used a stack instead of a queue (only computer science nerds will know what I mean, do not worry about it) so I have now moved it to my rucksack and have begun reading it on the bus – I think I will need to check out his collections as well. This story is in his second collection, The View From the Seventh Layer, but I suspect it was easier to manipulate the teeny-tiny Madras Press edition what with all the page-flipping and back and forth! In any event I am glad to have discovered it!

Gregory Maguire: Tales Told in Oz (Madras Press, 2012)

"Small House, Colares" by Andy Newman

"Small House, Colares" by Andy Newman

For students of the native märchen, we present a compendium of traditional tales of Oz. They are selected to represent diverse regions of the nation. Originating from different periods of our profound past, each story illustrates a narrative tradition: a hierophantic biography, a trickster tale, a children’s fable, a pour quoi story. As an amuse bouche we append a suite of apothegms.

I haven’t read the original Gregory Maguire book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, though I’ve been idly wanting to for some time. In fact, this teeny-tiny book finally inspired me to actually get my hands on a copy (the library copy has been missing forever).

What’s great about this little book is, as in the introduction quoted above, the presentation of the individual stories as a scholarly survey of the folk literature of various regions and historical periods of the fictional Oz. I’m looking forward to reading Wicked, and possibly additional Maguire works, to get a better sense of how these tales fit in.

Make no mistake: Maguire is no fanfic writer – he’s got a PhD in English and American Literature from Tufts – and while he is a childlit specialist, Wicked is not aimed at children:

I knew from the start that the book would have to include two of the things that prepubescent children have no interest in: sex and politics. Since the idea of the book (a fictional exploration of the nature of evil) came before the subject (The Wicked Witch of the West in Oz: A life story), I knew that the book would engage in philosophical enquiry.

Who can resist that?

The Legend of Saint Aelphaba and the Waterfall” is exactly that: how Aelphaba went from lowly beginnings to sainthood on the power of her compassion, and how she hid from a group of hunters in a waterfall that froze on her pursuers:

In the decades afterward, it became known that the saint was waiting to emerge from her cave when she was needed most, to restore to the land the purity that had been bled from it through the abuse of ecclesiastical license committed by her grandfather, the Bishop.

From what I understand, in Wicked the character Elphaba is named after Saint Aelphaba, but she turns to evil and becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. The waterfall and the water that kills the witch are a further connection. I’m really eager to read more.

Four Improbably Handshakes: a Munchkinlander pumpkinhead tale” is explained thusly:

Stories from rural Munchkinland are known for featuring simpletons of every stripe and certification. Scarecrows remain the most popular buffoons….In the story to follow, we behold a Jack Pumpkinhead, a folk figure of endless variation.

I really enjoy how these legends are presented as folk tales of a fictional place; it’s double-layered fiction. It’s the story of a Jack Pumpkinhead (which is, as you might guess, a sort of scarecrow with a pumpkin for a head) created by a blundering amateur magician, and a magical lemon that is really not the magic; it’s the handshake that’s the spell. There’s a wonderful cascade of events in this story, culminating in a clever and amusing ending; direct reader address is key.

The Witch and the Fox Babies” was of less interest to me, though I suspect it’s very important in conjunction with the other works about Oz, since the Wicked Witch ends up in a cave:

And did she ever come out?
Not yet.

I may revisit this later when I’ve read more of the works.

Skellybones Fir-cloak” is a creation myth about Lurline, about whom it seems many tales are eventually told. It’s a story of opposites: male and female, sun and moon, life and death, and how they oppose and cooperate.

Quadling Quacklings” is “a handful of folk sayings collected by anthropologists who managed to wade back from Muck Country.” Including the slightly bawdy:

Q: What are the virtues of the virtuous wife?
A: Clean from the neck up and dirty down below.

If you’re not interested in fairy tales, or in The Wizard of Oz, or either the book or the musical Wicked (which as I understand it has been simplified considerably to fit into a two-hour stage work, but still has some cool music), or the creative process of taking an established work and fashioning an entire universe, complete with a mythological and cultural anthropology to support it (think Tolkien rather than Harry Potter), these particular tales might not interest you at all. Me, I’m fascinated.

Kelly Link: Stone Animals, Madras Press 2012

Henry asked a question. He was joking.
‘As a matter of fact,’ the real estate agent snapped, ‘it is.’
It was not a question she had expected to be asked. She gave Henry a goofy, appeasing smile, and yanked at the hem of the skirt of her pink linen suit, which seemed as if it might, at any moment, go rolling up her knees like a window shade. She was younger than Henry, and sold houses that she couldn’t afford to buy.
‘It’s reflected in the asking price, of course,’ she said. ‘Like you said.’
Henry stared at her. She blushed.
‘I’ve never seen anything,’ she said. ‘But there are stories. not stories that I know, I just know there are stories. If you believe that sort of thing.’
‘I don’t,’ Henry said.

I’ll have to admit right off the top: I don’t “get” this story. It’s a fun read, and I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure why it was considered one of the Best American Short Stories in 2005 after appearing in Conjunctions #43. It’s available online on Electric Literature and as part of Link’s collection Magic for Beginners.

What’s unique about this edition, besides the great Madras Press 5×5 binding complete with bookplate page, are twelve black-and-white illustrations by a wide variety of artistic and literary figures, including Anthony Doerr, Ursula K. Le Guin, Audrey Niffenegger, and Tao Nyeu. It’s too bad Madras didn’t release this a few months earlier; it would’ve been a lovely stocking-stuffer. Of course, I think that of all their editions.

Henry and pregnant wife Catherine, along with their kids Tilly, 9, and Carleton, 6, are looking at a house a couple of hours outside NYC. The plan is for Henry to work from home, returning to the city occasionally as needed. The story’s opening, above, discusses the implied question: “Is it haunted?”

Carleton doesn’t like the stone animals that flank the entry of the house. He thinks they’re dogs. Catherine reminds him of the lions at the library, which he likes; he isn’t buying it. The real estate lady (whose name we never learn) has always thought of them as rabbits, because of the large ears. Henry thinks of Stonehenge. Catherine is reminded of topiary, of The Velveteen Rabbit. But Carleton still doesn’t like them.

Henry’s job is never clearly explained, but it involves keeping clients happy, and it involves his boss (whose real name, again, we never learn) needing him. She’s The Crocodile, because of her watery reptilian eyes: “She had problematical tear ducts.” She keeps a huge ball of rubber bands in her office, adding to it over time: “Making an enormous ball out of rubber bands struck the right note. It was something a man might do.” The exact dimensions are not clearly stated, but she’s had to special order larger rubber bands.

Of course things never really go as planned. Henry’s boss insists he come into the office, and one primary trope of the story is this tension between his obligations to work and home.

The other trope is the hauntedness of the house, and this is played out in wonderful fashion. Different objects become “wrong”. At first, it’s Carleton’s toothbrush. He can’t say what’s wrong with it, but there’s something wrong. Tilly agrees: there’s something wrong with Carleton’s toothbrush, so he borrows hers.

Other objects also go off in this same undefined way:

They’d had to stop using the microwave as well, and a colander, some of the flatware, and she was keeping an eye on the toaster. She had a premonition, or an intuition. It didn’t feel wrong, not yet, but she had a feeling about it.

The story gets more and more surreal and then fantastic. Catherine starts painting rooms over and over again in different creatively-named colors, obsessively. She wears a gas mask since she’s pregnant, but refuses to stop until Henry comes home as he said he would. Rabbits, hundreds of them, appear on the lawn in the evenings. Tilly dreams of an underground city of rabbits. Extermination involving ultrasound and gassing is investigated.

Since this is an older story, and since Kelly Link is quite popular, there are already several wonderful analyses out there. Matthew Cheney, former editor of the Best American Fantasy series, invokes John Cheever, Henry V at Agincourt, and binary states: “a world falling apart for lack of grey areas;” I’ll defer to his obvious expertise.

I’m far more comfortable with Matt Hilliard’s analysis of the process by which the house “turns” objects:

The story speaks of the parents “colonizing the bedroom” by filling it with “things that belong to them”. In a normal house, this would indeed offset the unfamiliarity. The main fantastic element of “Stone Animals” is the idea that this house is unrelentingly other, to the point that the family’s familiar possessions become unfamiliar through contact with the house instead of the reverse.

For me, it was enjoyable, an engaging, increasingly surreal ghost story, in a whimsical, if promiscuously omniscient, third-person voice. I couldn’t quite get a handle on it, or find a structure by which to fully understand it. That is my limitation, obviously. It works on my level, though I think perhaps it does require some willingness to not understand.

Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams: The Man Who Danced With Dolls, Madras Press 2012

Photo by Paula A. White

Photo by Paula A. White

Argentine Tango is a silent conversation in a partnership that takes on a style and energy changing with every setting, mood, song and partner. It is a dance of improvisation of which there is no basic set pattern – only a set of guidelines or rules that set it apart from other dances. – from TangoModerna.com

This wonderful novella in eight sections is in itself a tango, as points of view, characters, and settings of time and place trade off, swap the lead, and communicate back and forth. Even the subtheme of language feeds into the tango motif: “Words have big, big stories” said Opa long ago, and later Berg, working as a translator, echoes this: “There is something comic and brave about the way language evolves, each people submitting their truth.” This little book dances its own big story.

Berg was a teen in 1984 when he and his parents visited his father’s parents in a small town outside Paris. He overhears a private conversation, and it changes the color of the air around him somehow. Still, he never discusses it. No one in his family discusses anything tricky, it seems; it’s a family trait. Years later, at his father’s funeral, he’s forced to remember the second conversation he overheard. And to confront, and regret, his own avoidance.

Interwoven is the story of a subway busker from Argentina who dances the tango with dolls he’s carefully hand-made. Berg first sees him performing in the Paris Metro on that 1984 trip, and again, years later. The dancer, too, has his regrets. Their stories tango throughout the book and finally come together in sad resolution.

It’s a wonderful read, though at times I got a bit lost in the shifting time line. In fact, I had to go through the story a second time carefully noting the time frame each section to get the events firmly fixed in my mind. But that’s a minor point (and quite possibly a lapse of attention on my part); I was still captivated throughout.

As I was reading, I kept thinking how similar in tone the prose was to Bobcat by Rebecca Lee, an earlier Madras Press release I also enjoyed tremendously. So I wasn’t that surprised to find, in Hanna Dela Cruz Abrams’ online interview, that she’s studied with Lee. I was surprised to find she grew up on a boat, sailing the world. That makes sense, given the international nature of the story.

Another element I greatly appreciated (I have a copy of the 1988 book The Have A Word For It): Berg is an international translator, and throughout the story, words from other languages are dropped in to illustrate points and intensify certain scenes. For example, at one point his mother is upset, and he feels impatient with her:

I wanted to think of something funny to say. My father was good at that. Slight of emotion; watch this solemnity turn into levity. His prestige was elegance and tact, and maybe we’re all magicians in some way, but I still haven’t found my trick yet. Indians in Boro say gagrom. To search for a thing below water by trampling. I’ve never really learned to step softly.

Later, when he attends for the first time a traditional family Christmas party, he wanders through somewhat unnoticed for a while: “Sometimes feeling you’re on the outside is powerful. To be the observer, the witness. Verfremdungseffekt. The distance the audience keeps from the play. The action belongs to others.” This blends well with his habit of eavesdropping, and with the powerful word introduced at the end, when we find out the bombshell he overhears the second time he listens unnoticed:

In Arabic there is a word for the sound a stone makes when it’s thrown at a boy. Who’s doing the throwing I’ve always wanted to know, and what’s the word for them?

All of these words are, by the way, accurate, at least the ones I googled. There really is a phrase in Malay for how long it takes to eat a banana (pisan zapra) and Russians do say “That’s where the dog is buried” rather than “That is the heart of the matter.” And I would assume that, among all the Inuit words for snow, “Nowhere in their lexicon is there a word for the snow that reveals a woman.”

But I’m particularly taken with gwarlingo: Welsh for the sound a grandfather clock makes prior to striking the hour. New England writer/photographer/blogger-of-the-arts Michelle Aldredge has reinterpreted this as “the movement before the moment.” It occurs to me this word, though presented in the story as just another example of the words Berg has come across in his career, was not selected at random.

I’m enchanted by the way the form of this story, as well as the content, matches with the essence of the tango:

In Tango, the partners take turns expressing the dance. The uniqueness of Tango lies in the intimate exchange between a man and a woman.
The variation lies in the nuance similar to the difference between language and conversation. Language is the transmission of ideas, events and emotions through the use of symbols. Conversation is more than the exchange of ideas; it is the give and take of social interaction. It creates a tangible connection between two people….Tango is a language that dissolves boundaries. In the realm of music and movement social barriers melt away and disparate individuals find an intimacy almost unexpected. A satisfactory partnering requires a trust that, if one listens, one will also be heard.

As well-learned as Berg is in language, he never learned conversation. He was dancing with dolls, all along.

Andrew Kaufman: The Tiny Wife (Madras Press)

This is another of the Madras Press teeny-tiny books from their second series.

Just a few pages in, I was dismayed at the thought of going broke sending copies of this to a few dozen friends because they just HAD to read this book. In the end, I was severely disappointed, but only because with every word as I read, my expectations increased. … so I don’t think any ending written by human hand could have satisfied me.

What was my disappointment? Here is this strange and wonderful story, full of amazing events, all ripe with symbolism, just waiting to be tied together in a neat little package – and, well, no. I feel very much like one of the characters, Jennifer Layonne, who found God under the couch while she was looking for the remote control, and since he was pretty dirty, having been under the dusty couch, she put him in with the laundry but, alas, a tissue snuck in there as well and when she removed him, he was covered with lint and he left, and now Jennifer keeps looking for him every day, everywhere, whatever she’s doing, and has come to understand it’s the looking, not the finding, that is important. See why my expectations were so high? Damn it, I wanted to find God!

Hey – do you think maybe that was exactly what the writer intended?

One of the nit-picky technical things that bothers me about this novella is the switching of perspectives – it’s mostly first person from the POV of the husband of one of the robbery victims, but it keeps switching out to third person to tell more completely the tales of the other folks. Yet it always sounds as if the first-person narrator is speaking, reportorial style; yet he does not have access to the events. It’s funny, though, I didn’t even notice this until I finished the book, I was so enthralled by everything.

The story begins with an unusual bank robbery. The thief lines up the customers and demands of them the article on their person with the most sentimental value. He then makes a speech about taking with him 51% of their souls, and explains they will need to grow new souls if they are to live.

In short order, things start to happen. Odd things involving husbands turning into snowmen and lion tattoos becoming lions and hearts being pulled out of chests and accidentally replaced and chunks of history falling from the ceiling. The main character of the story is Stacey, who begins to shrink. Her husband, the first-person narrator, does not know what to do. A support group is formed of those in the bank. More strange things happen.

And here is where I started making charts: who was in line where, what the item was, why it had sentimental value, what the odd turn of events was, and, I expected to discover a link, and probably the answer. God. Perhaps someone more clever than I would read the last few pages and say, Here, this is the answer, here is God, what are you talking about, it’s all right here! For me, it felt something like Twin Peaks and I was one of the ones who felt cheated when it became evident the writers and producers hadn’t really thought out who killed Laura Palmer. But I think Andrew Kaufman has a notebook full of diagrams and details that didn’t make it into the novella, and I’m sure he presented a perfect blueprint for finding God.

Aha! I’ve just discovered that Kaufman gave a reading of a piece called “98 Tiny Mothers” (who show up in the story) at a Toronto Literary Death Match! Maybe that accounts for my sense that there’s a thread missing – The Tiny Wife is perhaps a collection of tiny stories! I’m always claiming I want the reader to participate in my writing, and now that the shoe is on the other foot, maybe I see why this isn’t always a great idea. But… I loved it, so maybe it’s a great idea.

Frankly, I think he only wrote nine-tenths of the story. But damn, it was a great nine-tenths. I only hope I can write nine-tenths of a story this good someday.

Ken Kalfus – “Three Stories”

I am a major fan of Madras Press – and I have all eight of their teeny-tiny books to prove it. For the record, I have no financial interest whatsoever in the organization, and though I someday hope I will write a story good enough for Sumanth to publish, I am not holding my breath. I just enjoy the size, design, and text of the books.

From Series 2, which was just released in December 2010, we have Three Stories by Ken Kalfus. I wish there was a notation somewhere on the website and in the book that all three stories are reprints, two from AGNI and one from Harper’s. They are not available online. This volume is more than worth the $9 or $10 it will cost you to get it.

“The Moment They Were Waiting For” (first published in Harper’s, September 2003) explores the idea: what would happen to society if we all knew the exact date of our death? The story begins with the trial of Lester Ganz, who is executed for a heinous (though unspecified) crime and, as he was obsessed with knowing the date he would die, curses the town with the same fate. Everyone wakes up with a particular date on his or her mind, and as time goes on, it becomes evident that the date is the date of death for that person. Some people make efforts to avoid their fate by staying home, hiring guards, etc., to no avail. And some try to take matters into their own hands and commit suicide, but they are uniformly unsuccessful unless they do so on their fated date. And a sadness settles over people, being so firmly burdened with the knowledge of their own demise: “In their hours of greatest pleasure, sharing a good meal with friends or playing catch with their children on a hazy summer morning, no one could escape the thought: this too shall pass.”

It’s interesting that knowledge of death is the curse, not death – it is the mirror image of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil planted by God in the Garden of Eden. Knowledge of Death is brought about by a curse from Satan (there are several hints that Lester Ganz, the only named character in the story, is the Devil).

Society reacts to this in various ways: a new calendar is devised for schoolchildren so they will not worry, lovers take death dates into consideration when planning marriage, and the anniversary of one’s death is celebrated instead of birthdays. This is where, for me, the story could be so much stronger. I wish it was novel or novella length, to allow this to be played out by individuals with names and histories. It’s told at a significant psychic distance (see, I have learned something!) and is thus more abstract than real. The warden and his fiance are specified as a couple that breaks up because of her date being only four years hence (his is 93 years away) and that’s the right idea, but they don’t have names. The unnamed warden is the other main character, carrying through to the end of the story. But still, so much could be done here. Would people start lying about their dates? Would employers require dates, maybe proof of them? Would technology spring up to aid in forgetting the date, and would it work, or perhaps like the CAT scan from the moon landings serve another purpose? How does a child discover that this date in his head, “June 8 2073” is the date he will die? I think an opportunity was missed here. Though I understand Universal Pictures optioned this in 2006 so maybe the screenplay, if ever written, will have more detail.

I’m reminded of two other books that look at the prescience of doom: Ron Currie Jr.’s Everything Matters which I read last summer, and concerns one man who, from the time he was a fetus, heard a voice that told him all manner of things including that an asteroid would destroy the earth on a certain day in the future. And how do you convince yourself that anything matters with that kind of knowledge? The title gives the hint that he manages to do so. Then there was Robert Heinlein’s “Timeline”, a short story in his The Past Through Tomorrow future history in which a scientist build a machine that would predict the date of death for a person, but had to destroy it because that knowledge was too dangerous.

The second story, “Professor Aricebo” was originally published in AGNI in Issue #67, Spring 2008, and is a study of cell phones. Now here is a very close and intimate study of an abstract idea we all wonder about: how have cell phones changed things? Do we lie more easily by saying we are one place when we are another? Is it an insult to call someone from a bathroom? Is it eavesdropping to listen to an interesting conversation, or is it rude to hold such a conversation, and if you hear yourself being discussed inaccurately, can you put a stop to it? And can you get away from the damn things anywhere? It’s fascinating, following the Professor through his day.

The third story, “The Un-” is also from AGNI, Issue #70, Fall 2009, and is about the insanity of writers. Apparently that issue of AGNI was all writing about writing, which I have been told several times is a serious no-no; I guess they figured they’d put it all in one issue and not have to deal with it for a while. It opens: “There are hundreds of ways to go crazy wanting to be a writer, and young Joshua Glory knew them all.” I found it hilarious and a little embarrassing, like he’d been in my head and put some of my insecurities out there for everyone to read. I am not sure how non-writers would see this story, but I am positive writers will love it.

The story itself is rather thin: Joshua Glory, unpublished writer (no, not quite, he had a story in a college journal two years ago but the journal folded and the college is now unaccredited; damn, how did he know about The Flask Review?!?) goes through his day agonizing over all manner of writing issues. For instance, he waits for the mailman – it takes 16 minutes for the mailman to reach his door from the moment he crosses the alley, but that means he has to be watching the alley at the precise moment the mailman crosses to know when the sixteen minutes start – and might it not be better to be surprised anyway? This sounds crazy. No, it isn’t. Someone on Zoetrope once talked about “playing Duotrope” – figuring out, if you submitted a piece 38 days ago and they average 37 days per acceptance and 42 per rejection and they just listed a 36-day rejection, does that mean your chances are better or worse? I can’t deal with numbers like that, but sure, I can see the appeal. And following the rules (margins, fonts, envelopes), what is the secret (and how many writing books have I bought hoping one will tell me), it’s all in Joshua’s day. He’s a mess. Of course he is, he’s a writer.

But there’s this section that scares the hell out of me:

You could go crazy as you ascend the ladder of literary disappointment. You could be disappointed that you hadn’t written anything. You could be disappointed that what you had written hadn’t been published. You could be disappointed that you had been published but hadn’t sold many books. You could be disappointed that you had good sales but hadn’t received critical acclaim. You could be disappointed that you received critical acclaim but hadn’t won any prizes. You could be disappointed that you won prizes but not national ones. You could be disappointed that you won national prizes, but every October were passed over for the Nobel. You could be disappointed that you won the Nobel, but were one of those Nobelists no one ever read.

This is what Adam Arkin, playing Dr. Stanley Keyworth on The West Wing, called “moving the goalposts” and boy did it smack me in the face. This year Zin had flash in Pear Noir!, a print journal, and in FRiGG, a damn fine online journal. Somehow Zin is still depressed about not writing “real stories” – so, add to the above, you could go crazy if you publish stories but they aren’t real stories because they’re flash. And of course he skips the step about publications being only online instead of print, or being only stories instead of books, in low-rent journals, and on and on and on. Those of us prone to this ailment find, indeed, there are thousands of ways to go crazy wanting to be a writer, and reading this story is like a hysterical person being slapped or a drunk being thrown in a cold shower to sober him up: snap out of it and write something, dammit!

All three stories have minimal plots; they are more like essays, and are about ideas rather than characters or events. I love this. Perhaps you have to be really, really good at it before it’s allowed? I don’t know, but these are stories I wish I’d written.

Rebecca Lee – “Bobcat”

This is another in the Madras Press initial series of teeny-tiny books (see Aimee Bender’s The Third Elevator) and is very different but just as gripping to me – a story of a dinner party that exposes the state of several marriages and ends with an intrusion that destroys one.

The key image of the bobcat refers to an adventure of one of the dinner guests. She’d been out travelling the world when she was attacked by a bobcat and her injuries resulted in the loss of her arm. Other guests start to murmur among themselves that it couldn’t have happened that way, and eventually one states this disbelief openly. She doesn’t argue, she approaches it metaphorically – does it matter if it was a real bobcat or not? That sticks with me, because of course someone who’s had that kind of experience would be devastated to encounter people who don’t believe her.

The climactic event is just as shadowy. I’m not clear exactly what happened. I don’t think I’m supposed to know from the text. But we can all supply our own bobcat, because does it matter what kind of bobcat it is, what kind of disaster, the fact is, there is an intrusion and a dismemberment.

The language throughout is wonderful, down-to-earth, but quite beautiful as well. The opening sentences:

It was the terrine that got to me. I felt queasy enough that I had to sit in the living room and narrate to my husband what was the brutal list of tasks that would result in a terrine: devein, declaw, decimate the sea and other animals, eventually emulsifying them into a paste which could then be riven with whole vegetables. It was like describing to somebody how to paint a Monet, how to turn the beatuy of the earth into a blurry, intoxicating swril, like something seen through the eyes of the dying.

This opening discussion of the making of a terrine, leading into an introduction of the guests, hooked me. There’s an incredible line about Salman Rushdie that still makes me stop and think, and an exchange about themed nurseries that still makes me giggle. As I’ve said the final event had me re-reading the text to see if I’d missed something, some crucial detail in an earlier passage, but I didn’t, it’s merely one of those stories that thrives on ambiguity, that provides a big idea and lets the reader supply the details. I like that. I usually get dinged when I try it, but I appreciate how it’s handled here, because marriage is like that, nothing is ever certain and it’s all very vague, it’s like a terrine where there’s seafood and vegetables and they’re all chopped up but you get the general idea, and several months after first reading the story, I’m still struck by the imagery of the bobcat, and the woman who showed up and stayed and stayed, and the terrine, which “really does need to be great to be not awful – it is meant to evince a perfect melding of disparate entities – the lion lying with the lamb, the sea greeting the land, and so forth.” That’s a lot of mileage out of a terrine.

Aimee Bender – “The Third Elevator”

I’ve had a bad streak going – illness, busy-ness, rejections pouring in – so I read this little story today while waiting for the bus. It’s adorable.

It’s a teeny-tiny book published by Madras Press (www.madraspress.com, no I don’t have any connection with them but I love their books). Aimee Bender tickles me anyway, and this is just great.  A swan who falls in love with a bluebird, their baby cloud, a logger who can’t cut down trees, the three elevators in the woods, a miner who discovers the surface… well, you get the idea. It just makes me smile.

The cool thing about Madras Press is, the proceeds from the book sales go to charities designated by the authors – in this case, an LA writing group for teens in  juvenile hall.