Everything Beyond Thought: Tantra Bensko and the Annihilation of Illusion

by Chris Moran

Lucid Membrane
by Tantra Bensko
Night Publishing, 2011
180 pages / $24.99  Buy from Amazon


The Cabinet of What You Don’t See
by Tantra Bensko
ISMs Press, 2011
40 pages  / $5.00  Buy from ISMs Press





“Awake from dream, the truth is known: —awake from waking, the Truth is—The Unknown.” – Aleister Crowley, The Book of Lies


In the delicate balance of dream and reality lies the annihilation of illusion. Tantra Bensko’s sensual unveiling relates to the intelligence of crystals. She is adept at the unknown: dreams, twilight language where thought relates to the imaginal, emblematic of the seer’s paranoid awareness and lucid view. The lucid aesthetic is kaleidoscopic and freewheeling in its engagement with metaphysical realities that extend far beyond the realm of fiction and delve into the heart of energy, and the imagination itself. Cosmic and personal, the molecular weight of the hermetic text manifests itself through capricious and fanciful dreams through Bensko’s steady and remarkable vision. These stories are inextricably tied to alternate dimensions and mental travel, skirting at the edges of the astral plane, and Bensko desires the astral form here—in life, so that great fruits may come. Bensko writes, “I wish the people I’m living with, on my own invisible frequency, could understand that I am weaving myself through their cells, through their dreams, their breath, their love.” It is with sweetness and an alien lucidity that these stories exist. Like the labyrinthine explorations of Borges—echoes from the invisible drift into the unaware oceans with mysterious interpretations of shape and tone, stained with colored language. In Bensko’s stories ethereal waves skim over the astral surface between the world’s heart and all that bleeds. Emanations of some imperceptible astral dust covers all things, in the shimmering shadows of formless force – giving it shape, with lucidity and spirit. Like shadows – like a mirror – space, sound and color interact and create a dynamic that denies any nostalgia for conventional structures through a manifestation of the unseen.


“Reality is an orgasm of flesh curled into itself beyond measure, smaller, smaller, smaller. Down, down, down. Into the curled fashionarium of beliefs, concepts, explosions of meaning that all point towards each other and laugh, moan, shake. Don’t be afraid to take up the cause of only one of them, as long as you feel it pulsing against its neighbor, caressing the illusion next to it, weeping its tears of shuddering overwhelming something, hard to say what exactly. Be alone, lonely, so intensely afraid of never touching another, and call to me in pain and I will say: go away.”

The stories of Lucid Membrane dazzle with a sense of renewal, rebirth and rejuvenation. These stories deal with sensation and perception, with color, form and elements. Indeed, the book is even structurally unique in that it offers colored text – red, yellow, and blue – creating an alternate narrative, a deeply poetic hermetic text coded within the book’s meat. This makes for fascinating reading – these layers upon layers have the cumulative effect of an occult text gathered by a frequency that annihilates the inessential through the ascension of spirit.

Bensko’s ephemeral vision relates to modes of reality and ways of seeing radically different from “the accepted format of a continuous human.” Her metaphysical flow deals with integration and expansion, contraction of the inessential, and the dissolution of that which is known. The stories recall “everything beyond thought,” and an adjustment of the known order. Her reality is mediated by paranoid awareness, spiritual awakening and the fantastic, creating “music, forbidden and elegant” through her lucid vision. Bensko stands apart from the myopic veneer of unimaginative thinking, and introduces deep metaphysical longing into her fantastic stories: “I hope you can align all the levels of yourself, from your subconscious below, all the way up above your head to the most divine self. And I hope you spread out to include your aura, one level after another, out to the farthest edges, in which you know there are no edges.”

There is a rare speculative quality to The Cabinet of What You Don’t See that is incredibly fertile. Bensko blends paranoia with ways of seeing, modes of reality that enact her forbidden music, and her knowledge of “the invisible layers of vision.” There is a deep engagement with extraterrestrials and cryptic energy forms that “pull her imagination into them, use it to mix with the memories of those they steal away for some time outside of time, in a realm outside this realm.” Most fiction that deals explicitly in extraterrestrial life does so in familiar alien invasion scenarios, or as space opera. Bensko does neither, and her work owes more to the speculative paranoia of David Icke and other fringe thinkers, such as Whitley Strieber and Jim Marrs. Bensko boldly engages with the idea that the ‘global elite’ are in fact shape shifting inter-dimensional Reptilians that interfere with our emotions and siphon our energy. She wonders, “how they get into dreams, how they influence relationships, how they eat fear, how they run the government, how they possess people who have more of their hybrid blood, how they say they supposedly modified the human population to begin with.” Bensko fearlessly delves deeply into paranoia and the speculative nature of the supernatural in ways that totally thrilled me.

“We remember the screen memory stories imposed on us in our astralness. The grey and Draco and Reptilians, the military, the hybrid families, the illusions, the secret societies, the corporations, the mind control programs that compartmentalize our minds. They secretly manipulate our love and make it end, swoop down like owls and eat our pain. They make us desperate for the love they destroy. They come into our dreams.”

Bensko’s brave and penetrating words call to mind the ‘inorganic beings’ of  Carlos Castaneda’s later books, and David Bowie’s frantic cameo in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, where he cryptically likens reality to a dream state in a deranged yet impassioned rant about how immaterial entities are controlling and devouring us at an energetic level. These multi-dimensional predators come from outside the space-time continuum in search of sustenance. The sustenance is us. Our love, our pain. Bensko uses the limitless power of the imagination and the warmth of her singular vision to break free – to lucidly go higher and higher.


Chris Moran is the author of Poison Vapors (Solar Luxuriance, 2011). He lives in Columbus, Ohio and blogs at http://subtlefields.blogspot.com/

If I Falter at the Gallows

by Mike Young

If I Falter at the Gallows
by Edward Mullany
Publishing Genius Press, October 2011
84 pages / $10  Buy from Publishing Genius








Once on Facebook a friend shared the shortest horror story in the world. Just like Facebook, this story involves the awkwardness of when too many people exist in your situation. Maybe let’s say “involves” in the same way somebody says “Hey, Ed, get over here, what do you think?” And Ed tries to say “No, no, I don’t want to get involved.” In any event, the shortest horror story in the world, supposedly, was written by Frederic Brown: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.” Note there’s no “then” before “there.” The world is basically the intrusion of the world. This presents the endless and (sure) terrifying awkwardness of simultaneity, which causes me to say I actually think Ed should get involved, if we’re talking terror, and by Ed we’re talking Edward Mullany, author of If I Falter at the Gallowsa book of barely unchoked poems, arrangements of scene and confession that scalpel the world like a goth kid who grew up to be a jeweler.

The book opens with an epigraph by Charles Simic: “Who put canned laughter / Into my crucifixion scene?” The book is basically one answer to that question after another, if by answer we mean something like “beautiful cough.” Part of a person’s intrusion is their horrible face, from which such coughs issue, and part of the intrusion of being a person is the way we have so little control over our faces. Sometimes we might as well not “have” them at all, as Mullany points out in “Until We Have Faces:”

There was once
a princess in a tower. 

A man came and stood
outside the tower, calling to her.

Then another man
came. And another. Three

men stood outside
the tower, calling to her.

Sometimes even persons from Persia worry about their faces, no matter how hard they aspire to what they think of (and what these poems think about) as virtues: faith, love, faithful love, the utmost faith of selfless love, doomed martyrdom. All virtues nettled and thorned by the intrusion of thinking, which is something even the cover of Gallows knows, featuring as it does the following/faltering instruments of thinking’s aspiration toward virtue: a kneeling pray-er, a bayonet, a Siberian coat, and a dog who won’t abandon anyone. But back to Persia and “The Faithful Persian:”

Leave me in the walled
city, where the faces 

of women I do not
know and the faces of women

I do know are
hidden from me.

There is a lot of seeing and not seeing in these poems, plus some lepers, but mostly—as in the above poem—there are a whole lot of men and women. Whole Lots, as in pretty much every speaker feels to me like Lot, even though I don’t really know enough about Lot to say that, but hey, I can feel what I feel, especially when I also feel holes of love, as in “The Poet Envisions His Death:”

It is true I love
you more each 

day, you for
whom I’ve never

written a love

Have I mentioned these are all whole poems I’m quoting here? Have I mentioned how well the titles augur the poems, and yes shut up I know I’m being too fancy there, and okay I admit I can never remember the difference between “auger” (a drill bit) and “augur” (to soothsay). But mostly what I want to say is the titles of these poems are like when a really tall and weird-ass stranger who reminds you not so much of David Lynch as of the best episodes of “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” literally shows up to help you fix your car in the dark, and says “Don’t mention it,” and then keeps saying that when he shows up in your dreams. As in the titles of these two poems:


Two horses without riders, but saddled as if riders had been on them, were seen grazing near the side of the road.


Some of the retreating soldiers
who were retreating because they’d seen other soldiers
though there had been no order to retreat,
died retreating anyway.

Okay, I know you know how to cross your arms, so let me admit that a very few of the intrusions in Gallows feel distractingly unrefined (“Like Neal Cassady tired”) or self-parodic (“quiet rain” falling into “bleak lakes” on empty “estates”), but this is also one of those very few books that—actually. Actually let me ask you: is there a certain piano you have access to, like maybe one only you know about, and you have to climb a ladder to get to it, and only one key works? Dust or whatever goes without saying. If so, go ahead and press that key over and over and read “Ode to the Bayoneted Soldier:”

In the woods beside the snowy

field, the footprints


There are a few major things you potentially are when you can say a thing like: “No / one is with me, yet I hear singing.” You are crazy, maybe, or dead (“A Good Death” is the title of the poem where those lines come from) or more likely you are that thing that happens in dreams where you are trying to run but you can’t run, except instead of running we mean you are trying to be one big human cry.

In Edward Mullany’s If I Falter at the Gallows, the shortest horror story goes on forever, but the doorknob is exquisitely carved, probably out of some kind of bone you really feel like you’ve seen before, and that’s what you can’t stop thinking about while you listen to the knock. In other words, the relentless intrusion of cognition versus the relentless intrusion of death. In Edward’s words: “I have a question, but I’ll only ask if no one’s around.” Sorry, Edward, but your book is too haunting not to haunt back.

The Power of Good Art

by Roxane Gay

The Darlings
by Cristina Alger
Pamela Dorman Books, February 2012
352 pages / $26.95  Buy from Powell’s

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant
by Alex Gilvarry
Viking Adult, 2012
320 pages  / $26.95 Buy from Powell’s

For the past couple months, Full Stop has invited writers like Justin Taylor, Alexander Chee, Danielle Evans, Maud Newton, and many others, to discuss the situation in American Writing. Most of the questions focus on the concerns contemporary writers face, particularly in terms of the responsibility, if any, writers have to respond to popular upheaval, social change, and the various crises our world is facing. It’s an important question–how do we write about the world we live in? The range of answers to these questions has been fascinating and they reveal the many differing opinions writers have about what we should be writing and what responsibility we have to document the world as it is changing.

I recently read two very different books, both responding to this world we live in, books that made me think about the different ways writers can approach the issues currently shaping our sociopolitical climate–The Darlings by Cristina Alger and From the Memoir of a Non-Enemy Combatant by Alex Gilvarry.


Cristina Alger’s The Darlings takes on the current economic crisis through the story of the Darling family—a wealthy clan of New Yorkers who find their lives irrevocably altered during a critical week when the family business is threatened by scandal. The Darlings, though largely enjoyable, is not a well written book. The overall narrative structure with chapters time and date stamped, is chaotic at best and hard to follow. The times don’t seem integral to the story and yet there they are as if this is the kind of novel where from one minute to the next important changes are taking place.  The writing is more often florid than not, the descriptions overly ornate and clichéd, sometimes bordering on absurd–cheeks the color of peonies, raspberry lips, etc. Everyone is beautiful and thin. The women don’t eat and drink too much. The men work and philander. The Ivy Leagues and Eastern seaboard boarding schools are well represented. It’s all very Real Housewives: Bear Stearns and the Trust Fund Babies Who Love Them.

To remind us that this is a story about the follies of the 1%, there’s a lot of brand name dropping—Patek Philippe watches, Mercedes Benz cars, homes in the Hampton, glittery Park Avenue addresses. I am fairly certain this book was sponsored, in part, by Blackberry because the usage of the device is so prominent throughout the book, one can only assume there is a positive correlation between mentioning the device and financial remuneration. It’s certainly amusing to envision this rarefied world where money is or once was no object, and to consider how times are changing. At the beginning of the novel, for example, there is a charity event and alas, even on the charity circuit, they must take austerity measures, because, “no one wanted to see orchids at a five-hundred-dollar-a-plate charity event, not with the Dow hovering around 8,400.” Quelle tristesse.

Then there’s the plot.  Carter Darling, the patriarch of the powerful Darling family, runs a hedge fund, Delphic. His sons-in-law Paul, married to Merrill Darling, the smart daughter, and Adrian, married to Lily, the socialte daughter, also work for the firm. When the head of investment firm that manages a significant portion of the fund’s assets allegedly commits suicide, it is quickly revealed that the firm was an elaborate Ponzi scheme. The sky is falling!  There’s an SEC investigation, a son-in-law’s divided loyalties, an affair, an ex-girlfriend, a secretary who knows too much, a stoic matriarch, and all manner of subplots meant to keep us intrigued beyond the financial scandal. Once you get past the writing, The Darlings is a fun, gossipy read.

I don’t begrudge escapism, and there were mildly intriguing subplots that kept me turning the pages as fast as I could. (Who is the mistress? What will happen to the family? Who killed Laura Palmer?) At times, the breathless cataloging of the trappings of extreme wealth is a bit much. At one point, a mother, reflecting on her young disabled son, thinks, “the worst thing in the world for him, she knew, would be for his mother to act as if he were a cripple,” which, I assure you stands out uncomfortably because the term cripple has, for the most part, been banished from our vernacular.  I certainly don’t believe in privileging political correction over art, but the word’s casual usage in a story set in the past couple years, makes you wonder how it got past an editor.

 There is more to the book. Alger certainly knows a great deal of insider information about Wall Street and how the world of finance works. The Darlings was clearly heavily influenced by the Bernie Madoff scandal, the fall of Wall Street and the changing economic climate for the 1%, all of which are impeccably documented.  The major problem with this book is that the insider information often reads like an entry from a financial textbook rather than an organic part of the novel. The book is also myopically concerned with the effects of this financial scandal on a small, elite circle and doesn’t really speak to the ripple effects of the economic crisis, the ones that reached beyond the investment bankers and hedge fund managers and their ilk. The Darlings, as a response to the world we live in, is so heavy handed, so blatantly ripped from the headlines, and so narrow in its gaze that it is hard to recognize the book’s contributions to a larger conversation.

Alex Gilvarry’s From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant takes on a different, but equally pressing issue—the erosion of civil liberties after 9/11 as part of the unchecked “war on terrorism.” Gilvarry uses the world we live in as a foundation but builds an imaginative story that goes beyond the headlines. Until I read this book, I could have never imagined that a novel about a fashion designer could offer an incisive look at  the complex issues of civil liberties and government detainees. That’s the balance we have to find in using fiction as a vehicle for social commentary—negotiating the issue at hand and writing an entertaining, well-crafted story. Trying to achieve that balance is the struggle clearly at work in The Darlings. Gilvarry, in trying to balance social commentary and fiction, is much more successful.

Boyet Hernandez is a fledgling fashion designer from Manila. When he arrives in New York in 2002, the towers have fallen but Boyet, who goes by Boy, is all immigrant optimism, eager to find fame and fortune in the big city—”Sure, the financial skyscrapers, the sprawling bridges, the underground love tunnels, the people in their park-side penthouses—these were physical proof of the impossible. Manhattan was a testament to everything being out of God’s hands and within Man’s.”  The novel is told as Boy’s memoir, written while he is held indefinitely and without charge at Guantanamo. The narrative goes back and forth between Boy’s incarceration and his years in New York.  He is being held as a non-enemy combatant because his label was funded by Ahmed Qureshi, a suspected terrorist, and the federal government wants to know what Boy knows, which is little.

Throughout Boy’s memoir, we learn about the rise and fall of his fledgling fashion label, his personal entanglements, his appreciation for America and then his disillusion that is not strong enough to overcome his love for his adopted country. There are footnotes, throughout, by reporter Gil Johannesen, footnotes that often reveal Boy’s unreliability as a narrator and add a layer of complexity to an already complex story.  As the novel unfolds, we see how Boy’s faith in the United States erodes, how he begins to lose hope he will ever be free—”Now that I approach the end of my confession, I find that I am beginning to lose hold of my character. I have become removed from the hero of my own story, you see. To lose hold of your own character must be park of the natural order of things in No Man’s Land.”

The novel is meticulously researched, both in terms of depicting Boy’s incarceration and in authenticity of the depiction of New York’s fashion scene. The writing is witty and fast-paced. Gilvarry is very adept at creating a well-developed protagonist who is charming in all his imperfections and his wide-eyed adoration of everything he is trying to achieve. The story has an interesting satirical bent that Gilvarry certainly could have pushed further, but overall, the novel is really compelling. Gilvarry’s works very successfully from his original premise. Even though this is fiction, the novel is also very affecting in how it portrays the injustice of unchecked judicial authority, affecting in ways that might not be possible in journalism. Sometimes, the best way to tell a story is by actually telling a story.

Toward the end of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, Boy laments the play his ex-girlfriend Michelle has mounted about their relationship while he languishes in prison.

“My greatest fear to come of this recent development is that Michelle might actually have the influence to sway public opinion. That is the power of entertainment. Sure, when the government spins a story like mine, you will always have your believers, those dumb enough disciples who follow their leader no matter how much of a stuttering fool he is; but you can also count on a good many doubters, those citizens who question what is being force fed to them through the media test tube. And it is this group that I am worried about. For no one is immune to the force of good art when it is disseminated through the mass media. I know this better than anyone, for it is this foundational essence of the human condition to which I owe all my own success.”

When we try to use writing to respond to the world we live in. We are trying to use the power of good art in entertaining, engaging ways to create change or to create awareness or to make sure we do not forget the way the world is and was at its best and worst. We’re trying to write toward this foundational essence of the human condition to surrender to the force of good art. Sometimes we succeed; sometimes we do not.

Invitation to a Voyage

by Matt McGregor

Invitation to a Voyage 
by François Emmanuel
Translated by Justin Vicari
Dalkey Archive Press, 2012
112 pages  /  $12.95    Buy from Dalkey ArchiveAmazon







Sometimes, writing is so baldly pretentious and pointedly wackadoo that readers assume, without really feeling much of anything, that it must be ‘experimental’ or ‘poetic.’ This implies that the author—that brave, eccentric fellow!—is ‘more alive’ than the rest of us, more attuned to some numinous kernel of ecstasy and desire. The rest of us, meanwhile, are consigned to wallow in the general generic muck.

Such is the wager of François Emmanuel’s Invitation to a Voyage, a short collection just out from the wonderful folks at Dalkey Archive: that the reader, confronted with the interior monologs, the surrealist quirks and all the other one-time experiments of modern lit, will fault themselves for not quite ‘getting it.’


Don’t be fooled. Stocked with with ‘lyricism,’ dissonance, and Moments of Profound Realization, this collection is a trove of cliché. Before I tackle the stories themselves, let me quote a passage, chopped more or less at random from the first page. The author is writing about the letters of an old lover.

I had to reach the last words so that in the rereading everything became clear in that flow of sentences that was wholly yours, conspicuously your voice, your voice that I have loved so much, that soul of yours which speaks to me today in the same way, rises up in me, from down where my very breath originates, from that area called solar, where we store our loves when they are precious…

Perhaps the most telling criticism we could make of this passage—by no means the most egregious in the collection—is that it is not especially beautiful. This gets at the heart of the problem, because just about everything in the passage, like so many in Invitation to a Voyage, pleads beauty. Most obviously, we have the ecstatic run-on sentence, a favorite technique of Emmanuel and creative writing students everywhere, but which, some eighty years after Mrs Dalloway, is very hard to make new. Other fat beauty badges include its clumsy iterations  (“yours…your voice…your voice…that souls of yours…), its pretentious diction (“that area called solar,” “our loves when they are precious”), and its effete poetic vagueness.

Emmanuel is either brave or unaware. This first story, “The Invitation,” contains a series of run-on sentences, addressed to an old lover. Plump with passionate comma-splice, the story recalls a brief affair.

…several days we spent together, to be sure barely a week, we were lovers from the second night on, it was a love without end or perspective, strangely without sadness, a warm afternoon love in your room sifted with blue light, a love in which time was not measured, between the promenades and eclipses of sleep, it was a harbor…

Our narrator proceeds to lament the “epistolary course” of the relationship; later, he mentions the need to create “the space for an elsewhere,” and yearns for “a love in which time was not mentioned.” At the end, Emmanuel, audacious as ever, refers to “the intermingling of our souls.”

There is a kind of shameless pretension to Invitation to a Voyage. The pervy second story, “Love and Distance,” tells of an old professor who hires a detective to spy on a pretty violinist.  The private detective is paid by this seedy old coot—tellingly presented as an ‘eccentric’ oddball by Emmanuel—to study her movements. Pretending to be a student, the detective travels to her Parisian apartment to gather details of her appearance and her life.

Eventually, he falls in love with his mark, and the object of study predictably becomes the object of desire. Naturally. “Her waist,” we learn, “is slim, her breasts are perfect.” Later, he sees her “pert breasts,” “her pert little buttocks.” She also has “a beauty mark just above the corner of her lip.” This, of course, “piques” his curiosity. Her face, he declares, is “deliciously oblique.” He notices that “an imperceptible sensuality was visible upon her lips.” This sentence, while not quite as grossly generic as the others, is easily as lazy. If we swap “imperceptible” for “invisible,” the mistake is easier to spot: “an invisible sensuality was visible…” Unless this is a Francophone penchant for paradox which escapes my dull Pacific intellect, we have yet one more lazy reach for poetry, in a book which is as lazily poetic as they come.

It is not always this bad; but too often, it is. When our characters hook up, we learn that “she melted against my body… Our lips found each other.” She is “haughty and trembling, as was her nature.” In the act itself, he “saw us floating a meter above the mattress.” In a later scene, he describes their hookup with predictable bombast:

In between these two moments we have played our part in the great seesaw of the world, deep within the starry night, wallowing in the luminous mire of these confines, we spent our energy crossing endless forests of lianas, trapping the bull, the tiger, the Minotaur, in a melee from which we returned dazed and amnesiac, she put on her nylon stockings, her blouse, her skirt, she became perfect again.

Perfect?  He likes to watch her dress, or, as puts it, to watch her “piecing her mystery back together.” Later, he claims to “love to see how it’s made, the beauty of a woman.” In this tired piece of ‘transgression,’ where Emmanuel, as always, soars above the getting and spending of Modern Life—into “the luminous mire of these confines,” whatever that might be—there is a very familiar, very conventional vision of femininity. After the affair finishes, and we learn the moral of the story (“can one ever know anything about another person?”), Emmanuel dreams “of conquering her again.” This fantasy is nothing new, of course. Not even the misogyny ofInvitation to a Voyage is fresh.

The third story, “The Cartographer’s Waltz,” tells of a cartographer on assignment in the north of France. While resentfully exploring Arras, lost in his “own interior time,” he becomes friendly with an elderly oddball. While they explore the coastline, the old man explains his interest in “deep cartography.” Once, he says, “I mapped the silences of London.” While our narrator wrinkles his brow, the old man goes on: “This is the kind of mapmaking that attracts me, it’s ridiculous and yet so human. It’s like mapping dreams…”

Dreams. Of course. While the rest of us fumble in a greasy till, the characters of Invitation to a Voyage are artists, painters, professors, musicians, mapmakers, private detectives, and secret agents. Nobody really works; and there are, unsurprisingly, no poor people. This collection is plump with Art—you know, paintings, concerts, “Ming vases,” rich mahogany and the like—but it is devoid of culture. There is no attempt to represent what Raymond Williams called “a whole way of life,” the habits and routines of a life in common. It is a sign of this deficit that in Emmanuel’s adolescent world, there are, despite two rather portentous references to “The Administration,” no real institutions, and no bureaucracy.

It should come as no surprise that his forth story, “Woman in a Landscape,” begins with an “hysterical” woman running wild in the trees and grass, “interpreting the wind.” She is described as “a child with mud-streaked cheeks doing just what she’s forbidden to do.” Good grief. Here, as always, Emmanuel indulges his penchant for vague hyperbole, as we find yet another oddball, ecstatically deranged. The lesson, familiar enough, is that insanity is not an affliction, but a gift:

Crazy, no doubt about that… What she’s looking for there is something that will nurture her being, at the very heart of the landscape, there where instinct whispers inside of her, a gentleness resonating with my own gentleness, a terrestrial power to root me there. She turns herself into fox, rat, mole, or grouse, all familiars of her witchy presence.

Elsewhere, describing a concert, Emmanuel refers to “a timbre that was grave but with an undertow of treble, shivering with a kind of silky curve, with just a shade of rapturous letting-go.” There is, in Invitation to a Voyage, an exhausting array of epiphanies. Nearly all of Emmanuel’s characters glory in moments of intense feeling and seemingly everyday profundities (“I will never stop hearing the songs of their branches.”)

In his biography of James Joyce, Richard Ellmann famously referred to “the justification of the commonplace.” “Joyce’s discovery” as he put it, “was that the ordinary was the extraordinary.” Emmanuel, profoundly unsympathetic to everyday experience, skips the ordinary altogether, leaving us with a rather breathless catalog of strange moments and profound realizations.


At present, Matt McGregor lives in Vancouver.  You can read Matt’s work in The Rumpus,BookslutThe Millions, and The New Everyday, among other places.

IQ84: Three Reviews

by Sara Finnerty

by Haruki Murakami
Knopf, 2011.
944 pages / $30.50  Buy from Amazon









Please do not read this or any other review if you intend to read IQ84. A Murakami novel is best read without knowledge of its plot.

Few books are about life itself.

Part of the reason we live is to see what happens next. Will we go to college? Go on a road trip? Whom will we marry? When? Will we have children? Will we move? Will we get that job? Meet eyes with a girl who reminds us of someone we once knew? What will we have for dinner?

IQ84 is alive with its own life. Start from the beginning and see what happens next. The less you know, the more fun the discovery will be. All you need to know is this:
The book takes place in Tokyo. There are two main characters, Tengo and Aomame. You must bring to this book your own preconceptions about everything—God, existence, love, morality—not mine or anyone else’s. Your reading will be your own.

Your wrists may hurt as you read—the novel is almost 1000 pages. It’s a heavy tome because it’s a whole universe. The pain in your wrists will be worth the wormhole.

Now get out of here.



Below I will discuss major and minor themes and plot points, but will not spoil the answers to what I perceive to be the central questions that drive the book.

How to Read / The Rules:

IQ84 is a metafictional novel that operates on multiple dimensions in multiple worlds. We, as readers, are given signposts almost immediately to help us read the novel. The first sentence in bold type we encounter is:

“Don’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality.”

The characters of the novel operate in a world much like ours, where the rules are fallible and made to be broken. I understood the sentences in bold as rules I, as a reader, could hold onto. We do this in our own lives, but a tenet of my existence (for example, do onto others, or, eat the pizza—you only live once) may not hold true for you. The bold sentences are the truths of this world, IQ84, this novel.

Early in the novel, Aomame gets a gun and immediately our minds turn to Chekov, then of course IQ84 goes on a three-page tangent discussing Chekov’s gun and the rules of plot. There are many rules of novel writing, a central one being that the author must be forthcoming with the rules of a new, strange world. There are no rules; there is nothing that is always true in IQ84.

We don’t always know what is true and real and what is not. The characters don’t always understand what’s happening either.  They are learning about their worlds as they go along, running on intuition, gut feelings, half-truths and faith. We are living and experiencing with them. Tengo’s father tells him, “If you don’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation.” Tengo repeats this line over and over throughout the novel. He is slightly confused, so we as readers don’t feel pressure to understand every nuance of the novel. In reading the book, we are nudged by typographical cues to just go along with the characters and discover what there is to experience and learn.

Other Novels:

I will be honest here. I fake-read 1984 in high school and never got around to actually reading it. We all know the gist of it. Big Brother, dystopia, brain washing, etc.—these themes are present inIQ84 (Little People and/or metafictional readers/creators as Big Brother, cults) and in both novels there is a man and a woman who are separated. The world of IQ84 would not be possible if the book were set in modern times. We can no longer make it into adulthood wondering whatever happened to that old classmate of ours, as with the case of Tengo and Aomame. We cannot predict who is calling when the phone rings. We cannot rely solely on chance and coincidence to run into someone, hear a song, or stumble upon the answer to a question.

I think in terms of scope, theme and ambition, IQ84 is our generation’s Don Quixote. They are both astounding, gigantic books encompassing strange new worlds including the world from which you are reading, stories within stories within stories and in the end both are about the power and beauty of storytelling itself. I also found myself frequently thinking of Philip Pullman’sHis Dark Materials trilogy—characters move between worlds, religion is suspect, and humans are accompanied by externalized portions of their souls.

Other Worlds/Escape:

When the Little People climb out of the mouth of the dead goat, thus connecting 1984 to IQ84, something about the action seems entirely plausible and intuitively right.

The other characters get to IQ84 via different paths—Tengo through rewriting a novel, Aomame through climbing down an emergency stairwell on the side of a highway. She descends into another world, and another time flow—a place with two moons.

Aomame and Tengo are our anchors. Aomame is meticulous, calculating and reasonable. She hates constipation, abusive men and religious fundamentalists. Who can argue? Tengo is a math teacher, patient and kind. The reality we are in is perplexing and nonsensical, but the characters are not.

We escape into IQ84, but it is the best kind of escapism. A story can take you outside of yourself and back in, to your deepest self, to a part of yourself you may not even be able to speak to or consciously speak from, and the story tells this nugget inside you that you are not alone, it presents you with insights on how best to live your life. IQ84 says: with faith, with hope, with pain and with wonder at the myriad of endless possibilities.


We are introduced to Tengo as he is being asked to rewrite a novella called Air Chrysalis, written by a seventeen-year-old girl named Fuka-Eri, who is probably the most subversive character in the book. We learn, though, that she did not physically write the novella, but dictated it to her adopted sister. Right now, I am writing about a book that was translated from Japanese to English, a book in large part about reading a book and rewriting a book that has already been written by someone who dictated a book to someone else, a book which then inspired Tengo to write a book that may very well be the book that we are reading. This is a Mobius strip that is maybe about the essence of writing itself. There is no beginning or end in creating and there is no creator or createe. Stories burst forth on their own.

Good and Evil:

The worst of humanity is a recurring theme in IQ84; domestic abuse, child abuse, child rape, murder and to a lesser extent, cults, religious fundamentalism, and the emotional and physical abandonment of children. But there is also the running theme of balance. Where there is bad, it is the law of nature that good must rise up as a force against it. Every force has its own opposing force. Aomame, the dowager and Tamaru, (one of my favorite characters) are a band of assassins who hunt down and painlessly, quietly murder bad men. Aomame’s morality is never called into question, but the book also discusses the fact that the concepts of good and evil depend on perspective. The more one side uses their power, the more another power will rise to resist it.“THIS FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLE IS THE SAME IN ANY WORLD.” It certainly feels true for ours.

The Moon:

IQ84 is also a love letter to the moon and to the things that unify us. There is 
“a sense of human gratitude toward the moon…imprinted upon human genes like a warm collective memory.” When I was fourteen, I was in a lot of pain like Aomame, and I went around with a metaphorical gun in my mouth. (I am not as hardcore as Aomame.) I had a friend who told me to look at the moon and think of him whenever I felt lonely. I thought he was the world’s most gigantic dork but one day I tried it. I felt unbearably sad. I looked at the moon and thought of him. He was thousands of miles away but he could see the same moon, and so could everyone else in the world, now and 100,000 years ago. It anchors us. So Tengo, Aomame and we readers are hurled into space when this other moon shows up. We are no longer anchored.

Being Lost and Secrets:

“Town of Cats,” is one of IQ84’s stories-within-a-story, much like Quixote’s “The Impertinent Curiosity” Both are stories about the place where you delve too far, maybe too far to ever turn back. The place where you become irretrievably lost. This place can also be called madness. It can be the cycle of thinking within which you’re cocooned. Addiction. Obsession. There are many worlds and flows of time, but we are all living in the same reality.

“There are some things on this earth that are better left as unknowns.” Sometimes, it’s better to let a secret remain a secret. This is a difficult lesson for me because I operate like a garbage truck. I want to know everything. I want to squish it all inside of me and press it together to make more room in my giant belly.  But there are supporting characters in IQ84 who urge Tengo to let go of the past and other people’s secrets and lead his own life. Sometimes its best to let the dead take their secrets with them, as there are some secrets only the dead can understand.


There is almost no mention of god, but this book is about god.

I grew up in Catholic school, but sometimes my grandmother would take me to Italian mass at her church. There were paintings of birds everywhere in this Italian church. I could have misinterpreted her, but she said that in this church they believed god was a bird. Every time I passed that church, I thought, that’s where god is a bird. The bible seemed like a wacky story–exactly like the Greek and Roman myths I loved to read. Stories were, and are, real to me, but real in that the coexisted as bubbles, simultaneously, little worlds outside of us, created by us in order to help us figure out how to live life.

Even as a child, I thought religion was ridiculous, but God is not religion. I believe in God. I believe having faith in God is the same thing as admitting you don’t know the first thing about the universe. You cannot say for sure that anything is true. My belief that this universe exists at all, in all its complexity and beauty, blows my mind so completely that I can’t actually conceptualize anything beyond my own plane of existence. But I will try to live my life in wonder. Stories can recreate this. IQ84 is, more than anything, about God and the million things God can be.



(Now is your last chance. If you haven’t read the book, please avert your eyes. Click away on something else. Here is a funny video for you to watch.

The third section is really where all the magic happens, where Murakami miraculously pulls off his metafictional wonder.

It seems like a minor plot point, but I think Chekov’s rule of introducing a gun is actually a stand in for a larger issue—that rules are made to be broken. Aomame, the real hero of the novel, tells us, “A pistol is just a tool and where I’m living is not a storybook world. It’s the real world, full of gaps and inconsistencies and anticlimaxes.” As outlandish as IQ84 was (both the parallel world within the novel and the novel itself- are they one and the same?) it felt like the real world, our world, and it could have gone on forever in both directions. I could have read another 1000 pages.

Aomame has a long encounter with the man she must kill. He is the leader of a cult and a child rapist with a lot of excuses. He offers answers to all the questions that we as readers have as well, but we find out, as Aomame does, in drips and drabs, that he is almost always wrong. Her morality never flounders. Aomame’s reason for existence so far has been to murder this man, and she does, and he wants her to. He has beautiful, poetic lines, most of which turn out to be false, but one line is integral and true: “You are afraid to shed the armor with which you have long defended yourself.” Aomame sobs when she hears this and we have seen no emotion from Aomame up until this point. This was the armor that offered the illusion of hope. This was how Aomame survived. She would need, now, to find a new way.

Breaking the Rules:

What if an author doesn’t know all the rules? Why should he? What if we believe that the author is not the creator, not the god? What if we believe in the story? What if we believe that some stories exist, hovering in the air, waiting to be interpreted, translated into the written world and that is all a writer is? After all, Aomame takes over. She bursts through. She is tired of being controlled. She says, fuck off, Tengo and Murakami and whatever forces these are, I have a WILL.Aomame is reborn as the force of the novel. She insists upon her own free will. She demands it. The final climax of the story is this moment when Aomame realizes that she is not only of the world, but the world is also inside of her.

I have fallen so deeply in love with characters, my own and other’s, so much so that when I am reading or writing, when I am in that world, in that reality, they seem as real as anyone else. I believe every moment of Aomame’s resurrection. This is only my reading, because I am a metafiction fangirl, but I feel that I am the heat inside of Aomame’s stomach. I feel that the two moons are my two eyes reading the book. I think Fuka-Eri was the mastermind behind all of this, flitting around between worlds with no care for what rules she was breaking, sometimes the dohta and sometimes the maza. Twenty pages from the end of the book, we see the process of reincarnation, just thrown in there as an aside, but an aside that fits into the world, a piece of a puzzle too big to see.

In a final conversation with Aomame, Tamaru tells the story of Carl Jung and his cottage on a lake. Chiseled above the doorway are the words, “Cold or not, God is present.” In this book, God is little people, unseen forces, multiple worlds, energy itself, the rules and the breaking of the rules. Stories. Love. Free will.

In the end we realize we have been reading a love story. And love is not only circumstantial and tangible—Tengo and Aomame were both lonely, grew up in loveless homes, had to fend for themselves—but also magical, mystical, and unexplainable.

We were led to believe for nine hundred something pages that Tengo was the hero, but in the end it is Aomame who has held the story together–the one with the true information, the whole story, the one who truly saw the horrors and had to face them. Not Tengo. We needed her to take over, because this is her story.

Above her, in a new world at the end of the novel, is the moon, “the one and only satellite that has faithfully circled the earth, at the same speed, from before human memory.”
And in this new world, they are ready for what will happen next. There is adventure in every world. And heartbreak. And death. And danger, loss, suffering. And love.



Sara Finnerty is a writer from Queens, living in Los Angeles. Writings, musings, readings and publications can be found at madwet.com.

“C, Clown”: An Excerpt from Gwenaelle Aubry’s No One

by Blake Butler

I’m five or six, on holiday with my father at his parents’ place in Soissons. My grandfather is seeing patients in his surgery at the end of the garden, my grandmother is busy doing I don’t know what, I’m alone, I’m bored. Suddenly I have an idea. I get my grandmother’s lipstick from the bathroom and I set about painting my father: two circles on his cheeks, another on the end of his nose. I take him by the hand and say, “You’re a clown, Dad, come on, I want to show everyone.” Together we go out into the street and sit down on the doorstep in the blazing sunlight of a summer afternoon. He’s in profile. With my finger I spread the color over his left cheek. He lets me do it with a weary, nasty smile. Seeing him like this I’m filled with shame, sorrow, and pleasure. My grandmother suddenly appears from nowhere, a small, elegant, measured woman, her dress, makeup, and hair always just so. For the first time I hear her raise her voice. In a tone that brooks no answer she orders me to stop it at once, to go back inside.

Twenty-five years later, when my grandmother was long dead, my father went back to live, or rather to stop living, in Soissons. He moved into an apartment with his father. After my grandfather’s departure and subsequent death a few months later, my father was hospitalized in a clinic right opposite the house he grew up in. It was then that he really went downhill.

I would take taxis so I would not see the surroundings on my own, I would buy drinks for barflies in exchange for a few words, I was waiting for I know not who, I know not what, at a table in the sun outside a cafe. I had lost my identity (and my papers too). The law that means so much to me was not enough to restore me to citizenship. I was “out of laws.” I would sit outside the law courts where I had once been a trainee. One day I bought a broom and swept the courthouse steps. Every age has its pleasures they say. And the unconscious pleasure of playing the clown in the town where my father had forged his career manifested my sadness (they also say that clowns are sad). It gave me no pleasure to play that clown and I do not think there is any social code linked to the sorrow that drives you mad. My father liked to kid around, he liked stupid jokes and word play: “A horse meets St. Thomas on his path and swallows him whole. Christ passes by and says, ‘Laisse Thomas dans l’etalon.’* Isn’t that silly?” and he would burst into delighted laughter. He didn’t like tragedy. He also had a real talent for mimicry: he could put on any accent amazingly well and do animal calls too.

From this I deduce that he used to make me laugh as a child. I can still see him, already very ill, playing with my daughter when she was a baby and laughing with her, his laugh the same as hers, effortlessly, no distance between them, without that air of constraint, the bending down of adults acting like children, as though she had awoken within him an element of comical chaos and mindlessness that was very much alive and wanted. He was fond of gaffes. One day in court he presented an important case with a clothes hanger hooked onto the back of his robe. He liked nothing more than these involuntary deviations and permissible skids that cause the social order, of which he was otherwise so careful, to jam. At the end of his life, in the little white room, he imagined himself as a wise monk, a man of the shadows, and also as a clown:

My little girl went to the circus on Sunday and I thought, “Why not a clown?” It is not socially unacceptable. In a lovely little caravan, going from town to town, making children laugh and sleeping till the next day. But it is a fantasy, I know, even though, before, I used to keep a clown’s nose in a drawer in my chambers. If a client had come in and told me stories, I would have put on my nose and asked, “Do you take me for a clown?” I never did it. You lose your clients and destroy your reputation with such behavior. 

That clown’s nose in his drawer, that jack- in-a-box, was his violent desire to reverse roles and overturn codes, to mock dignity. But he kept it hidden away, shut up in his drawer and, costumed in gray, he would act the lawyer, deal with his dossiers, receive his clients, corseted by his reputation to protect,

his rank to retain. He played his role, he adopted the ways of being and speaking of those around him, jurists, senators, men of power, all ponderous with importance, pickled in arrogance. In so doing he used the same talent, the same flexibility—that inconstancy that Aristotle describes as characteristic of the melancholic—that he used, when I was a child, to mimic the call of a cow or pig. Often, in his voice, on his face, I would catch the intonation or grin of a right-wing politician, seen on television the day before. But it wasn’t simply to be expected, it wasn’t just him. There was a wavering, a distance, an incredulity. He played the role but did not inhabit it. He acted the man of law, but he was out of laws. In his family they didn’t play with codes. Nor did they worry about justifying them. They were bourgeois without hatred of the proletariat, Catholic without faith, affluent without greed, educated without curiosity. The main thing was to save face, or rather surface (the gleaming furniture in my grandmother’s house, the large mirrors that reflected her beautiful face, the polished apartment in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, where she later gave refuge to her son’s distress). In psychiatry there’s an illness they call the as if syndrome. Sufferers act as if they weren’t ill, as if everything were normal, as if something like normality existed. This as if syndrome is, in a way, the illness of the bourgeoisie. At any rate it was the illness of my paternal family, and that of the parents of Fritz Zorn (I discovered Mars in my grandfather’s library). Zorn died of cancer, my father of melancholia; but sometimes I think he died of not having the as ifsyndrome, of not having known how—or of being unable—to pretend all the time, to act as if everything were fine, as if everything were simple, as if what Zorn calls the “complicated” (sex, politics, religion, ideas, and also the dark, opulent upheavals in which a person is forged, a life decided) had to be rejected, always, silently, prudently. Perhaps that clown’s nose, had he worn it, might have saved him.

One summer—I might have been seven or eight, my sister three or four—he rented a caravan, a rickety old thing made of wood with a tarpaulin cover, pulled by a mare known as Cuddles, a real old gypsy caravan. We set off on a trip somewhere, in the Cevennes I think it was. We made our way very slowly along little mountain roads lined with meadows and forests and in the evening we would stop at an inn, let the mare out to grass, and the next morning, in the clear, clean air, we would set off again, my sister and I perched on the driver’s seat in our flared dungarees and multicolored smocks, eating ice cream and singing at the tops of our voices, songs he’d taught us by Brel and Brassens, he’d be down on the road ahead, walking in front of the mare with a bucket of water or a bit of hay to keep her moving forward, laughing with us whenever she stopped. It was the end of the 1970s, he was young and slim, he had a moustache and a denim jacket, in fact I wonder if he didn’t bring his guitar along. What I remember is that throughout that week everything went

well, and my uneasy joy, and my disbelief.

Perhaps that was what he needed—to weigh anchor, cast off, leave watching eyes behind, and take to the road, alone but for a lazy old mare and two scruffy, giggling little girls. And yet his mask mattered to him, maybe it was he who held it in place. When I learned that the Latin for mask is persona, I immediately thought of him. For a moment I felt I understood his concern with codes, order, and hierarchy. The reason he wore himself out so much acting the adult was perhaps that, beneath his mask, there was no one, and that “no one” was not the saving, cunning anonymity of Ulysses, but emptiness, a gap. If he had dropped the mask we might perhaps have realized that the king has no clothes.

I did see my father like that, stripped, dethroned, fallen, my father becomenothing and nothing but nothing, my father drained of the abscess of being someone. It was in the last years, during his last stay in a mental hospital—a real hospital this time, not one of those three-star clinics where exhausted teachers would go before summer to get treatment for incipient depression. Out of the question there to sit down at a café table in the sun or take a taxi ride around the local area. He was in what they call a “secure unit.” To see him we had to go to a door with a small frosted-glass window and ring the bell. Then we had to wait for the nurse behind the counter to identify us, my sister and me. We would hear the electronic lock click and we would step into a room full of sickly colors—creamy white and chlorophyll green—where patients in slippers would slide silently toward the television through a cloud of smoke. All eyes would turn toward us, two girls wearing the air of outside, of life, of health, like an indiscreet perfume. I would avoid meeting their glances (but one day I recognized a boy I’d been at school with, tall, thin, and dark-haired, with a childlike face and glasses. I nodded to him, he didn’t respond. Later my father told me he had recognized me too and that he hadn’t wanted to talk about it). I was ashamed, ashamed of our appearance of health and normality, of our clothes, though we had chosen them to do him honor, to please him, perhaps also to show him that we were fine, that we were coping, and to protect us from all that, the dirty walls, the grim suburb, the pajamas and slippers. We were both very thin and silent, our faces drawn, clinging to our cigarettes just like the patients, but I found us noisy, arrogant, and overwhelming. My father wasn’t in the day room. He was the patient in the room at the end. A lively, chubby nurse took us down to him. He was standing in a bare room with windows overlooking the garden and, in the distance, the Seine. My first thought when we went in was to open them, but they were locked shut. No mirror, no photos, no books or flowers. In a corner, piled up, the newspapers my mother had subscribed him to, still in their polythene wrapping. He was standing by his bed, dressed in a black turtleneck and gray flannel trousers that hung from his hips, with bare feet. They had confiscated his belt, the way they do with prisoners. For years we had seen him fat, swollen up by medication. He was thin, frighteningly so, he had almost disappeared. He seemed smaller too. We looked at each other, and what was in his eyes wasn’t fear, or distress, it wasn’t even nothing. It was absolute nakedness.

[*Literally, “Leave Thomas inside the stallion,” but it sounds like “L’estomac

dans les talons,” meaning “ravenously hungry.”—Trans.]

– – –

No One will be released by Tin House in February 2012.

Street-Side, Bedside, Broadside: An Interview With Shannon Cain

by Lydia Ship

The Necessity of Certain Behaviors
by Shannon Cain
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011
160 pages / $24.95  Buy from Amazon








Stories in Shannon Cain’s The Necessity of Certain Behaviors pair exhibitionist events and their three-ring tableaus with characters who typify “marginal,” yet who nonetheless surprisingly assert not only their outsider status, often in correlation with their sexualities, but also their complexities—a young lesbian ventures to the set of The Price is Right to meet her father, Bob Barker, only to find not parental but sexual identities challenged; a mayor’s wife endures the scandalizing of her sexuality after she is caught masturbating in the YMCA’s shower room, only to find that her new relegation to sexual deviant has allowed her singular insight into victims of the myriad sexual minefields in her community—the cumulative effect of these stories also achieves a reversal: common notions of taboo or freakishness gain warmth and humanity, while the normative culture unveils its crippling deformities. Cultural critique couldn’t have a more compelling and sophisticated face. In an era often favoring equivocation as a substitute for vision, this collection is clear: take a stand, make it compassionate. Others agree, of interest to note: American Literary Review, American Short Fiction, Colorado Review, Massachusetts Review, Southwards, Tin House, The O. Henry and Pushcart Prizes, the National Endowment for the Arts, and The Drue Heinz Literature Prize.


LS: By way of a more wide-ranging introduction to you and to the body of your work, tell us of your current effort, Tucson, The Novel: An Experiment in Literature and Civil Discourse, and what motivated it. A quiet little project, is it?

SC: Tucson has been my hometown for more than thirty years, so when it came time to write a novel—for no better reason than one must write a novel, right?—it made sense to set the story here. Tucson is a microcosm of the American West: overdeveloped, thirsty, beautiful, harsh, wild, heartbreaking. What else does one do but write about one’s home?

The performance aspect of the project was born of a weird volatile mix of my dogged insistence on using literature to change the world and the Year Four, Draft Nine novel doldrums. I knew—and continue to know—that this is an important project for me, but my energy for it was flagging and my narcissistic desire for recognition and/or need to be heard wasn’t being satisfied. A more generous way to describe this might be that I felt an overwhelming need to start making social change on some level, even though the damn manuscript wasn’t done yet.

And I was a political wife. My partner (we’re divorced now) was an elected official during the time of the Tea Party’s ascendance and the resulting nastiness and incivility in the public sphere. I was just blown away by all that anger and refusal to listen; by the need to shout down democratically elected representatives. What had happened to civil discourse, anyhow?

So I started reading the novel as oral testimony at the Tucson City Council meetings each Tuesday. There’s a part of the agenda, Call to the Audience, in which any member of the public is allowed to speak for three minutes on any subject whatsoever. So I sort of hijacked the podium and am using it for art. In addition to reading about 500 words from the manuscript each week, I allot thirty precious seconds toward reflection on the ways in which public discourse unfolds in that room.

About nine months into the project, the Safeway tragedy happened, which was of course the result of Arizona’s shameful neglect of mental health services, its cowboy-era devotion to unfettered gun ownership, and its amused tolerance—bordering on celebration—of public incivility. The shootings gave the project a new urgency. I’ve been at it for almost two years now, and I’m about one-third of the way through the novel. It’s a story about land development and politics (and sex, of course), with the culminating scene taking place in the council chambers. So my choice of venue does have a certain logic to it. Still, each week I’m met by confused silence from the general public. The mayor and councilmembers are used to me by now. One of the councilmembers made me her Artist in Residence, and the Arizona Commission on the Arts selected the project as one of five statewide for a grant last year. I’ve tried not to allow these gestures of approval from The Man to take the wind out of my activist sails.

The Necessity of Certain Behaviors is sexy in every way: mature, uninhibited, susceptible. Does it make you feel sexy?

Hell yeah! Isn’t that the reason everybody writes? To feel sexy?

So I meant that question as a playful ingress, but I once attended a talk with a famously gay author, and though the novel under discussion did not address the topic overtly, during the Q&A, one affable teenager asked (what seemed to me) rather delicate questions about the writer’s sexuality and life as a homosexual, in an attempt, I’m sure, to access not only the activism behind the work, but the person deeply connected to the activism. And it obviously struck me then, as it strikes me when I read you describe yourself as a steward of culture “to bring about social justice,” and you say, “If there’s any genre or tradition working within my stories, it’s political fiction,” and that, “Every week, I need to reaffirm my commitment to literature as a tool for social change,” how it must feel to be a poster child in some ways, especially when one of those ways is, by necessity, intensely private, and when it exists in a culture often promoting the embodiments of its overdevelopment, as in the case of sexuality (so many celebrities come to mind). Another interviewer asked you, “Is there anything you’d like to ask someone who’s read your collection, anything at all?” And you answered, “Did I go too far?” I’m curious to learn, from a successful writer whose thematic concerns have powerful political resonance, more about how you view the connection or reconciliation between promoting the vision that makes politically relevant creative work possible, and emphasizing what complicates direct message, including artistic vulnerability, whether in the creative process or in promotion and discussion of the work… and, I suppose, for the sake of politico-writers like me, and for the thinly-veiled autobiographers, and for every writer at that, how you protect a personal sense of intimacy.

Probably I was born into the wrong culture. In America we’re confused about the relationship of sex to intimacy. We tend to think that if you crawl into the sack with someone, bingo: you’ve got intimacy. This is silly, of course. All you’ve got is the interaction of body parts. Why is jerking someone off more intimate than gazing into his eyes? Why are we so shamed by own healthy, biological desires? Why can’t we see that so often we use sex to hide from intimacy? There are a million good answers to these questions, and they nearly always end in the political. We share 98 percent of our DNA with the bonobo, those marvelously horny little apes who use sex to resolve conflict, express joy, communicate. Humans are sexual beings, and sex is good. But we’ve come to accept that politics/society/religion should have a place in our sex lives, so it’s no wonder we’re confused.

Frank Conroy of Iowa once told a group of us fledgling writers that he saw no reason to write about “the plumbing.” We must write about love, he said, but we don’t need to write about all those body parts. I don’t fully agree with this—I think a lot of great stuff can be discovered in the miraculous, humiliating and confounding physicality of the sex act—but still, his point resonates with me. So when I ask, “Did I go too far?” that’s a reflection of my writerly worry about sex crossing the line into gratuitousness.

So I protect a personal sense of intimacy by understanding the difference between sex and love, but also the difference between fiction and reality. Like most writers, autobiography is all over my work, infused, steeped, unavoidable. These stories come from my brain: how could they not be autobiographical on some profound level? But I am me and they are they. I am real and they are not. No, I tell the creepy guy at my book signing: the naked woman on the cover is not me. Go fuck yourself, dude.

Once you had the idea for each story in this first collection, what helped you most in your creation and follow-through? 

The active resistance of knowing what comes next. For me, the process of discovery is where the magic lies. Such weird unexpected truths emerge when I try my damndest to not think about where a story is going until it comes out of my fingers.

How would you describe your best or one of your best experiences working with an editor of a literary journal?

Ben George, back when he was the fiction editor at Tin House (he’s now the editor of Ecotone), took a ruthless knife to “Cultivation,” removing a thousand words from the version I submitted. Also he kept insisting on precision of tiny irritating details like time zones and the physical placement of one character in relation to another. I hated him for monkeying with my genius. Naturally the story came out of this process far stronger than how it went in, and naturally theTin House revision is the one that appears in the book. Working with Ben taught me not only to value the tremendous gift of good editing, but how to be a better editor of others’ work.

What became the salient points of your book production process? What do you wish you’d known earlier about the book publishing world?

Oh, how fabulous. I just discovered a secondary meaning for the word salient: leaping or jumping: a salient animal. When Ed Ochester from the Pitt Press called to inform me that Alice Mattison had selected my manuscript for the Heinz Prize, I was sitting at Ike’s, a downtown Tucson coffeehouse, laboring over some bit of writing. I became unabashedly, publicly salient. Weeping and leaping. It took eight years to write this book. There is no more salient moment in the life of a writer.

As for what I wish I’d known: before I got the call from Pitt, I’d had the great fortune of working for Kore Press, a fierce and scrappy indie publisher with tremendously high standards for both the quality of a piece of literature and the form in which it is housed. Kore (kor-ay) produces the most gorgeous broadsides, chapbooks, audiobooks and trade paperbacks. For four years, I had the privilege and fun of working alongside Lisa Bowden, the publisher and founder, and learned a whole lot about the industry. So I went into my first-book experience very well prepared. I’m no longer a paid Kore employee, but I volunteer as fiction editor and I co-chair the board of directors.

Is there a better cover for any book anywhere than the cover for The Necessity of Certain Behaviors?

No ma’am, there sure isn’t. And there is no writer anywhere who loves her book jacket more than I do.

There’s a marvelous story behind this cover, which confirms the possibility of manifesting desire: ‘way back in 2003 or so, before most of these stories were even written, I was sitting at my desk at Kore Press, daydreaming with Ms. Lisa B. about Some Day. Some Day, I mused, my collection of stories will be published, and Some Day, you’ll design the jacket. And eight years later when the folks at Pitt asked me if I had any ideas for the cover image, I said Nope, but do I have an idea for a designer. And god bless ‘em, they hired Lisa for the job. She knew these stories and their author so well. She understood what they were saying. The photo is by Valerie Galloway, a wildly talented Tucson photographer. When Lisa sent me the cover, I gasped, then wept. Perfect. Perfect.

Writing advice that sucks? Why? 

You must write every day. Worse: if you don’t write every day, you’re not a writer. Note that this bit of advice generally comes from white men. My response: screw you and your entitlement. Come over to my house and do my laundry and make my meals and raise my children while I sequester myself in the attic and write the great American novel and then we’ll talk, you prick.

Where can we read more Shannon Cain? 

Alas, these stories are the extent of my published fiction. Tragically but typically, I spend more time hustling to make a living than producing creative work. I’m a freelance writing coach and occasional classroom teacher. Hire me to read your short story or novel manuscript and you’ll get plenty of my writing in your margins and in long tough-sweet letters about your work.


Shannon Cain blogs at http://www.tucsonthenovel.blogspot.com/. Find her upcoming appearances here.

Lydia Ship‘s stories have appeared in over thirty journals in print and online. She is the new managing editor of The Chattahoochee Review, which is currently accepting entries for its annual Lamar York Prize in Nonfiction, and caretaker of www.magicalrealism.info.

TCR is accepting entries until Jan. 31st.