An Arab Melancholia

by Impossible Mike

An Arab Melancholia
by Abdellah Taïa
Semiotext(e), March 2012
141 Pages / $14.95 Buy from MIT Press orAmazon

In consideration of the memoir, or autobiographical non-fiction, It could be said that I take issue with the genre. Generally. As a mode of writing, the market tends to be overrun by a multitude of examples of the dominant narrative—that of the straight white man—and when the Other breaks into the limelight of that best-sellers table at your local Barnes & Noble, it’s generally within the context of a very approachable, almost white-washed context. Books for the middle-class to buy and read and convince themselves that they know about the world. I realize this might sound unduly harsh, but my experience has lead to the building of this experience, whether it’s fair to the publishing world as a whole or not.

I think that Semiotext(e) demonstrates an awareness of the shortcomings associated with the overarching title of “memoir”—instead of using the term in any of their press materials for Taïa’s book, the term “autobiographical novel” is used. This is an important semantic justification, in that it removes the book from the context of the zeitgeist that it would immediately find itself outside of.

But perhaps form follows function, as Taïa himself is a gay Morrocan writing explicitly about his experiences. Not only is he doing this, he also seems to be the first “openly gay autobiographical writer published in Morroco.” This is honest writing from a marginalized position.

In her article, “Experimentalism, Why?,” Camille Roy offers the suggestion that ‘experimental’ writing, being inherently marginalized, is a perfect mode of writing for the marginalized writer to explore. Taïa’s prose is ostensibly straight-forward—he eschews linearity, sure, piecing his narrative together by presenting fragments of the past out of order—but the language itself displays characters (people) in conflict, events, dialog, psychological insight. And there is, in this case, nothing problematic about that.

The novel begins by invoking Taïa’s childhood, and importantly, offers an incident which immediately removes Taïa, as the first-person narrator, from the conext of the ‘victim,’ particularly vis-a-vis his homosexuality. Considering that the rest of the book addresses, ostensibly, a break-up that marks Taïa far more than he’d like, this is a wise textual move. It refuses the reader the opportunity to develop a sentimental empathy; we cannot pity Taïa because we know he is strong—his sadness is a considered sadness, a larger issue than simply the immediate frustration encountered when facing the reality that YOU love someone who does not love YOU back. This is a symptomatic melancholia, the vague opportunism of the world when it encounters someone (our narrator, Taïa), who stays stubbornly romantic.

The tableau offered to launch the book offers an almost ecstastic holiness, a self-considered realization, a contra-monde mode of being decided early-on in youth—an ecstasy interrupted only by death. A death of the self, both literally and metaphorically.

Death haunts the book, or perhaps just that unknown that we call death when no other language seems adequate. An accidental electrocution, a wavering plane, the crushed spirit. Taïa pulls through all of these paroxysms with a renewed will, a hope, a decisive intent. Perhaps this is not the best narrative to inject into middle-America’s current “It Gets Better” campaign/obsession (problematic in its own right). But this reality is what the book leaves with its readers; an insistence that through everything there is always something else that follows. It’s neither a hesitant optimism nor a beaten-down acceptance, a nihilism; it’s something else, something more human. The weight of the world cannot be taken on as the Sisyphean boulder, but rather we have to just forget about the world and make sure we’re moving forward.

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The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard

by Nicholas Grider

The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard
by Joe Brainard
Ed. Ron Padgett
Introduction by Paul Auster
Library of America, March 2012
450 pages / $35  Buy from LOA or Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are several Joe Brainards you may or may not know. There’s Brainard the internationally-showing collage artist and painter, and there’s also the Joe Brainard who was a downtown NY scene fixture in the poetry world in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Joe Brainard you probably know, though, is the author of the “cult classic” I Remember, first published in full form in 1975. Written with wit, candor and no pretension to self-importance, the book is a procedural memoir, every single brief entry in the book starting with the title phrase. Rather than offering the drama or grandiosity of an amazing life, Brainard instead provides you with a non-chronological wealth of sly specificity:

I remember after people are gone thinking of things I should have said but didn’t.

I remember how much rock and roll music can hurt: It can be so free and sexy when you are not.

I remember Royla Cochran.  She lived in an attic and made long skinny people out of wax.  She was married to a poet with only one arm until he died.  He died, she said, from a pain in the arm that wasn’t there.

What Brainard’s lifelong friend poet Ron Padgett and the Library of America are doing in the publication of Brainard’s complete writing (including key comics and drawings) is both putting back into print many small books and journals published in limited runs while Brainard was active as a writer and more importantly offering a broad view of the literary endeavors of the artist and scene fixture known mostly for one audacious memoir. And the collected Brainard is successful at that, offering you all of I Remember first and then moving from Brainard’s earliest forays into prose in his late teens through to the point when, in the late ‘70s, Brainard without much explanation simply stopped both writing for publication and making art.

With the consolidated I Remember moved to the volume’s front, what you have for the rest of the book is, in the most straightforward terms possible, the thoughts of a smart, insecure young gay artist and writer as he slowly grows older into a smart, sharp-tongued and neurotic gay artist and writer. Even though much of the writing that follows I Remember verges on confessional, Brainard’s spare prose never veers into that kind of melodrama and his constant on-the-page self-chastisement about not being more open and honest (while he’s utterly frank about anything and everything) and blunt admittance of his faults works against the aggregate of his writing seeming self-centered or self-indulgent. Rather than being just a simplistic peek into someone’s personal life, the book is a detailed and compelling record of Brainard’s relationship to the world around him sometimes on a moment to moment basis and in as uncensored a way as he admits he can manage, a collection of moments worth reading and re-reading.

When Brainard lusts after a man named Gordon in 1971 in his Bolinas Journal, for example, you get enough detail on the page to be able to read hope, despair and desperation into his not-very-successful quest to win Gordon over all in the space of a single page. (And you also get Brainard writing about asking Gordon whether it’s okay that he’ll appear in a book in unvarnished form as an object of desire.)  It’s almost as if Brainard arranges his admissions and declarations in such a way that you can watch his feelings about Gordon (and in other places about larger-scale things like life and truth) shift in real time as you read.

Brainard doesn’t display or promote his insecurity and frustration as a kind of achievement, though, he simply records it the way he records the shifting landscape on a long bus ride from New York to Vermont, detail after detail adding up into a portrait of both what’s being written about and who’s doing the writing. You could say this is true of any diaristic writing but the difference with Brainard is that his journals are nakedly self-aware that they’re providing readers with both kinds of portrait and because his doubts about the writing’s importance are duly noted in the text itself.  For example, there’s this kind of thing, which pops up frequently:

don’t wonder why I’m telling you all of this. I wonder if you’re wondering why I’m telling you all of this. (?)

I’m just not convinced that my problems are going to be all that interesting to a stranger.  (And I do write for publication.)

And as much as Brainard shares mundane things like what he has for breakfast or what the weather is like there are sides of Brainard made prominent by omission, primarily his career as an artist and his longtime and complicated companionship with the much older and important-for-Brainard wealthy poet and librettist Kenward Elmslie, who appears in the book sunning himself or making scrambled eggs but is never really given as central a role on the page as he played in Brainard’s life. Which is to say that like all diaristic literary writing, it has been heavily edited before it was even written down, even given promises to the contrary. But knowing Brainard’s biography and how it does or doesn’t align with his decades of succinct personal records doesn’t affect appreciating the work as the finely-honed and elegantly written literary non-fiction that it is.

There’s also another Joe Brainard woven into the chronology, a writer using the simple, direct language of his published diaries for short plays and blocks of prose that act as poems or essays (or both) depending on how you approach them. It’s in these short works where Brainard’s writing takes on a sometimes Steinian and often comedic cast, as with this, from his early wise-ass piece Van Gogh:

Who is Van Gogh?

Van Gogh is a famous painter whose paintings are full of inner turmoil and bright colors.

Perhaps Van Gogh’s most famous painting is Starry Night, a landscape painting full of inner turmoil and bright colors.

There are many different sides to Van Gogh, the man.

When Van Gogh fell in love with a girl who didn’t return his love he cut off his ear and gave it to her as a present.  It isn’t hard to imagine her reaction.

Van Gogh’s portrait of a mailman with a red beard is probably one of the most sensitive portraits of a mailman ever painted.

The writing in the collected gradually shifts from accounts of his own existence more to comics or to the kind of work like Van Gogh, and Brainard takes on subjects ranging from Queer Bars toGrandmother in incredibly precise small texts and self-named “mini-essays” that explore the world as much as they record Brainard’s relationship to it. This isn’t necessarily evidence of any kind of aesthetic shift, though, because Brainard’s centrality in his own writing comes and goes throughout the book, but what the miniature essays do is frame Brainard’s journal writing as more of an aesthetic and formal enterprise than it may initially seem. Reading through the book you get the impression that his directness and brevity were a choice, not a natural way of just jotting things down, and that Brainard was doing his own spin on friend and mentor Frank O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” brand of poetic report while remaining firmly footed in prose.

But Brainard does accomplish a lot across the 500 pages of the collected, not just notation of a life or mini essays but in sum the outline of Brainard’s own aestheticized vision of himself and the world around him. Which may not sound like much of an achievement, but in Brainard’s hands it’s not note-taking, it’s artful and compelling either piece by piece or as one epic work of remembering. Brainard’s collected writings put forth that the small daily acts and fleeting ideas that make up a life are worth not just remembering but exploring and learning from, and Brainard does that exploration with enough style, elegance and wit that you want to follow along with his every word.

***

Nicholas Grider spends his spare time watching YouTube clips of Scout Niblett.

A Collaborative Review of Good Offices

by Joe Milazzo & Laura Vena

Good Offices
by Evelio Rosero
Trans. by Anne McLean & Anna Milsom
New Directions, 2011
144 pages / $13.95  Buy from New Directions or Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

In September of 2011, my colleague Laura Vena and I decided that we were both sufficiently interested in Evelio Rosero’s Good Offices to attempt a “collaborative review” of the novel. (As something of a student of the novel-as-form, I was intrigued by Good Offices‘ superficial resemblance to Lewis’ atypical Gothic The Monk. Laura, though she will probably raise a protest, is an expert in Latin American literature.) Laura and I ultimately agreed that our collaboration would take the form of a conversation about the book, which we each read yet refrained from discussing prior to our officially meeting. Presented here is as full, complete and accurate a record of our conversation as Google’s transcription of our live chat will allow. What it lacks in context and gracefulness I trust it makes up for in spiritedness and candor. In fact, reading over these exchanges again, I appreciate how they allow me to eavesdrop on those selves taking turns speaking up—can I really say that they speak through me?—when I talk about books. Or: when I am retelling yet again those fictions by virtue of which we can even discuss the notion of fiction. (JM)

A word about tone: due to the candid nature of IM conversations, much of the following text is raw in character. My initial impulse was to edit out all my informal language, which reflects not my intellectual self, but the manner in which I engage in impassioned conversation with friends… Not necessarily for mass consumption. But in discussions with Joe, we ultimately felt we should maintain the tone of the original conversation to keep true to the experiment of long-distance collaboration that resulted in this review. For better or worse. (LV)

 

***

JM: yeah, so, I’m curious… what is your overall impression of this book?

LV: in what respect: as in do i think it’s a strong work or what kind of work is it? what’s it doing that’s interesting to us? what’s it failing at? what’s it failing at well and at what poorly?

JM: any of the above, really. I have to say I exited this book with a feeling of vague disappointment, vague as in both “ill-defined” and “of indeterminate origin.”

LV: to me it failed at this: some of the more interesting aspects that were begun early on dropped off. gone. vanished.

JM: yes, the opening paragraphs are very strong. “He has a terrible fear of being an animal…” Not, “feeling like a animal”, no shelter offered by similes or analogies here. But the brute fact: he (it turns out “he” is the hunchback / glorified altar boy Tancredo), like all human beings, is an animal, or of animal nature.

The irony being: fear is a very animal emotion, here recast at the utmost in rationality.

LV: for me, it starts like a modern fairy tale almost. beauty and the beast. except the beast is overcome (poisoned by / captive to) his humanity, and the object of his lust (or the director of it) is a seemingly madonna-esque (as in the virgin, not the one like a virgin) the sinner, she’s the beast

i’m very disappointed in the stereotypical latino portrayal of women here: the spoiled virgin, the old witches, all the old fucking tropes in which women are caricatures.

i like what you say, though, about the animal parts of us, or really, to be human is to be animal

JM: Sabina is a potentially fascinating character who ultimately only sings one note. There’s something both spectral and carnal about her, but not in an overtly Gothic way (she’s not a revenant, or a succubus), but Rosero does little to develop her relationship with her own sexual urges

LV: yes, yes. beautiful

and of course, he throws in that her godfather raped her

so, she’s a victim of sexuality, not a master of it

those first paragraphs are the best in the book

JM: true, but that kind of psychological “backstorying” always feels cheap and soap opera-ish to me

LV: yes. that’s what i mean—cheap and disappointing and fucking typical. it’s like the female equivalent of a fictive castration

JM: I agree… and I think those first paragraphs contribute far more than any of explicitly / intentionally satirical portions of the novel to articulating an original point-of-view on organized religion. But I was not as aware or bothered by the apparent stereotypes, in part, because this is a fantastical grotesquerie

LV:  that’s a really great categorization for this, and defining it that way almost makes it better… except that it still disappoints.

i found the characterization of women terribly annoying

of course, we see more in the minds of the men

not just tancredo

JM: it is a man’s world, which may be part of the critique rosero is leveling at this world

LV: men are “of the brain” even if they’re worrying about becoming animals. even the cantor, singing priest, so of the body / bottle, seems to channel some mystic brilliance, seems to deliver. but of course, that character to me seems to embody temptation. maybe i can’t have that both ways

JM: Perhaps Father Matamoros is a temptation incarnate. But I also feel like he’s defined by a certain nostalgia as well. He’s not a businessman like Father Almida, a true believer in the righteousness of his abuses. Matamoros is an old-fashioned hypocrite, almost not even a hypocrite, just a libertine. Sad, worn-out… he reminds me of Keirkegaard’s definition of the rational but damned individual.

Is the church really evil here?

LV: idk

it’s just human. no transcendence is really possible, but there’s a need for it anyway. so, we substitute a primal impulse. we need to feel transported.

JM: exactly

LV: matamoros fulfills people in a way the meals (provided by the church to the hungry) will perpetually fail to do

JM: then again, it is very Christian / Catholic to equate “human” with “fallen”, isn’t it?

Matamoros offers a kind of “white magic”, maybe.

LV: yes. i like that—what u said

bc matamoros transports the parishioners

JM: By the way, my favorite passages in the whole book — again, near the beginning — center around Tancredo’s interaction with the elderly at those meals he dreads. “Open up, I’m already dead,” they cry.

LV: yes! he could have kept the book there. mostly. and the other things could happen in the periphery of that

JM: The whole point of paganism, it occurs to me — and you could argue that paganism is at the root of all religious thought and practice — is that it helps us to reconcile with the animal aspects or parts of our nature.

LV: matamoros creates an experience, he fulfills what they really need. something primal. not nourishment of the body. but these people were so empty. filling their bellies can’t help

and thus the godfather, god sorry, he says, “it’s not enough”

they needed to feel something. and they were only going to feel it through the return of song. so is the song somehow connected to the animal, primal parts of them / us

JM: yes, the senses, and through them the body

LV: yes. paganism. in a way, it shows that “civilized” culture or cultural expression is empty. idk. i’m not saying that right. they needed to go back to the song

why is he “matamoros”? is that a judgement on the part of the writer?

JM: Killer of Moors?

LV: hahaha

“moral killer”

JM: Of course, the priests here have “high Spanish” (I think I just made that up) surnames.

LV: hmmm

JM: this is Colombia, after all, and you cannot discuss Catholicism and paganism without discussing the subjugation of one people by another

it is to Rosero’s credit, I think, that this is kept mostly in the background of the text (the Three Lilas being the exception)

LV: right. that’s why the song is interesting to me. the african roots of their music. its place in their culture, in religion. and in this book

the song is transportive but it is only reached through diluting the body w/ a shit-ton of booze and it’s only maintained by murder

JM: do you think the author needed to be more explicit about those roots?

LV: no. well. i think there’s some confusion that is not productive

JM: is it shamanistic, what Matamoros does? or transcendent in a non-Christian context. Like, meta-transcendent?

LV: i like the reading of him as a shaman. i absolutely read him that way. but the writer seems to lead us to shame

i don’t know that we needed to see the other priest dead, etc.

JM: do you think GOOD OFFICES is a case of a book that goes too far into allegory?

LV: yes

well put

do you?

it’s overwrought w/ it

JM: you know i have strong reservations about allegory

and I feel its presence here, though not always

LV: and what worked in the beginning as i look at it is its animal-ness

JM: or consistently

LV: i mean, it’s so obsessed with the moment

and then it moves away from the experience of the moment into some kind of moral hell

JM: yes, but I think it also has a strong critique to offer to anyone who would romanticize “native life before the Spaniards”

LV: the beginning i mean is obsessed w/ the moment

possibly. not overtly though

JM: its urgent in the best way, that opening

LV: yes, “especially on thursdays at lunchtime”

JM: I don’t know… there is something truly awful about the Llilias opting for revenge

LV: yes. i agree w/ you. it turns them into caricatures

i think it does. work against it an a most specific way

JM: i think that, as a reader, i most object to allegory not because it is didactic, but because it requires me to betray my attention to the text, if that makes any sense

LV: god it’s a revelation to me. maybe this is part of why you dislike allegory. it tries so hard to not be in the moment

anyway

i think this text is split.

divided into 2 parts

JM: how so? where does it bifurcate? and shouldn’t we expect some sort of tripartite breakage here? or am I being corny?

JM: yeah, but I don’t want conventionally “realist” texts either

LV: no. of course

JM: yes, the text, like the New World itself (thanks, Cortazar!) is this very fraught combination (I want a stronger word, though) of distinct cultures

LV: convergence? collision (my fav)

JM: but — back to allegory for a second — I think of Bunuel, and how he can, in a film like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, suggest “deeper meaning” through very specific and concrete images, actions. Not just allusive names and exposition.

LV: you know what? is it partly disappointing bc no one seems to be steady here. i mean i don’t know who the fuck any of these people are. i think tancredo is the closest to a non-sketch of a character, but he seems to fade. they all fade. only the lilia’s actions and power persist. and they are not individuals. they are a coven (a group of 12 / 13 with friends; i forget)

i wrote that as you wrote yours and i think they can be related. who’s concrete here

JM: and all this could work if the text were a bit more self-conscious of itself

LV: yes

the animal in “us” gets fed by, superseded by, etc. the metaphysical

i mean how the fuck is that working

i’m confused

JM: oh, the terror of metaphysics

LV: haha. but i don’t think there’s really a difference between the animal and the metaphysical…?

JM: how so?

LV: if we are talking metaphysical in terms of supernatural, in the world of this book, “magic” or mystic things happen only to satisfy our animal natures. I think the book in a way subverts the seeming contradiction of the terms. The metaphysical is driven by something beastly.

JM: metaphysics are especially terrible / awful / predatory (maybe?) when mixed-up with morality / moralism

I wish Tancredo were a bit more cognizant of the various narratives which he is, at times, helplessly enacting (and you get a bit of that in his interactions with the Church’s Blessed Telephone), or if Matamoros were a bit more sinister

or, better yet, if everyone in the book were complete ciphers

LV: the power of the lilias is the slave of their fucking need to satisfy their cavernous hunger (they lost everything; the govt killed their families, they lost their homes) and their act of rebellion is fuelled by their righteous indignation ( their “saviors” worked them to the bone; they were enslaved). and so they kill them. just another representation of the truth that saves. this is the allegory: to express power in a misogynistic society, women have to become “evil.”

yes to your point—Tancredo’s not solid enough somehow. starts off so well

JM: But Catholicism never promises anything but suffering on the way to salvation

LV: there is political commentary in the lilias and their reversal

JM: Pick up your cross, Laura

LV: haha

damn. he really packed too much in a little text

the history of race, domination, and genocide in columbia

JM: Yes, I don’t know how much of an issue Rosero takes with Catholic doctrine per se as opposed to “The Church” (never that monolithic, of course)

LV: you know what? that’s a good point

i still feel that he was somehow portraying all that transpired as “sin”

JM: I can’t read this book except through my own experience growing up Catholic, and in a very conservative, pre-Reformed-feeling church

Well, the ending is anything but happy

LV: yes. but the lillias are happy

JM: Matamoros being carried away as a sort of sacrificial figure

LV: haha

he is going to become their slave

JM: how so?

LV: i can’t imagine that they aren’t going to keep him alive. the lilias are now presiding. Matamoros has no authority.

JM: i suppose. just because a figure is sacred, that does not invest it with any power. it just removes that figure from the regualr flow of power. you do get that sense, though, right, that Matamoros is in danger?

LV: it reminds me of a roman polanski film

yes

JM: more blood is going to be spilled

LV: they even fatten him up like hansel and gretel

JM: and no ideas, however beautiful, ever excuse that

LV: right.

JM: So… Is GOOD OFFICES an allegory? It is part of a “magical realist” tradition in which allegory, and the breakdown of allegory, is a critical concern? I hate that all Latin American lit has to be read through the lens of magical realism

LV: yes. the language is so NOT magical realism. in fact, i half thought it was a failure bc it tried to hard to be anti-m.r.

me too. but if the shoe is meant to not fit…

JM: if this novel is a critique, is Rosero’s issue with specific aspects of Catholic doctrine per se or with “the Church” as an institution?

LV: or maybe broader: what is the novel’s critique of catholicism and / or the catholic church.

JM: Or perhaps, is this an amoral text? Is this a text in favor of a return to paganism?

LV: what the hell is his critique of the church, or is it of catholics, society, those who go to church? i think he is judging and condemning humanity in a way.

LV: you know what else? i can’t help but feel that the translation creates some of the problems

you can add drama where it’s not; derail so much

JM: yes. how language is used in the original is, for me, the key to determining how “self-conscious” a text this is

LV: (from an article about the writer, http://bombsite.com/issues/110/articles/3364) “He seems to have tamed the monsters, to have confined them to those books of his infested with solitary, misunderstood beings, who are often also desperate, ill, insane, or senile. All of them are Colombian heroes undertaking, almost always, fruitless pursuits with no point of return.”

i wish tancredo would have done the killing.

JM: that’s the last line of the review, right there

 

***

Joe Milazzo is co-founder of the interdisciplinary arts organization Strophe, co-editor of the online journal [out of nothing] and proprietor of Imipolex Press. His writings have appeared in AntennaeDrunken BoatEveryday GeniusH_NGM_NSuper ArrowThe CollagistBlack Clock, and elsewhere.

Laura Vena is a writer, artist, curator and translator whose work has appeared in Tarpaulin SkyIn Posse ReviewAntennae, and the forthcoming anthology Dirty : Dirty (Jaded Ibis). Laura teaches Latin American Literature and writing and holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Critical Studies from CalArts.

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am

by Sara Baume

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am
By Kjersti A. Skomsvold
Translated by Kerri A. Pierce
Dalkey Archive Press, 2011
147 pages / $17.95  Buy from Dalkey
Originally published in Norwegian as Jo Fortere Jeg GÂr, Jo Mindre Er Jeg by Forlaget Oktober A/S, 2009

 

 

 

 

 

Although I know I shouldn’t, sometimes I judge a book by its title.

At first glance, The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am might suggest some kind of self-help manual advocating weight loss by means of low-intensity cardiovascular exercise. But putting the title aside and judging instead from the book’s front cover, (something else I know I shouldn’t do,) it’s clear this could never turn out to be the case. The copy I have, the hardback Dalkey Archive Press 2011 translation, sports artwork reminiscent of a Marcel Dzama painting. In a forest of leafless trees against pink-purple sky there is a woman standing with her back to a trunk, iniscernible save for her white dress and white shoes. The woman turns out to be Mathea Martinsen, and the title turns out to be a reference to Einstein’s theory of relativity, and the book’s content turns out to be a candid portrayal of losses far greater than that of a few inches around the waistline.

Skomsvold writes from the point of view of the front cover’s indiscernible woman. Mathea is childless, widowed and “almost a hundred, just a stone’s throw away.” All of her life, she’s been overlooked. “The spun bottle never pointed at me, the neighborhood kids never found me when we played hide-and-seek, and I never found the almond in the pudding at Christmas…” Now she lives alone in the same apartment block in Haugerud, a suburb of Oslo, where she has spent all her married life. Mathea likes to knit ear-warmers, read the obituaries and start new rolls of toilet paper. She is surprisingly proud, yet appallingly lonely – so lonely she listens to the distant sound of sirens and wishes they were coming for her, so lonely her only sense of fellowship is achieved by buying the same groceries as strangers she passes in the aisles of the local store.

The 147 pages of Mathea’s story commence somewhere in the aftermath of her husband’s death and with the subsequent realisation of how little her own life has amounted to. “I didn’t do nearly enough,” she says, “and nothing mattered anyway.” She resolves to try making some kind of impact, howsoever pathetic, before it is too late. The problem is that Mathea is disproportionately afraid of the world– so afraid she’d rather let all of her teeth fall out than phone up for a dental appointment, so afraid she has to muster all of her courage just to stop and read the fliers on the apartment compound’s community bulletin board. “I’m just as afraid of living as I am of dying.” She says, and so it takes colossal effort even to accomplish the most unspectacular of tasks – to start a conversation with a dim-witted man standing in a clump of bushes, to bury a time-capsule in the apartment compound‘s front lawn, to shop-lift two tubes of strawberry jam from the grocery store – all to little effect.

The greatest loss portrayed within The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am is that of opportunity. On the very second page, Mathea says, “I’m wishing I could save what little I have left of my life until I know exactly what to do with it.” But of course, she can’t. And so, of course, I know right from the offset that even in spite of the indiscernible woman’s most constructive intentions, things are unlikely to turn out well.

Although I know I shouldn‘t, sometimes I judge a book by the author’s photograph where it appears miniaturised somewhere between the cover blurbs.

I find Kjersti A. Skomsvold inside a French flap. She is intimidatingly beautiful – the finely boned and nicely symmetrical features which are supposedly quite typical in Scandinavia. The first thing I think, somewhat begrudgingly, is how can someone so young and pretty possibly write authentically in the voice of a character so old and toothless, so wretched and lonely?  Surely great literature can only arise from a horrible life, and surely a horrible life is always best displayed by means of a particularly horrible face?

Nonetheless, one of the book’s most striking aspects is the unswerving distinctiveness of the old lady’s voice which never once slips out of Mathea and back into Kjersti. The innate sincerity of Skomsvold’s narration doesn’t quite make sense until I stumble across a transcription of the author’s opening remarks given at a panel discussion on ‘Loneliness and Community’ at the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature last spring. “My plan in life was to be a computer engineer, and for some years all the writing I did was in programming language.  Fortunately life doesn’t always turn out the way we plan.” Skomsvold says. And maybe all we want in life is a sorrow so big that it forces us to become ourselves before we die.”

She goes on to explain something of the circumstances which finally breathed life to her inner-Mathea. “I got ill, and I had to move home to my parents and live in their basement.” Further on, she says “I didn’t have studies, friends, a boyfriend, or any of the activities I used to have to define myself.” And then further again, “I’m glad I didn’t know how hard it is to write something of quality, because then I probably never would have tried.”[1]  And so the book was gradually pieced together from two year’s worth of post-its stuck above Skomsvold’s sick bed, from thoughts about infirmity and solitude and death.

Although I know I shouldn’t, once I’m done judging a book by title, cover and author’s face, I’m inclined to judge it by the yardstick of whatever else I might happen to be reading simultaneously.

What this means for The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am is a Chekov story entitled Gooseberries in which Ivan Ivanych, an aging veterinary surgeon, shares a fable with some friends in a lamp-lit drawing room one rainy night. There comes a point at which he says, “It’s obvious that the contented person only feels good because those who are unhappy bear their burden in silence; without that silence happiness would be inconceivable. It’s a collective hypnosis. There ought to be someone with a little hammer outside the door of every contented, happy person, constantly tapping away to remind him that there are unhappy people in the world, and that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show its claws; misfortune will strike – illness, poverty, loss – and no one will be there to see or hear it, just as they now cannot see or hear others. But there is no person with a little hammer; happy people are wrapped up in their own lives, and the minor problems of life affect them only slightly, like aspen leaves in a breeze, and everything is just fine.” I’m sure plenty of Chekov scholars have already pointed this out, but the way I see it is that the writer himself was the person with the little hammer. Through his stories, without preaching or creating caricatures, he brought to light the unacknowledged difficulties and veiled sorrows of society’s malcontent. And now here is Skomsvold, despite the drastic shift in era and situation, carrying on Chekov’s great modern literary tradition of ‘tapping away’. And here is Mathea Martinsen as the unhappy embodiment of all those still bearing their burdensome silences.

Nearing the end of Gooseberries, Ivan Ivanych declares that “Happiness does not exist and it should not exist, and if there is a meaning and purpose to life, then that meaning and purpose is certainly not for us to be happy, but something far greater and wiser.”[2]  As soon as I read that, I thought of a Mathea equivalent – I thought of the last conversation she forces herself to have with the dim-witted man in his clump of bushes. “Who said life’s supposed to be good?” He says. “Isn’t life supposed to be good?” She says. “No,” he says. “It’s supposed to be hard.”

The book ends about eight pages later, (and although I know I shouldn’t judge a book by its ending,) it’s a good end.

Then, in the aftermath of finishing The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am and in the daily process of performing all those inane little tasks so hideously necessary for continued survival – washing up, brushing teeth, tying shoelaces, buying cheese –  I find myself thinking of Mathea. Whenever I flick past the obituaries page in the newspaper or go to start a new roll of toilet paper, Skomsvold comes at me with her little hammer and I begin to understand that little hammers are probably the best way to judge books after all – by the subtleties of how they come back to haunt me, by the small changes they make to the way in which I move so thoughtlessly through the world.

***

[1]     All quotes from Kjersti A. Skomsvold’s opening remarks at the panel discussion on ‘Loneliness and Community’ given at the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature 2011 were taken from a transcription she shared with The Mantle: a forum for progressive critique and which may be found in full at http://mantlethought.org/content/pen-2011-remarks-loneliness-and-writing-kjersti-skomsvold

[2]       Both quotes from Gooseberries by Anton Chekov from About Love and Other Stories: A new translation by Rosamund Bartlett first published by Oxford University Press in 2004, reissued in 2008

 

***

Sara Baume is a writer, of sorts. Her reviews, interviews, articles and stories are published occasionally both online and in print.  She lives on the south coast of Ireland and can be found at
www.sarabaume.wordpress.com.

Code For Failure

by Chris Vola

Code For Failure
by Ryan W. Bradley
Black Coffee Press, March 27, 2012
255 pages / $12.95  Preorder from Black Coffee Press

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When most of us make a pit stop at the local service station for a few gallons of gas, some cigarettes, or an oil change, if we’re feeling a little curious, we might stop to consider the often grizzled-seeming souls toiling behind the counter or at the pumps. What choices, either wildly spontaneous or premeditated, led them to their current career? Can we imagine their lives outside of work as distinct and complex entities and not just the bored bodies in unflattering corporate-logo jumpsuits with which we’re so familiar? Are they happy? Ryan W. Bradley can provide these answers, and then some. His autobiographical debut novel, Code for Failure, presents a searing portrait of life at the bottom rung of the fuel industry that performs the rare feat of being psychologically intricate, hilariously scatological, and emotionally memorable, often in the same paragraph. It’s a study of the rarest of dichotomies – darkly macho fiction with a heart that builds to unbearable, and maybe more.

The novel’s unnamed protagonist is a 20-year-old gas station attendant living in Oregon – which along with New Jersey, is one of only two states where full-service pumping is mandatory – who gets kicked out of college apparently for, among other things, wandering around his dorm shitfaced carting around a bottle of rotgut. He now spends his days hating on his job with the other creatures who work at the station and his nights boozing solo to punk and pre-grunge tunes on his pull-out futon in his blank-walled apartment. A series of chance sexual encounters provides him with an unlikely side career as a male prostitute for wealthy older women and a succession of younger and scarily unstable pseudo-girlfriends. Quietly raging amidst the mutually interchangeable spirals of a job that is as dirty and spirit-crushing as it is rife with “corporate bullshit,” and a grudgingly slow after-hours self-annihilation in the form of predictable substance abuse and dangerous liaisons (husbands generally aren’t too fond of their wives screwing the kid who scrapes the crud underneath the hoods of their luxury vehicles), the lonely pump jockey must decide whether to allow his chosen modes of employment to define him completely, or risk breaking from an unhealthy yet familiar lifestyle for something potentially far more valuable.

The most glaringly obvious comparison is a young Charles Bukowski – or should I say the “fictional” Hank Chinaski – but here we have an idealized version of the legendary literary persona, a whiskey-loving deadbeat who would be the envy of all other less physically gifted deadbeats (can you imagine the epic freakout a young, grotesquely pockmarked Hank would have experienced had he been offered, point-blank, two thousand dollars to screw a specimen of a MILF in a Jaguar – Women might never have happened). This Bush-era version of the tale of “guy in his 20s drinks, drugs, and fucks up his life but amidst a nihilistic spree of minimum-wage choices and unbridled promiscuity comes to, if not a revelation, at least an understanding with which he may or may not be able to form some semblance of mental peace” might be more akin to recent novels like Patrick deWitt’s Ablutions (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) and Sean Carswell’s Train Wreck Girl (Manic D Press, 2008). But where both of these books lack a real sense of emotional intensity on the part of their protagonists that leaves them two-dimensionally unfulfilling and unmemorable except for a few worthwhile anecdotes, Code for Failure is a pitch-perfect exploration of a much-battered young man’s psyche that equally embraces an ever-present darkness and the humor needed to survive it.

There are clear hints of past sadness – a willful disdain for, and disconnect with his immediate family, a curious difficulty opening up to women, an extreme need for numbness – but it’s mostly because of the pump jockey’s deadpan wit in the face of any number of cringe-inducing predicaments that the reader wants to turn the pages with the fury of gasoline barreling into an SUV’s gaping tank. He justifies in ways most of us wish we could. On his career as a sex worker: “And I’m there for them. I give them what they need and want. In the end I’m getting sex on a daily basis and making more money than I do at my job. Making more money than many college graduates ever will. How’s that for justice?” Even when his logic is supremely flawed, it feels right. Like when the pump jockey explains to his brother after driving home with a concussion acquired from the hood of an old lady’s ancient Oldsmobile, “It was fine. I listened to Led Zeppelin’s II, I was fine.” His brother replies, “You’re an idiot,” and we agree, but we can’t see it happening any other way.

Much of Code for Failure’s success lies in Bradley’s stripped-down, easy-flowing delivery. The prose, divided into masterfully crafted one- and two-page mini-chapters is rough like the gravel of the station’s parking lot but possessed of a smoothness that belies the protagonist’s stymied intellect and creativity. Bradley’s also got a knack for birthing secondary characters who are as outrageous as they are complex: Sondra, the artsy co-ed turned diligent stalker who regularly mails the coveted pump jockey nudie pictures of herself and her subsequent lovers, in addition to a constant stream of undergarments; Craig, the world-beaten station manager who crustily alludes to “When I was in ’Nam,” even though he’s at least 15 years too young to have fought; and Cal, the replacement manager whose convoluted past might be almost as seedy as the encounters his trusted employee has with his 16-year-old daughter. A muck of lives that demands wallowing.

Though I feel that the novel’s conclusion is perhaps a little rushed and a tiny bit forced, my only real initial concern – and admittedly, this might only have been motivated by pure jealousy – was how a seemingly marginally attractive gas station degenerate with a far-from-sunny disposition miraculously has women of all ages and demographics constantly willing to drop their panties with minimal or no effort on his part. But without getting too meta, I think that the protagonist’s likeability as it pertains to other characters within the text stems from the same reason the reader is so drawn to his story, a story that Bradley knows so well as a former pump jockey himself. Moral compass aside, there is a real honesty here, an honesty that is unbridled and shocking at times, but so rare and always refreshing. No doubt author and subject are inextricably linked, and this connection has produced a meticulously spawned ode to struggle that transcends mere bro lit and makes us remember, with no shortage of pain, when we were the guy at the pump; and if we weren’t, we now know unequivocally how he feels.

***

Chris Vola holds an MFA from Columbia University. He is a contributing books editor at The Brooklyn Rail and the chapbook reviewer at Short, Fast, and Deadly.

The Flasher

by Jeff Alessandrelli

The Flasher
by Adam Peterson
SpringGun Pess, 2012
60 pages / $14  Buy from SpringGun or SPD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I read 80% of Adam Peterson’s The Flasher in the bathtub, which seems entirely fitting. I’m not at all afraid to say that baths stimulate me in the same way flashing stimulates flashers. Baths compel me, they invigorate me, in some strange way they solidify my relationship to the greater world. The only difference between soaking in the tub and flashing is where one is solitary, contemplative, the other asks for a wider public, a larger stage. But both are—mysteriously no doubt—borne out of reverence for one’s place in the always-spryly grinning universe.

At its core The Flasher is a love story. A man—the flasher—falls in love with a woman—a muffin store employee—who “takes [muffin] batter off [her body] with her tongue” (31) and is possessing of what can only be described as a nuanced personality. The flasher attempts to woo said woman/muffin store employee. He fails. The end. Throughout the course of the book other things, of course, happen: the flasher visits his ailing mother in the hospital, the flasher makes french toast, the flasher uses a public restroom, the flasher swallows the Earth and diagnoses the sky. But the flasher’s relationship with his would be lover is the driving storyline, the one element of the book that—albeit obliquely—ties everything together. Without it there would be no, as it were, narrative thrust, nothing to continue to propel the reader forward.

I say book. But clocking in at exactly 60 pages, The Flasher is less a book than a series of interrelated vignettes, each one no longer than 200 words, rendered on the page in block form, in prose. Each furthermore has a title that always begins with “The flasher” i.e. “The flasher bests the hero at heroism,” “The flasher disappears,” “The flasher draws a schematic of his heart,” etc., etc. As The Flasher is classified on its back cover as an example of both “Prose Poetry” and “Flash Fiction” one might—to use to use an already overused word, one particularly endemic to our contemporary literary culture—call Peterson a hybrid writer of sorts, but I’d caution against that. This is mainly because reading through the volume I get the sense that at heart Peterson is a fiction writer, a writer of impeccably crafted sentences and skewed narratives and realistic (or not realistic) dialogue. He’s not not a poet with his work in The Flasher—he’s just clearly a fiction writer with exceptionally well-honed poetic impulses and renderings.

The flasher in The Flasher is both typical and atypical. In terms of his chosen uniform he chooses to wear what all flashers choose to wear: a pair of dark sunglasses, a fedora, a loosely belted trench coat and nothing else. But in sensibility and attitude the flasher is unlike so many other flashers before him: he rarely actually flashes, and it is not until the final piece in the collection that he sheds it, all of it, and lets the world see him for who he truly is. And even then he puts on a half-stilted, bashful display: “First, it’s the belt of his trench coat, dangling down to tickle his knee. Then it’s his hat. After that, it’s his sunglasses. The daylight blinds him. He can no longer see her, but she can see the whole of him. He counts to one instant then closes his coat, his eyes. His mouth is still open. And open. And open” (60). This is exhibitionism perhaps, but it’s self-reflective, arguably tender exhibitionism. It’s quasi romantic. Although he certainly makes some dubious statements and decisions throughout the book—at various points, borrowing and promptly breaking up a marriage, ruining Opposite Day, arriving way way too early for a birthday party, trying to catch his sick mother doing something “untoward” (25) in her hospital room—at the end of the day the flasher in The Flasher is a sweetheart, someone worth loving. He doesn’t get the girl by the collection’s end, it’s true. And he also doesn’t make any meaningful, purposeful moral strides; in the third to last text in the book “The flasher tries to draw a heart” and this is what he comes up with:

 

©

Ö

Φ

 о

 

The flasher is a flasher is a flasher. But regardless of whether he can actually draw one, he has a certain heart of gold in every piece in the book. Nameless throughout, he’s nevertheless someone easy to know by the collection’s conclusion. And even easier to like.

With The Flasher Peterson makes clear that as a writer—be that one of a poetic or more rigidly fictional slant—he possesses the rarest of imaginations. Absurdly enjoyable to read, The Flasherdoesn’t present anything wholly new to the world of American letters. It presents somethingelse—and this is unarguably more important. In the bathtub or on the bus or in your deepest, darkest bed, The Flasher is worth reading. Believe everything you hear and nothing you see.       

 

***

Jeff Alessandrelli lives in Lincoln, NE, where, along with Trey Moody, he co-curates The Clean Part Reading Series. He is the author of the little book Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound(Ravenna Press, 2011) and the chapbook Don’t Let Me Forget To Feed the Sharks (Poor Claudia, 2012). Recent work by Jeff appears/is forthcoming in Columbia Poetry ReviewSink ReviewSalt HillGulf Coast and Boston Review. Jeff’s an asshole.

NOON Annual 2012: Blunt Reality as Source

by Ethel Rohan

NOON Annual 2012
Ed. Diane Williams
$12  /  Purchase directly from NOON

 

 

 

After reading NOON Annual 2012, I again dwelled on the nature and the value of the short-short story. I despair that short-short works are sometimes disparaged as underdeveloped and unworthy, and this issue of NOON proves the perfect response to such cynicism and dismissals.

First, the design and aesthetics of this literary magazine are first-rate. The book is smooth to the touch, bears weight, and courts the eye. There’s a smell from these pages that, while not pleasant per se, is definite. Definite is not to be underrated. This book is elegant and glamorous. Even the spine is a standout. I pored so long over Bill Hayward’s black and white photograph on page 107, the work bears my countless greasy prints. I love how the subjects here seem afloat, as if there is no ground, as if the whole point is to throw out our assumptions and re-see. Animal portrait photographer Valerie Schaff’s cover is memorable and her self-portrait on the inside cover is stunning and affecting. She writes, “When I am present, I am beyond the notion of predictability.” This quote proved my guide for the reading and the appreciation of the entire issue.

Augusta Gross contributes three pencil drawings to this issue, variations on a sitting duck atop a footstool atop a plush stool. I was reminded of that song from Sesame Street, “One of These Things is not like the Other.” What has a sitting duck to do with a footstool to do with a plush stool in this unlikeliest of towers? Yet isn’t everything connected? Which brings me to this excellent quote from James Yeh’s story “I Did Not Want to be Wrong and I Did Not Want to be Embarrassed:” “I think I was trying to forge some commonality, small as it was.” Every work of art, from the tiny to the enormous, has value as long as it makes us feel our commonality.

Another line in this issue that reached out and shook me is from A.L. Snijders’ story “The Note” which is translated here from the Dutch by Lydia Davis: “It’s odd that almost everything you may communicate about someone is more interesting than his face.” Which segues nicely to the contents of this remarkable issue. In A.L. Snijders’ foreword to the eight stories contained here (again, all translated by Lydia Davis), he writes, “Blunt reality is my source.” The blunt reality as source unifies the work in this issue and speaks to its relevance and its power.

This issue (refreshingly) introduced me to many writers I didn’t yet know or appreciate. I’m grateful to have read here the striking short-short work of Elan Lafontaine, Anya Yurchyshyn, Lauren Spohrer, Ted Kritikos, Vi Khi Nao, Joanna Ruocco, Greg Mulcahy and Glynis Clews. The theme of mothers is also threaded through this issue and for their handling of the maternal trope in particular, and the general excellence of the work, I read rapt the trio and duo of short-short stories from Brandon Hobson and Dylan Nice respectively. From Dylan Nice’s “The Mountain Town:” “I liked the reminder that worth could be made visible.” NOON reminds us that worth can be made visible.

The issue also includes a series of extraordinary embroideries from Karen Reimer titled “Revisions” that I returned to again and again, mindful of the astonishing amount of time, labor, and love that went into each work. There’s also the sense of the painstaking, in the best possible way, in Robert Tindall’s story “Mick Brenlan.” This story is the longest, the last, and the only punctuation-free work in the issue. The closing line of “Mick Brenlan” eloquently expresses my experience ofNOON: “my own feelings were privileges it was sort of a religion” Certainly there’s truth to the criticism that the short-short story can be misused and underdone. There’s also truth to the championing of the short-short story as brilliance in brevity. NOON testifies to the latter.

Contributors to this issue also include Deb Olin Unferth, Kim Chinquee, Clancy Martin, Roxane Gay, Lincoln Michel, and Ann DeWitt. Here’s a found short-short I gleaned from their respective stories. The title is taken from Diane Williams’ “audacious” and “unruly” story collection Vicky Swanky is a Beauty, (McSweeney’s, December, 2011). Diane Williams is NOON’s founding editor.

***

Ethel Rohan is Irish and she’s got the freckles, blue-white skin, and tattoo to prove it. Check her out at ethelrohan.com.

I Like Oral

by Aaron Gilbreath

Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It
by Craig Taylor
Ecco, 2012
448 pages / $29.99  Buy from Amazon  /  Powells

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking at a map of London, you see neighborhoods with familiar names such as Chelsea and Greenwich, and you see neighborhoods that sound like cheeses (Rotherhithe), erectile dysfunction pills (Vauxhall), Tolkien inventions (Isle of Dogs) and enormous breakfasts (West Ham). Maybe you’ve visited London, but for those of us who haven’t and who still harbor a deep curiosity, despite the dreary weather, bad food, soot, lootings, and long shadow of Bill Buford’s soccer hooligan book Among the Thugs, Craig Taylor’s Londoners both confirms and broadens London’s reputation as an enchanting, holy polluted kickass clusterfuck. And it does so in a way that proves as interesting as its subject.

Londoners is an oral history, a fact suggested by its old-McSweeney’s-ish subtitle: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told By Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long For It. Unlike a traditional narrative or expository history, an oral history is, by its nature, a “through the eyes of” point-of-view. It isn’t theoretical. It isn’t analytical. It doesn’t offer insight into its subject by editorializing or examining, or by trying to contextualize things in a bed of paraphrased or distilled information. Instead, it’s a collection of trimmed and sequenced quotations – just spoken words, the voice of the people rather than the journalist.

Those who frequently read about music will recognize the format from Legs McNeils’ canonicalPlease Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, John Cook’s Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, and Mark Yarm’s recent Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge. All use the oral history form to great effect. Taylor’s is equally engrossing. Over the course of five years, he interviewed over 200 people in London, producing some 950,000 words of transcribed interviews, before winnowing his selections down to the wriggling mass of text that fills these 400 pages. The book not only asks, “What is London?” it asks, “Who is a Londoner?” As Taylor says in the introduction, his goal was “to assemble a collage of voices that could yield a richness about a place and time.” He wanted to do so in a way that created the “narrative arc and emotional truth” and “pace and texture of a good novel.” He isn’t fooled about the project, though. “Whatever it is,” he says, “Londoners is not a definitive portrait; it’s a snapshot of London here and now.”

In Londoners’ case, the oral history format also reflects the nature of not just London, but cities in general. They’re knowable yet not entirely fathomable. They can’t be reduced to simple characterizations, because as well you can describe them physically, their essence is more elusive. As a composite of various, often conflicting impressions, an oral history might come the closest to capturing a city’s character, because the form itself is a bundle of contradictory, overlapping voices. Londoners is a case of form as function. The portrait that emerges from it is, like its subject, a pastiche, and like any community, it’s comprised of its residents’ experiences, and as Shakespeare says in the book’s epigraph, “What is the city but the people?” (It should be noted that, despite the book’s format, Taylor’s intro stands alone as a stellar first-person narrative essay on London, the nature of place, travel, home and being an outsider.)

Writing an oral history isn’t easy. Taylor and McNeil didn’t just dump a bunch of quotes onto the page and slap a cover on it. This isn’t an exercise in transcription. Transcription is only the first step. The job of a narrative historian is to write history by metabolizing existing information, paraphrasing and selecting quotations, and telling the story in his or her own words. The job of the oral historian is to shape the exact words of others into a story, by interviewing innumerable sources, then cutting, refining, editing, grouping and sequencing quotations into a tightly curated composite that forms a larger portrait. That’s a different challenge than the traditional narrative author’s job, but no less of a chore.

After conducting thousands of hours of interviews, the oral historian has to sift through the tape to cull the choicest quotes, the ones that actually say something interesting, substantive, or revealing. As most journalists know, not all sources give good quotes, and not everyone is a natural storyteller. Some people ramble. Others jump around. Some say ‘um’ too much, or ‘like,’ like, um, way too much, and double back on themselves, don’t get the point, repeat and repeat, or can’t remember enough specifics to make their comments useful. So authors edit and refine such quotes. When including a block of quoted text, oral historians also have to leave out their own comments in order to preserve the quote’s integrity, namely, the comments the interviewer made in the middle of the conversation in order to extract more information (“So what was that like?”) and to keep sources talking (“Cool, tell me more.”). And they have to cluster and order their text so that the story’s arc, or a gestalt, emerges. That’s hard work, and an art in itself.

In the end, Taylor fails to “sort out just who is, and who isn’t, a Londoner” or fully comprehend his home. This is central to the book’s success, because this limitation acknowledges the fundamental elusiveness and complexity of the world’s most interesting cities. This isn’t to say nothing is learned. Londoners is overflowing with life and detail. It’s one of those books whose pleasures derive from dipping randomly into the pages, slowly savoring what you find over months’ time. Aside from the wild anecdotes and charged language, what Londoners offers above all is an antidote to all the common, negative characterizations of the city as cold, difficult, dirty and mean. As a Transport for London Lost Property clerk says in the second chapter, despite the “bleak view of London,” “there’s a hell of a lot of good people here. It’s a testament to the honesty of Londoners and people in general who hand things in.” It’s something I think about during my regular bouts of Anglophilia, where I rewatch Fawlty Towers and eat crisps in the desperate ways armchair travelers do when they can’t afford a plane ticket.

***

Aaron Gilbreath has written essays for Tin HouseYetiThe Threepenny ReviewParis Review, andThe Normal School, and writes about books sometimes for the Portland Mercury. You can find him at http://aarongilbreath.wordpress.com/