I went on a trip across Los Angeles last week/end and “realized” myself in a really nifty place where some – only some – of Gandhi’s ashes are scattered. Then I went to the Getty Villa, an amazing recreation of a Vesuvian something. Then a winery in Malibu. I was with two of my high school buddies, the plastic surgeon and the fire captain, and we were trying really hard to have fun, but it was all so tiring and boring. Like: even when you’re doing totally normal things like hanging out all day with your high school bros in the sun in Malibu, man, life, it’s just sorta . . . dull. I know lots of people have it hard and all but not having it hard is its own weird burden. Also I have no idea how strongly my sarcasm comes across and that makes me a little anxious.
After that difficult idyll, I got home and checked my new fancy webpage, and lo and behold: some A**HOLE had infiltrated the code and put in a Twitter feed. I have suspicions about who did this – I don’t care, I’ll name him here: Chris the Jervski Jerskeevilous – but now I don’t know how to get him off. (NPIBNTITILI: no pun intended but now that it’s there I like it – duh). The feed seems harmless but it isn’t. What if someone is offended by the impersonator me? Because I’m not taking the blame for “my” own actions, okay? Can we agree on that? It’s like when the fake Alice Waters Twitter thing was posted about how big a prick Anthony Bourdain – close enough to real but not, like, real?
(Sidenote: I tried to set up a real Twitter account while I was at the winery. Wow: wine, sand, sun, a day at a museum: not the best conditions!)
In other news, awhile back I wrote a story, which is less important than but directly related to getting along with Bryan Hurt, such a fantastic human being that we all call him the salted part of the earth. Bryan – well, he has a PhD – Doctor Hurt has edited a lovely looking and very timely (or damn close, anyway) collection of stories on the topic surveillance. The book, Watchlist, is going to be phenomenal – not only because one of my stories is in it but because the other authors included are all very much better writers/people than me, as you’ll see.
To kick off the anthology, apparently all the contributing authors (save me) got together for a weekend in Boise and filled out a judgment sheet – most presses have writers do this, right? – and now, below, you can see how they ranked each other. (I did not vote in this. Hence my crappy ranking.) To explain, though: the talent of the authors in the collection – as writers – is shown by the first digit; the second is their rank as human beings:
5/22 Robert Coover
15/10 Katherine Karlin
21/27 Randa Jarrar
7/20 T. Coraghessan Boyle
20/6 Cory Doctorow
42/31 Sean Bernard
9/17 Chanelle Benz
23/1 Miracle Jones
4/13 Alissa Nutting
16/12 Mark Irwin
10/16 Alexis Landau
6/24 Lucy Corin
22/2 Charles Yu
11/9 Juan Pablo Villalobos
14/27 Jim Shepard
12/14 Chika Unigwe
3/26 Bonnie Nadzam
26/3 Bryan Hurt
1/4 Lincoln Michel (congrats, Lincoln! Highest overall average!)
2/5 Dana Johnson
21/21 Mark Chiusano
13/27 Dale Peck
17/7 Kelly Luce
4/19 Zhang Ran
18/21 Miles Klee
12/18 Carmen Maria Machado
23/23 David Abrams
8/24 Etgar Keret
19/13 Steven Hayward
18/11 Deji Bryce Olukotun
14/8 Aimee Bender
25/15 Paul Di Filippo
My feelings are only slightly hurt. My story in the collection, “California,” is muchly inspired by the great Huell Howser. This guy:
Every time I see Huell on TV (he’s passed, sadly), I wonder: was he joking or was he also, like me, being sincere? And that’s the question which brings me to Manuel Muñoz and the notion of authenticity. I learned about Munoz’s first collection Zigzagger while glancing over the publications of current fiction faculty at UofA.* Ordered the book, read the book, and it’s very good for a few reasons I want to try to talk about. Zigzagger was published in 2003. It’s better than a whole lot of contemporary fiction. Maybe because there’s so much contemporary fiction. Maybe because it’s pre-HTMLGiant and lacks quippiness (I’m just guessing it’s pre-HTMLGiant, I have no idea; plus the writers over there are frequently splendid, so I’ll shut up now). Probably it just suits my tastes.
The story “Hombres” at first reads like a mini-travel writing portrait straight out of The New Yorker, mid-1950’s: describing a general type of New York men with a cascading series of comma splices, a rhythm calm but consciously created:
There’s not much to tell about them except they whistle Sondheim, they hum. They wear shirts that are not just white shirts, but Italian and expensive to the cuff.
The story then describes these generalized men – in flat detail, but with noticeable condescension – and then lightly mentions how they, when they go to their cafés, consider the thin-waisted brown server boy who “reminds them of vases they own.” The men began telling the boy their stories – empty and generic stories, as presented on the page. But rather than providing the boy’s response, the narrative shifts to first-person:
I can’t explain the men in the city who lived in rural towns and now seek out Italian shirts. I can’t explain the ones who stroke the softness of the cloth and ask me to do the same, before they tell me of the same father and uncle, the fists and the adolescence. But I envy the way in which the skyscrapers and the street bustle convinces their tone, that they speak like no one has stories and everyone should listen.
I watch how, bit by bit, it is their hands that become important . . . .
The story’s final paragraph returns to the vague boy, who is a plaything/audience for the vaguely predatorial (but more than anything else self-impressed and boring) men; Muñoz ends by considering the boy’s thoughts rather than continuing in the suddenly intrusive first-person. His narrator’s implied anger is kept at bay, which keeps the story’s conclusion calm, constructed, at arm’s length. I don’t think this last paragraph eschewing of the narrator’s voice ‘works’ as well as it could (by this I mean: it doesn’t ‘bring out’ the remarkably quick effects already achieved but rather shifts our attentions elsewhere) but the story, just two pages long, is entirely impressive in its prose, details, tone, structure, and overall effect.
The fury – constructed, seething, almost silent – is wonderful. This is entirely preferential but I prefer strongly-toned stories. Sorrow. Anger. Ebullience. I find them more impactful – louder. Even melancholy – the louder it gets, the more wonderful (as in, say, Housekeeping, another literary work that feels steeped in authenticity).
The sudden shift in “Hombres” – from a distant drowsy third person into a thoughtful, observant, and angrily judgmental first person narration, and then back out again – isn’t only structurally impressive but, I’d say more importantly, creates an aura of authenticity. Third-person narration is a (perfectly fine) lie: it’s the stuff of fiction, to pretend there is no author. To begin with that narrative façade and then to suddenly strip it away, an author can (seemingly) step out of the narrative, revealing himself or herself and saying, This is my story. This, what I’m telling you here, is true. It doesn’t matter if it *is* actually true – not to me, anyway – but in the moment of reading, the stakes get raised, that vague authorial 3rd-person voice becomes a real face glaring in our, saying, Do you hear me? Do you?
Along with many other impressive things, Zigzagger is filled with such moments, moments in which – by craft or by authorial instinct or personal need, it doesn’t matter – the tale suddenly becomes truth, the hazy meaning sharpens and snaps into the (seemingly) real. This is not just meta fun, either – the narrative peeking out in Zigzagger isn’t gamesy or cute (and I do enjoy many stories that are gamesy/cute): it’s a more heightened style of ‘realism,’ actually, and it’s an impactful and interesting approach.
*Dear this year’s UofA fiction prof search committee: the story I wrote in my upcoming collection titled “Pistoleros,” in which the narrator applies to a fiction job at UofA, doesn’t get the job, and whines about it? I wrote that in 2012, long before your 2014-2015 opening. My story: absolutely a work of fiction. A good one, too, I think – but fiction.