Tag Archives: spring 2007

Brief Encounters with Ben Fountain

Ben Fountain photo by Liliana Castilloby Shin Yu Pai

Ben Fountain’s first collection of short stories, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, was published by Ecco in August 2006. The book was tapped by the Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers Program, the Borders Original Voices Program, and was the Number One Book Sense Pick for August 2006. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The Paris Review, and Zoetrope: All-Story. He has been the recipient of an O. Henry Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and other honors. He is the former fiction editor of The Southwest Review and lives with his wife and their two children in Dallas, Texas.

Shin Yu Pai: Tell me about your background. You’ve gone from a profession in law to literature. How did you make that transition? Are you still a practicing lawyer?

Ben Fountain: I practiced law for five years at a large corporate firm in Dallas. My specialty was banking and real estate finance—some of it was mildly interesting, most of it was dull as hell, though it got me entrée into a world that not many writers experience. From about the age of 15 or 16 I’d had the notion that I wanted to write fiction, and I’d done enough in college to satisfy myself that I had a knack for it—I wouldn’t call it “talent”—though I wondered if I’d ever have the guts to actually commit to it. But I realized I was never going to have any peace with myself unless I made an honest stab at trying to write, so I made the break.

SYP: What was the process of putting together the book and the path to publication?

BF: I quit law in 1988 to start writing, and it took me 17 years from that point to get a book contract. I guess you can say I was on the slow train. I thought when I started writing that I’d have a book out in four or five years, and as it became apparent that that wasn't going to happen, I became increasingly frustrated and unsure of myself. I started publishing stories in small magazines early on, but after seven or eight or nine years you feel like you need a little more than that to show for your efforts.

After a couple of years, an agent in New York picked me up, but I wasn’t developing fast enough for him, and after a couple of years he dropped me by the classic method—didn’t return calls, didn’t respond to letters or manuscripts, just froze me out. Another agent took on my first novel—set in Haiti, it took me the better part of five years to write—and sent that around; we got respectful, interested responses from a number of editors, but no one would bite, so after a while we pulled that in. By the end of that first decade of writing, I considered myself a confirmed failure in the eyes of the world.

At that point, I really had to decide why I was writing. I had no interest in going back to law; I very briefly—for about six hours—considered going to get my MBA, but in the end, I realized that the only work I really wanted to do was write. And my wife was fine with me continuing, so I figured, why not keep on? If you want to write, then write; if you don’t want to write, then don’t write. I fell into the former category, and I just made the decision that I’d keep on because I liked it and might someday do something decent.

The funny thing is, about the time I let go of any aspiration toward worldly success, that’s about the time I started writing decent work. It took me 10 years to write a story that pleased me—that I could look at after it was published and not cringe. After a couple more years, my current agent picked me up after she read a story of mine in Harper’s. I told her up front that it would probably be a while longer before I had enough material to make a good book, and could she hang in with me for the long term? She said she could, and she’s been true to her word.

SYP: Can you tell me a bit about your long-standing relationship with Haiti, which is the setting for several stories in the book?

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara

BF: I’ve made at least 30 trips to Haiti since 1991. I’d been following the situation for a couple of years, with no real project in mind, but it gradually dawned on me that things were happening there that I needed to explore, things having to do with power and money and history and race and the most brutal sort of blood-politics. I decided I’d try to write a novel about all that, and after a couple of months of telling myself that I could do this novel without actually having to go there—the place scared me, to put it bluntly—I finally admitted to myself that if I wanted to do the kind of book I had in mind, I really had to go. So I went. It’s amazing what happens when you stick yourself in a place and let things take their more or less natural course. I kept going back while I was writing the novel—which never sold, may it rest in peace—and by the time it was finished I had too many connections to Haiti to walk away.

So that’s the rational, speakable explanation. On another level, I think I was half-consciously looking for a shock to my system, and Haiti seemed to offer plenty of opportunities for that. But ultimately, I don’t think I’ve ever really satisfied myself as to how or why all this got going. Maybe these kinds of things pick you more than you pick them; in retrospect there seems to be a certain kind of inevitability to it.

When I conceived the stories set in Colombia and Burma, I very much wanted to go to these places, but my wife drew the line at that point. Can’t say that I blame her; nobody was paying me to do this traveling, and we had two small kids at home, and there was the issue of whether I’d get myself in a situation that would, in retrospect, look incredibly careless and stupid. I didn’t even bother mentioning to her that I wanted to go to Sierra Leone. So to write these stories I did what any writer would do—read a lot, mind-tripped a lot, and relied on imagination.

SYP: “Rêve Haitien” tells the story of a young Haitian intellectual who brokers the sale of stolen paintings by famous Haitian artists, both to help preserve his culture and to fund the purchase of arms to support an uprising. The in-depth detail and knowledge of Haitian art in that story is comprehensive. Can you tell me a bit about the artists you collect and admire, and what attracted you to their work?

BF: Lately, I’m wondering if in buying Haitian art I’m gathering bits and pieces of a culture, a way of seeing and being in the world, that’s fast on its way to obliteration. Because if you look at the way things have gone in Haiti, the environmental devastation along with the anarchy, the near-total breakdown of civil society, you have to wonder what the prospects are for the country. And by anything I’d measure it against, Haiti is unique—the first successful slave revolt in history, the first black republic, etc., and then when you get into the culture, the voodoo, and that wonderful synchretism of Christian and African belief and symbology, it’s like nothing the world has ever seen. “Içi la renaissance,” that was the name of the roadside bar where DeWitt Peters discovered Hyppolite in 1944. It’s the kind of loaded coincidence that’s always happening when you’re dealing with Haiti, and I’ve found myself thinking about this particular one quite a bit over the years, “içi la renaissance.” Something happened in Haiti; something is happening, but we might well lose it. And if we lose Haiti, that unique expression of spirituality and consciousness that’s developed there, I think we will have lost something really crucial and precious.

As for the art in my house, I’m not sure I’d call it a “collection”—I’ve got some pictures that I like a lot, and that freaked out my kids’ friends when they were small and would come over to play. Voodoo and politics seem to be the recurrent themes. I like Roi David a lot, Andre Pierre, Lafortune Felix, Prefete Duffaut, the Saint Soleils. Frantz Zephirin is a phenomenon; he has tremendous power, such a clear and relentless vision and the technical skills to match. Eruptions of talent continue to happen in Haiti, in spite of everything.

SYP: Tell me about the stories told from the female perspective, particularly “The Good Ones are Always Taken” and “The Lion’s Mouth.”

BF: In a sense, these stories turn on the basic fact of female sexuality, namely, that the woman chooses. She chooses what kind of sexual creature she’s going to be—who she’s going to be with, how many lovers, and what the terms are going to be. Of course it’s never absolute; there’s always negotiation, and degrees of choice, but in both these stories, sexuality plays a key role. In “The Good Ones are Always Taken” Melissa wrestles with Erzulie, the voodoo goddess of love and sexuality, trying to come to some understanding of her own robust sex drive and the significant puritanical burden that this society inflicts on her for it. In “The Lion’s Mouth,” Jill’s involvement with Starkey starts as a one-night stand. She goes back with him to his hotel, and keeps going back, almost in spite of herself, and to her own confusion and amazement. But it’s her sexual power that provides her entry into Starkey’s world; it’s hard to imagine that Starkey would have any interest in her if she wasn’t young and attractive. But ultimately it’s Jill’s choice to be with Starkey, and on one level the story plays out as her own exploration of why she was drawn to him, why she made that choice.

SYP: “Poverty, injustice, oppression, suffering. These remain the basic conditions of life on most of the planet…the poor seem more remote than ever, their appeal to our humanity, even fainter.” This statement, made in “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” seems central to the book and I wonder if it’s suggestive of a personal sense of political engagement. Is this the main compulsion behind your own writing?

BF: On some level, I’m trying to come to terms with the vast disconnect between two very separate realities, two very different planes of existence on the planet. On the one hand you have the mainstream bourgeois life of the U.S., Europe, the “developed” world —the life of technology, education, mortgages, careers, a certain level of physical comfort —while on the other hand, several billion people on the planet exist on less than a dollar a day. That’s a huge and terrible reality to get your head around. For many people, it’s not an issue—it either doesn’t occur to them to wrestle with this basic reality, or they don't see it as any concern of theirs, or, to take it further, they’re actively antagonistic toward any kind of engagement with it. For others, it’s absolutely vital and compelling to engage the issue. Why for some and not for others? A question of temperament, conscience, awareness—an accident of birth?

On another level, I think what draws me toward this kind of subject is the sense that I’m never going to understand myself, my own life, unless I try to get some kind of understanding of the larger forces—political, economic, ideological—that mean to control us. For me it’s a personal thing, not abstract or academic by any means. The power structure affects not just our material circumstances but how we think and feel as well, and I don’t see how we can claim to examine our experience with any seriousness if we aren’t engaging in those kinds of questions.

SYP: In “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera,” the leader of the rebel faction makes the statement that “Beauty…it’s nice, but it’s just for pleasure. I believe that men should apply their lives to useful things [i.e. the revolution].” So, what of revolution vs. beauty or the arts, literature?

BF: I agree with the answer John Blair gives to the comandante, something like “Who says beauty and pleasure aren’t useful?” Because I think beauty and pleasure are extremely useful, and more than that, I think they’re necessary for our humanity, our souls. A person deprived of beauty and pleasure puts me in mind of the Haitian notion of a zombie—a person disconnected from his or her soul, a person who works for others’ profit but never his own, a person who mindlessly does the bidding of the boss and exists in an emotional and mental limbo. A robot, a slave, a creature that’s lost its full humanity. So I’d say that if a person wants to be of any use to himself, he better insist on getting his fair share of beauty and pleasure, and if there’s something about the system that’s keeping him from getting his share, then I think he’s well within his rights to fight to change that.

SYP: The stylistic variation in “Fantasy for 11 Fingers” is quite interesting—the interspersion of different narrators and the use of diary entries to develop characters. Why the distinct approach in this particular piece?

BF: What I was trying for with the narrative voice of that story was a scholarly, arch, hyper-informative tone that’s slightly unhinged, or at times seems on the verge of that. A high-strung sensibility, yet more or less self-aware and thus capable of very dry humor at times. I was hoping that the scholarly tone would serve to convey a sense of distance and detachment from the world of the Kuhls, which is, after all, completely lost, but at the same time I wanted to achieve a cold kind of intimacy with the Kuhls, and Hugo’s diary seemed one way to do that.

SYP: This story seemed so different in political and historical context. All the other stories in the book are so very contemporary and set largely in Third World countries, while “Fantasy for 11 Fingers” takes place in turn-of-the-century Europe. But rereading the story, I thought about how Anna’s rebellion signified her own private revolution—-which is a critical overarching theme of the book.

BF: At various times my agent and my editor argued against including “Fantasy…” in the collection; though they saw that it fit, they were afraid that readers and reviewers would think we were just throwing it in there to pad out the collection, but I felt like it fit aesthetically and thematically, and I figured the alert readers and critics would get it, and the ones who aren’t so alert, well, I just wasn’t going to worry much about them. So I do think it fits, and beyond that, given the time frame of the story and the final paragraph, I saw it as both a summing up of the book and a kind of prophecy (a retrospective prophecy, if that makes any sense), as to what was to come in the new century.

SYP: How did you get involved with The Southwest Review?

BF: I met Willard Spiegelman, editor of SWR, at a WordSpace event in Fall 2002 at Martha Heimberg’s house, and Willard, being the brave and questing editor that he is, said, “Send me something.” I sent him “Fantasy…” which he liked and published in Spring 2003. A year later the magazine was going through some transition and he needed help with the fiction, so Willard asked me to come on as interim fiction editor for a couple of months. I ended up staying over two years—I stepped down this past May, though I’m still on their Advisory Board.

SYP: What sort of qualities did you look for in the fiction that you published at SWR?

BF: I published what I liked—stories that showed me something I didn’t know before, some aspect of experience as revealed either through the force of the narrative or the use of language, or both. I got brilliant stories from people who’d never set foot in an MFA program and had published very little, and terrible stories from people who’d published a lot and had all the credentials. It was all over the map and that was part of the fun.

Two things in particular I did try to do—bring in a story by an established writer for each issue, someone whose name would be recognized by the average literate reader so that when they saw that name on the cover, they’d be tempted to pick it up, have a look at the mag. I saw that as a way to boost the journal’s circulation and to give the less well-known writers we published a boost. We published work by Arthur Miller, James Kelman, Aharon Appelfeld, Barry Gifford, Ernesto Mestre-Reed, and Askold Melnycuk. My other emphasis was in finding and publishing homegrown talent, here in Dallas and in Texas, and including these writers didn’t detract from the journal’s standards at all. We published very fine work by Robert Trammell, David Searcy, and Isabel Nathaniel, among others, and the last story I accepted was by a young Dallas writer named Merritt Tierce, who sent us an amazing piece of work. There’s plenty of talent in Texas, and that’s shown in the SWR.

I was at the journal from February 2004 through May 2006. I enjoyed the experience but was ready to move on by the end of it. I’m a writer, not an editor, and though the editing rarely cut into my writing time, it did take away from that walking-around-thinking-about-it-when-you’re-not-thinking-about-it time that I think is important for writers. When you’re half-thinking about what you’re working on while driving, cooking . . . just letting things sift and settle, come to you.

SYP: Can you tell me what you’re working on now?

BF: I’m in the last stages, hopefully, of a novel set in Dallas called The Texas Itch. Among other things, it’s about that greatest of all American religions, money.

Click here to purchase Brief Encounters with Che Guevara at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007

FRAGILE THINGS: an interview with Neil Gaiman

by Eric Lorberer

photo by Jayson Wold

When last we sat down with the prolific Neil Gaiman, he had just published American Gods, a novel that introduced his already acclaimed storytelling skills to the realms of bestsellerdom. Since then he's released an astonishing array of work, including the young adult novel Coraline, the graphic novels 1602 and The Sandman: Endless Nights, the radio drama Two Plays for Voices, the short film A Short Film About John Bolton, the novel Anansi Boys, and, with longtime collaborator Dave McKean, the children's book The Wolves in the Walls and the feature length film Mirrormask.

Never one to rest, Gaiman has written the script for the eagerly anticipated film Beowulf, is currently writing The Eternals for Marvel Comics, and had two new releases this fall, giving us plenty to talk about. Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders (William Morrow, $26.95) is a collection of 31 (or 32, if you find the "hidden track") stories and poems, a delightful showcase for Gaiman's ability to range widely along the fantasy-postmodernity continuum; the book contains everything from genre pastiches to a strange conversation between the months of the year. The Absolute Sandman Volume 1 (DC/Vertigo, $99) is a lavish hardcover omnibus of the first 20 issues of Gaiman's groundbreaking comic book series The Sandman; with a bevy of "extras" (including Gaiman's astonishingly in-depth proposal for the series) and with dramatic recoloring for this edition, the book is a fitting celebration of a title that thunderously displayed the vast literary potential of the comics medium.

An excerpt of this interview was published in the Winter 2006/2007 print edition of Rain Taxi Review of Books.

Eric Lorberer: I love the theme of fragility in the new book . . .

Neil Gaiman: Thank you! I love the fact that I have a publisher who would actually let me take a theme all the way from the design of the dust jacket into the heart of the book for a short story collection.

EL: Did you participate in the jacket design?

NG: Oh yes. I said I wanted the transparent paper that's been cursed by librarians and booksellers all over America. My editor Jennifer Brail and I sort of free-associated on fragile things we wanted on the cover. The only thing that I think didn't work as well as it could have done is the butterfly; we hadn't realized until we actually saw the whole thing finished that you sort of lose the brokenness—you fail to see that it's a dead butterfly on broken wings.

EL: Yes, it pretties up from the transparency. Of course, everyone will remove the dust jacket and investigate what's under there.

NG: That's true. And I got my Little Nemo panel in the frontispiece . . .

EL: I noticed! You know, it's partly the result of the time we live in, but the history of comics seems to be informing so much work right now.

NG: Part of that is, as you say, the time we live in, in that it's now available—I tell people now that this is the golden age, and they don't believe me. But I remember when if you wanted to read an old comic you had to hunt for it a bit. If you wanted to read Little Nemo, you couldn't because it wasn't there, or if you wanted to read some Krazy Kat, there was maybe one old Krazy Kat collection from the early '70s, and you were going to have to find that thing. These days everything's in print, everything's available.

EL: And more coming out by the month: The Complete PeanutsDennis the Menace, everything . . .

NG: Yes! I feel guilty—do you have the Peanuts collections? I keep buying them but I haven't read them yet.

EL: I love them—they're fun to plow through and see that whole world we know so well develop from scratch . . .

NG: I remember what it was like to read Peanuts anthologies; I would read them out on the grass during school sports events where it was compulsory to go. You know, a cricket game would be going on and I'm just lying in the grass reading Peanuts. Now I have these giant anthologies and I should be doing the same thing: I should be going and lying out in the grass somewhere and reading these Peanuts.

EL: Highly recommended. But back to your "anthology'" . . . it's a great reminder of how storytelling is really your highest value no matter what shape the work takes, but it made me wonder, especially in the wake of the novels, whether you work different things out in short form versus long.

NG: Yes, I think you do. If writing a novel is a year's exile to a foreign country, writing a short story is a weekend spent somewhere exotic. They're much more like vacations, more exciting and different, and you're off. "Look at me, I'm writing something that I will finish by tea time!" Having said that, there are some stories, like "Sun Bird," which took about two and a half years to write. And then there are stories in there, like "How to Talk to Girls at Parties," which basically I went off grumpily down to the bottom of the garden at about 11:00 in the morning and came back at about 5:00 in the afternoon with a finished short story. So both kinds of stories exist. But there's definitely a feeling with a short story that it's pure story telling. You're not really worried about theme. You're not going to stay with these characters long enough to live your life with them. And you have different kinds of relationships with them. There are characters in some short stories who exist as people, and there are other characters in different short stories who exist as purely literary constructs. You know, the young man in "Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire"—I probably got that right—is a literary construct, and enjoys being a literary construct. He has no life off stage, whereas the young men in "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" were as near to being real human beings as I could possibly get them.

EL: Another interesting thing is that a lot of these stories seem to be penned by invitation: somebody is asking you for something. How does that affect the process?

NG: It adds an interesting level of desperation. In about fifteen days time I have to hand in a 900-word ghost story to the New York Times for their Halloween edition. I have no idea what I want to say in a ghost story; it's not like I have any ghost stories sitting in my head desperately needing to be told. On the other hand, little engines have started clicking in the back of my head. What ghost-story ideas have I had over the years that I've never really explored, and also what concerns me right now? I would never be so crass—well I might be actually, because I can be crass—but I would never really want to be so crass as to say, Okay, I think the war in Iraq is stupid, I think they went in on unverifiable and mistaken premises and have done nothing but make everything significantly worse, therefore I want to write a story about that—but I could definitely see that being a concern, somehow feeding into what I write, even if the only person who can see the connection is me. Also, what's a 900-word story? At most we're looking at four pages of text. Therefore you have the kind of story—there's one in Fragile Things called "Other People"—which is almost a joke, a short short. It goes in, it does its job, and it gets out again. But I don't want to do a short short, I don't want to do something that feels insufficient, which means that I have to do something that's really compressed. How do I do something that is compressed but still has emotional weight? I have no idea. I may completely fuck up and fifteen days from now I may not have a story to hand in. But right now all I'm doing in the back of my head is chewing it over as a set of problems—and they're really good problems for a writer to have. If you give a writer a pile of blank paper and say you can write anything you like on any subject you want at any length you want, you will probably never get anything at all, whereas if you have 900 words to write, and it's fiction that is somehow op-ed fiction, and it needs to tie in with Halloween . . . okay, those are my constraints, that's where I now need to start building something.

EL: Doing something for the New York Times gives you a certain picture of an audience. Do you think about audience when you are doing other things or things for yourself?

NG: I don't think I do think of audience. I might think of audience just in terms of age. And the Times audience presupposes a certain level of literacy. But no, I can't imagine there would be any real change. I don't know. It's this weird implicit. The only big difference is you're writing for somebody who didn't pick it up to read you—this is somebody on the subway, this is somebody in a taxi, this is somebody sitting at their desk, this is somebody on a plane, and they're just reading the Times because they're reading the Times. They didn't buy it to read me. They also probably didn't buy it in the expectation that they were going to be forced to re-read something—so I probably would try and write something that would deliver most of what it had on a first reading. In Fragile Things I have at least one short story, "Bitter Grounds," which really doesn't give up very much on a first reading. If you go back to the beginning and start again, figures of speech or whatever will start assuming significance and the whole shape of the story and who the hero is and what's going on will change.

EL: You talked earlier about going down to the garden to write, and I know you write a lot while you travel. Can you write anywhere?

NG: Yes. But it's easier to write somewhere where there isn't much of an Internet.

EL: Fewer places like that these days.

NG: I know. Anywhere that I can't check my email is a good place to write!

EL: There were a few stories in Fragile Things I found particularly intriguing. I really loved the ones for the Tori Amos albums . . .

NG: Oh, good! They've been getting odd reviews; one review said, "it was a great short story collection apart from the poems and the Tori Amos-related nonsense." I thought, well, at least one of those Tori Amos related nonsense pieces was picked up for a Best of the Year Anthology, so it can't be total nonsense.

EL: No, no! In fact, I bet this wasn't the one that was picked up, but the one for Strange Little Girls is very hermetic, very dense, very complicated, and yet utterly fascinating if you know the album, since it's a covers album that tries to reinterpret these very male songs from different kinds of female points of view. And then your fictions add another level of interpretation. I wondered how that worked—how involved were you with Tori's process?

NG: I was involved with Strange Little Girls more than any other Tori Amos album, in that I was one of the people who suggested songs, and I was actually the person who went off to the toilet while we were picking songs and came back with a Cindy Sherman anthology saying we could do this... and then I think it was Tori who said I should write a short story for each of them. So I did. And I loved, again, the weird and wonderful constraints of writing short stories, some of which were really short: you're looking at 100-word pen portraits of fictional women. I think my favorite of them is "Raining Blood," where you're given two contrasting lives and you can pick. Really I just loved the idea of just creating something where each short story is a person and it's just a little fragile moment. Again, these fragile things.

EL: So were these different personas coming from both of you or . . .

NG: No, they were her. After I came up with the Cindy Sherman idea, she went off with her makeup artist and then sent me photographs of these women—she had an idea of who was singing each song. So the photos would come in and I would sit there and go, I know your story and I know your story . . . you I want to talk to and find out what's going on with you! Sometimes I had a different point of view to hers, and that's fine. I'd write my story anyway.

EL: You also have stories set in the world of The Matrix, Sherlock Holmes . . . do you like playing in other people's—

NG: Sandboxes? Actually that's what it feels like. Playing in other people's backyards. The Matrix was sort of an invitation before there ever was a Matrix; the film had been made but it hadn't been shown. It was one of those odd, funny, weird moments where somebody phones you up and says they've done a movie and will you write a short story about it for their website. And I thought I was being really clever because I didn't really want to write a story about somebody movie for a web site, so I told my agent that I would happily do it for a ridiculous amount of money—and I thought I named an amount of money so ridiculous that they would say, Oops, sorry, that's our entire budget. Instead, they said great—you've got three weeks! I thought, Oh damn! Then I thought we should have asked them for twice the amount of money. But then I had my idea for the story, and I loved my idea. And I even got to write—I had read the script for The Matrix and there were a couple of things that hadn't quite made sense for me, so I sort of tried to change them a bit: instead of human beings being used as batteries, for example, I had them used for information processing, brains hung out in parallel which seemed, somehow, to make a little more sense.

EL: Possibly my favorite piece in the book is "The Problem of Susan," a beautiful, beautiful story. I'm fascinated on a couple of levels. I love how you take Lewis to task in it, but I also think it's a kind of dissertation about how we process children's literature.

NG: Right—I think people who read that story as Neil telling off C. S. Lewis are kind of missing the point; people who talk about it being about how we process children's literature are closer to it. The actual problem of Susan in the C. S. Lewis books is a moment that I find deeply problematic . . . you have this weird moment that just seems wrong. And if you're a kid and you run into that you're going, No, no, that's not right. She was a queen of Narnia. Once a queen of Narnia always a queen of Narnia, she must know that. Yet, just by dint of liking invitations to parties and lipstick and nylons, she's being forbidden paradise. And then there's this point where you grow up and you go, so hang on, let me get this right: everybody else is killed in a train crash, the entire family is killed except for her, and what does that mean? I was shown some reply by C. S. Lewis to some kid saying, that wasn't fair what you did to Susan. And he said, Ah she still has time. She's back on earth. She's not dead yet. So that gave me the idea of creating a professor who had been inspired by Susan's character and basing it around her, and talking about how we relate to children's literature and what children's literature means. What sexuality means in terms of children's literature. What being an adult means. What it would mean to have to go and identify these bodies. All of that stuff.

Plus it was enormously fun for me. One of the moments in the Narnia books that I've always found oddest is Pauline Baynes's illustration of Aslan in conversation with the White Witch in the very first book, because he's standing up on his hind legs with his forepaws behind his back, and they're off talking. That's a very strange thing for a lion to be doing. It seems to me that one of the most interesting things about God as a concept, if you decide to believe in God, is that God's ways are unknowable. And God obviously, look at the world around you, does or is responsible for some terrible, terrible, awful things. A young girl kidnapped and kept in the darkness and sexually abused. The deaths of six million Jews. A mudslide that buries a village. All of these things. If God is doing the good stuff, he's got to be doing that stuff too. If people are standing up there saying, my football team just won with help from God, then obviously God just pissed over the other team. So I'm thinking about that and this analogy running through the Narnia books, the idea that Aslan is the incarnation of God and he's not a tame lion, everyone keeps saying he's not a tame lion . . . except that he is a tame lion! He's really nice! He doesn't kill anybody, except possibly some really evil witches who kind of deserve it. Lions, generally, especially not tame lions, are not people you want to go off with, because they could eat you. They can turn on you and they can make life really, really bad for you.

EL: They won't keep their paws behind their backs.

NG: They're not people—they're lions and they're dangerous! It's worth remembering that Gods, whether they exist or not, are not tame either. And that's one of the other things I wanted the story to be about, the idea that there is an untamed thing. Somehow I thought I could get that all into a short story, and I'm glad it worked for you. I wanted it to be problematic, I wanted you to reach the end of that story and for it to itch. I like the fact that you can find essays online that are replies to that story; I like that academics have started using that story as a basis for papers, because that story, if it's successful, should irritate. It should get under your skin and be something that needs scratching.

EL: Another recent book that problematizes our relationship to children's literature is Alan Moore's Lost Girls (reviewed in our Fall 2006 Online Edition). I'm about to make us feel old because it's probably a couple decades ago, but I remember an interview in which you praised a book that I also liked quite a lot, an academic study by Linda Williams called Hard Core. I wondered if that paraliterary genre, the pornographic, was something that you ever—

NG: —wanted to explore? I'd love to write some porn, but I don't know if I have the right engines. When I was a young man and I was tempted to write porn, imaginary parents would appear over my shoulder and read what I was writing; just about the point that I managed to banish the imaginary parents, real children would lean over my shoulder and read what I was writing. Being English, the one pornographic story I that have written—called "Tastings" in Smoke and Mirrors, the story collection before this—was deeply embarrassing. It took about four years to write: I would write a page, stop, exit that document with my ears burning and my face red, and then it would be six or eight months before I'd go back and write another page. There's also a little bit of sex in a story called "How Do You Think It Feels Up There?" But I love the idea of writing sex, and I think Alan found a really good model in Victorian porn. There was a period when I was reviewing porn as a book reviewer—I was reviewing everything, but porn was one of the things I was reviewing—and Victorian porn was far and away my favorite. You knew that if a book was written by Anonymous and had a title like "The Oyster" it was going to be fun, because Victorian pornography was just cooler. There was so much societal repression and yet the porn was fun and kinky in all sorts of really odd and interesting ways. The last time I was actually in a hotel and flicked up a porn movie, there was this horrible feeling that these people were really just going through the motions. They had their list of twelve things that had to happen, and they were just ticking them off, and it was joyless.

EL: Well, hotel porn is the lowest common denominator, in that it strives to be pleasing for everybody.

NG: I know. But joyless hotel porn! I think for me, it would be more fun to try and write a really good porn movie than it would be to do a porn comic or even a novel—although the joy of doing porn in prose, in truth, is that people do so much more of the work in their heads than they think they do. There are people who have taken me to task for writing an explicitly sexual scene in Stardust—which doesn't exist, but they bring enough of themselves to that scene that they read it as hardcore porn. There are a couple of scenes in American Gods that I've been told off for as well. One of the most interesting is a supposedly hardcore gay sex scene between a taxi driving Ifrit and an Arabic salesman in New York. And again, I look at it and I think that's really not hardcore sex—you're bringing yourself to it to make it hardcore. Which is one of those things people can do much more with prose than they can with anything illustrative or in film.

I found my biggest problem with Lost Girls simply to be, at the end of the day, the Robin Williams paradox: he pointed out that human males have enough blood to run either an erection or a brain, but not both. And I kept finding myself loving Lost Girls because it was Alan Moore, because it was so dense, because it was so brilliant . . . I was running the brain the entire time. It was not a one-handed read; it was much more like Whoa, there's ten eight-page chapters, and this one is reflective of that, which thematically has this going on, and now it's becoming a meta-fictional construct in which fictional characters are discussing pornographic fictional characters doing things that are obscene and illegal, and yet do not actually exist. Oh my god, this is so cool!

EL: Two people who have pulled it off in recent years, I think, are Chip Delany of course, and also Nicholson Baker in The Fermata. Have you read that?

NG: Oh, I'm intimately familiar with that book—I wrote a film script for The Fermata for Robert Zemeckis! That is a fascinating book, taking a 13-year-old's masturbatory fantasy and then creating it into an adult sexual experience. Chip Delany, I have to say from a pornographic point of view, I read it as science fiction. I loved The Mad Man, for example, but you read it as if he's turned on by flowers—it's not only gay sex, but it's really dirty gay sex, dirty in the sense of unwashed and grimy. Okay, I can understand that for the person writing this, this is erotica, but for me...

EL: Well, that book is more about transgression than arousal. But they really work as pieces of writing.

NG: They're magnificent pieces of writing! I think that if I really were going to try and do pornography, what would fascinate me about that would be walking that fine line between . . . I remember once—I wish I knew what it was called because I don't—but about 16 years ago, on a book tour, there was some porno movie on—this was back when they used to have little TV top units to flip through the channels, and you would get five minutes of the movie free before the scramble. I didn't even know it was a porno movie, it was just the most interesting looking thing on. So I pressed the pay button and carried on watching it and kept getting really irritated when these characters would stop the plot to fuck, because I was actually interested in the plot—the fucking was getting in the way. I think the challenge is creating something, as Baker did in The Fermata very brilliantly, where the sex is intrinsic—where you never feel that you're stopping something because of the sex. Everything has to be intrinsic plot-wise in the same way, to use the Linda Williams analogy but to move it on a bit, as musicals—in old musicals, like in an old Cole Porter musical, you get the action, then they do a song, which reflects a moment—everything stops while that is being sung—and then you restart. These days in most musicals, the plot keeps moving through the song. I think it would be nice if someone constructed some pornography where the sex continues to propel you through the story.

EL: Maybe a pornographic musical?

NG: Who knows?

EL: Let's talk about your comics for a bit. I know you still have your hand in the game . . .

NG: Yes, I'm doing a comic right now called The Eternals.

EL: Are you intentionally keeping active in the field despite the lure of writing prose, or . . . ?

NG: I was very uncomfortable with the way that some people, particularly journalists who like very, very simple stories, were starting to view my move from comics to films to best-selling novels . . . it was resembling those little evolutionary maps too much, where you see the fish, and then it can walk, and then it's an ape and then it gets up on its hind legs and finally it is a man. I didn't like that. I didn't like the fact that there was something rather amphibious about me—at least in their heads—back when I was writing comics. So I like continuing to write comics, if only because it points out that I haven't just started to walk upright or left the water. Actually I don't think it's any kind of progression. It's just a different kind of story told in a different kind of way.

Absolute Sandman

EL: Are you still looking to find challenges there?

NG: I'm very accepting now of the fact that I'm not trying nor do I particularly want to do something on the scale of Sandman. I already did Sandman1602 was fun, because I got to go, okay, as a kid I loved what Stan and Jack did. I wanted to give some of that amount of fun to people and give me some of that fun back. With The Eternals it's much more—okay, I love Jack Kirby, I love even the barking mad Kirby, and I've always wanted to do something with Kirby characters. A really cool thing about The Eternals is that Jack never really got to finish it, and then it got badly incorporated into the Marvel universe. The guys at Marvel came to me to ask if I could fix it, could I at least try to take what Jack did and incorporate it slightly better into the Marvel universe so these characters had value. I thought that's a fun challenge, sure!

EL: People sometimes say, when they see our graphic novel coverage—

NG: I love your graphic novel coverage by the way.

EL: Thank you! It gladdens me because I think a lot of non-graphic novel readers are interested in the medium and want to learn more about it, but they feel a bit daunted by it . . . our feeling is that these are just interesting books, as worth reading as any others.

NG: That's so funny because the reason I went into comics was much the other way around: I looked at the world of books and just went, Oh my gosh, if I'm writing novels, I'm on the same shelves as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and Petronius—whereas with comics, they've only been doing them for a hundred years, and there's stuff that nobody's done before. I think I'll go off and do some of the stuff no one's ever done before.

EL: One of those things was obviously Sandman—newly celebrated in The Absolute Sandman Volume 1. One of the neat "extras" contained therein are some of your original sketches . . . do you often draw out your ideas when writing comics?

NG: Yes, but normally no one gets to see them but me—they're not actually done for other people to see!

EL: Well, it's fun they were included here. The book also presents your detailed script for the award-winning issue "A Midsummer Night's Dream"—an amazing piece of writing. In the middle of the script, you suddenly have this moment of self-reflection, saying, "This is a fascinating comic to write . . . either it'll work really well, or it'll be a major disaster." What was your sense of the risks you were taking at the time?

NG: I have to say that I am somebody who quite likes major disasters! That was my feeling yesterday—I got to see a raw version of Beowulf, which won't be out for a year. I said either this was going to be the biggest movie of next year or it's going to be one of those things people compare to Ishtar. Either way, I'm very, very happy.

EL: And luckily Elaine May's other films are pretty great.

NG: They are! In fact I almost saw Ishtar the other day, because I've never actually seen it. I know it's supposed to be a heinous disaster.

EL: I'm in the same boat. But back to the book: besides all the fun extras the issues have been recolored, and the result is really dazzling—was this done simply for technical reasons, or to suit some vision that hadn't made it into the original series?

NG: It was done mostly because we were never happy with the early coloring, but there was no way to fix things back then. It was also done because stuff that looked okay printed on absorbent paper with the technology we had in 1988 looked progressively worse as time went on—you know, the books have now been in print for 20 years, and we are now printing on these amazing presses on glossy white paper.

EL: It looks fantastic. One last question for you, Neil: at the start of the interview I mentioned how Fragile Things made me realize what an important theme fragility was in your earliest work—which Absolute Sandman absolutely confirms. Has revisiting these early issues caused you to have any new thoughts or realizations about the work?

NG: It's very, very strange. Reading The Sandman opus again, it really felt . . . like it was done by somebody else. In many ways, for the first time ever, I wasn't reading it thinking what was in my head when I wrote this, I was just reading what was on the paper—which you don't get to do often. The main thing I wound up feeling was that it was very much . . . how do I put this? . . . that Sandman was very much part of the oeuvre. Occasionally I run into people who've just read my novels, and they'll talk as if that's the only thing I do, and I'll think, Well, actually, Sandman isn't that at all, and it's the biggest thing I've ever done—it was two thousand pages long, there's a million words of writing there—so if you really want to understand what I write, you need to read it. So part of the joy of doing Absolute Sandman now is getting it into a shape I feel comfortable putting in front of people. And I'm really pleased about the reaction to Sam Keith's art. People are saying, Oh, I hadn't realized the level of cartooning, the level of what he was actually doing . . . and I'm thinking, well of course you didn't realize it, because there was a big wad of flat purple across it!

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007


THE CLASSICAL TRIVIUM: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time
Marshall McLuhan
edited by Terrence Gordon
Gingko Press ($39.95)

LOVING THE MACHINE: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots
Timothy N. Hornyak
Kodansha International ($26.95)

by Ann Klefstad

What happens when you use a new lens to reread a familiar aspect of the world? The use of such a tool can be facile—to mix metaphors, it can be the sort of hammer that makes everything look like a nail—or it can transform the familiar landscape, make new attributes appear.

The crafting of such new lenses is perhaps the best use of real scholarship: the work of deep imagination as well as painstaking acquisition of fact. Such a new lens can tell us how careless our views of other times and places often are. When we are imprisoned by familiar assumptions, such times can seem too similar to our own, and the differences we do perceive are not understood fully, because we lack a full context of difference. The careless move forward and the automatic reversion constitute a double motion that keeps us too centered on our own assumptions.

Both of these books can act as such new lenses, with different degrees of acuity.

McLuhan's piece on Thomas Nashe, and his use of the trivium to understand the full context of Renaissance rhetoric, is a kind of textbook example of the transforming power of an unfamiliar concept understood fully and researched exhaustively. McLuhan used the concepts honed in this work—which was his doctoral thesis—to transform our understanding of the importance of the medium, the form, to meaning. The distinction between form and content could never be simply assumed again.

The trivium—grammar, dialectic, rhetoric—was a curriculum, a set of methods, dating from the Greek classical era. It's a system to produce meaning that's consistently readable. That is, it's a machine for writing, and for reading the writing that's been written under its aegis, inside its system. It was the bedrock of scholarly curricula from the Greeks all the way through the medieval era and into the Renaissance, a kind of disembodied doppelgänger of the hard-built forms of our culture.

In his thesis on the topic of the trivium in Thomas Nashe's writing, McLuhan seized on some of the systems-style thinking that characterized his later work on the relation of medium and content, and found in the medium of a Classical and medieval curriculum (the trivium) a key to the eccentric and brilliant Renaissance writer Thomas Nashe's message. The increase in clarity this brought to his understanding of Nashe was a foretaste of the increased clarity to be brought to a larger study of culture using similar methods. In his scrupulous attention to the importance of the history of form, content—any content—was seen to be far more intricately tied to it than we previously suspected.

What about the other book? The other new lens? Timothy Hornyak attempts to revise mistrustful Western ideas of robotics and the cyborg by giving us the lens of Japanese mechanical history. The view of the human simulacrum, he says, is very different in Japan. By giving us a careful history of what produced that difference, he attempts to inflect, our understanding of the possibilities of the medium.

The robot—both the aestheticized human robot and the functional industrial robot—is a device and a set of ideas as well. We can displace ideas of humanness onto this doppelgänger, ideas of what matters about our bodies, our wills, our functions. The robot is a kind of embodied rhetoric of the human, and different cultures will take different attitudes to it. Hornyak, in this popular-audience book on the Japanese attitude towards robots, investigates the reasons for Japanese robot affinity in that culture's rhetoric of human origins and destiny—and its difference from cultures of the West in this regard.

His study, however, is far more shallow. This book is an anecdotal history that's quite readable but not ambitious about developing the explanatory power of its anecdotes. The insights Hornyak propounds help us to know the factual history of robotics in Japan but do little to get at the differing notions of what constitutes human essence that would seem to underlie the East-West distinction he proposes. You're left at the end of the book wondering if there's any real difference at all between American and Japanese ideas of robots.

The books are only adjacent, not connected, but there are resonances that travel between the ideas of a system of language that drives real-word constructions and a real-world construction that is created by rhetorics of being human as well as cyber-languages. The real opportunity in reading these books is the chance to see how thorough knowledge of the history of forms differs from a superficial knowledge of a historical event in its interpretive power.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007


Volume One
Lord Breaulove Swells Whimsy
Bloomsbury USA ($14.95)

by Maria Christoforatos

More often than not I conduct my days dressed in scruffy denim overalls and unshined shoes, however Lord Breaulove Swells Whimsy's The Affected Provincial's Companion refreshed my more subtle sensibilities. This lovely book—designed almost entirely by the author and with a foil-embossed green cover and charming illustrations—is divided into three segments: "Apothegms, Treatises, and Naughty Rimes," "Metaphysical Squibbery," and "Anecdotes and Vignettes." The succinct chapters amble agreeably from topics such as the proper grooming of one's beard ("Now That You Are A Man") to the preservation of authenticity without falling apart at the seams ("On the Diluted and Concentrated States of Being").

Lord Whimsy hilariously addresses sublime deportment and naturalist curiosities as well, searching bogs for the Pine Barrens Treefrog or conducting theatre nights with fiddler crabs. One particularly astonishing sartorial refinement he suggests is to attach a female moth to one's lapel, as "the female moth emits powerful pheromones that attract males, so that when attending an evening garden party, one might astound fellow guests by strolling about in a cloud of fornicating moths." The volume also contains a number of convoluted philosophical maps outlining topics such as nostalgia versus continuity, the blooming of character as demonstrated by the butterfly, and even mighty strategies for masculine "self-congress." (!)

While there is certainly no lack of uproarious themes, a sharp observer lies beneath the light-hearted tenor. Whimsy's inspection of trends such as metrosexuality and the fundamental differences between bohemianism and dandyism reveal a vibrant, keen eye and talent for extracting both the salient and subliminal aspects of the cultural landscape. Those who enjoy the finer points of ornamentation will find solace in many of the articles. For example, "Overdress!" refutes the notion that to overdress is a pompous activity, and astutely calls out "underdressing" as its own form of artifice and corridor to social privilege. And in "Gender and Dandyism," Whimsy sincerely advocates an inclusive state of affairs, although perhaps a survey of the history of aesthetic artifice would have been illuminating here as well. All the same, Whimsy's identification of dandyism as the evocation of "androgynous elements within a masculine vessel" rings true.

The Affected Provincial's Companion can be read not only as a witty appraisal of dandyism but as an anti-apocalyptic enticement to forge one's own life and world into the texture that sings most to one's senses. In a world where it appears cynicism and jaded sneers are valued as survival mechanisms, this is a spirited act indeed. Whimsy's call to harness enchantment in the everyday lends the book broad appeal. It is written with an unequivocally effervescent hand and is a wonderful achievement—a truly charming appeal from the heart of a naturalist, a satirical counsel in refinement, and an ecstatic summons:

We shall abandon the use of nuts and bolts for seeds and water, employing the infinitely complex processes of nature: Imagine a city composed of giant, sentient fungi! Three-bedroom orchids! Pitcher plant elevators! Laptop computers grown from venus flytraps!

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

READING LIKE A WRITER: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

Francine Prose
HarperCollins ($23.95)

by Eva Ulett

In the opening line of her new book, Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose asks an essential question: "Can creative writing be taught?" Her response is that creative writing can be learned in part from the careful reading of accomplished writers, including the old masters; "And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?" The first chapter, "Close Reading," describes Prose's theory that,

Reading this way requires a certain amount of stamina, concentration, and patience. But it also has its great rewards, among them the excitement of approaching, as nearly as you can hope to come, the hand and mind of the artist.

Prose goes back to basics with chapters on "Words" and "Sentences", the fundamental constructs of writing, what Stephen King referred to in On Writing as part of a writer's toolbox. It seems likely that readers, perhaps even those endeavoring to write fiction, fail to consider writing on this elemental level. Yet Prose demonstrates through well-selected examples how the art of fiction is created at this level. So what constitutes a beautiful sentence?

The answer is that beauty, in a sentence, is ultimately as difficult to quantify or describe as beauty in a painting or a human face. Perhaps a more accurate explanation might be something like Emily Dickinson's well-know definition of poetry: "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know this is poetry."

Prose devotes chapters to the elements of writing generally discussed in how-to books on the craft, using Henry James and Nabokov in the chapter on "Narration"to illustrate how point of view informs readers about setting and character. "Character," for its part, is illustrated with examples from Heinrich von Kleist's, whose novella The Marquise of O— brought Prose's undergraduates students together in their discussion of the story's characters as though they were involved in the Marquise's "life and loves."

In the concluding chapters Prose describes the challenges of teaching creative writing and the pursuit of writing fiction, an art form with no rules that cannot be broken; and in the case of some masters of fiction, with felicitous results. Yet Reading Like a Writer is not all forensics. The book, of infinite use as a creative writing text, is also instructive to serious readers, and is itself a pleasure to read. Prose's careful construction supports her contention that "All the elements of good writing depend on the writer's skill in choosing one word instead of another."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

NECK DEEP: And Other Predicaments

Ander Monson
Graywolf Press ($15)

by Jessica Bennett

Ander Monson has a geeky devotion to many things: computers, disc golf, card catalogs, pop culture, and, above all, words. His playfulness with the last has produced a volume of poetry (Vacationland, Tupelo Press), a collection of fiction (Other Electricities, Sarabande), and this new non-fiction collection, the winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction prize. What's truly remarkable is that all three have been published in the space of less than two years—a trifecta that would be noteworthy even if the author hadn't received starred reviews inPublisher's Weekly for both the fiction and Neck Deep. Monson seems well on his way to establishing himself as an important voice in contemporary literature, and could conceivably bury us in books of all forms and genres before the end of the decade.

In this often amusing, inventive, and unconventional approach to autobiography, Monson comes at us sideways with personal revelations and observations that are alternately filled with infectious enthusiasm and shamefaced contrition. Acutely aware of the danger of prose becoming prosaic, he breaks from the confessional mode of so much literary nonfiction and instead uses forms that mirror what the reader imagines to be his thoughts—disjointed and poetic at times, sometimes tightly organized, at others free flowing, and at still others frenetic. The result is a complex and surprisingly consistent mix.

In "I Have Been Thinking About Snow," the second essay in the collection, Monson intersperses commentary and remembrances with irregular lines of periods, the dots representing at once the natural pauses of writing—as though he held down the period key in between his thoughts—and the snow itself. Here, alternating with meteorological data and vague observations about beauty, we get glimpses of Monson's childhood in Upper Michigan:

..................................Is snow a lack or a mass. The white suggests the lack, but such weight! I used to demand that my brother cover me over with snow until it weighed so much that I could not move. My head would pop out of the patted-down bank like a Whack-a-Mole. My brother would begin to pelt me with snowballs. That weight would feel so good above me.

The observations gradually grow briefer and more remote, the sections of dots taking over the page much the way a white-out overtakes a road in a winter storm, until we reach two pages covered in dots, the only text "such" and "isolation," separated from each other so that even these words can't seem to find a meeting place. Then the text begins to build again, giving the feeling of the writer coming back into focus. This prose-poem, experimental essay, or whatever label you can affix to it, contains all the pleasure of poetry's negative spaces—open for interpretive readings—combined with the field-guide-to-life qualities of good literary non-fiction. Monson serves up frank honesty along with opacity, sometimes in the space of a few dots, and both are the better for the combination.

The book begins with two experimental pieces—a rigidly regimented essay in the form of a Harvard outline followed by the aforementioned amorphous and dotted homage to snow—so the third piece, "Cranbrook Schools: Adventures in Bourgeois Topologies," comes as a surprise with its funny, provocative, and straightforward prose:

Although I am not proud of it, I am waiting here for a revelation. I am waiting for meaning, for my experience to unpack itself, for my criminal history to find a kind of home, some explanation, or maybe truce.

Monson unfolds this "criminal history" with the skill of a good mystery writer, giving us just enough to keep the pages turning without telling all until he's good and ready.

Monson writes with such seeming ease, even though he seems uneasy with the role of a writer of non-fiction from whom honesty is expected, if not delivered. The specter of James Frey hangs heavy over Monson's head, and Frey is mentioned more than once in the collection as a kind of disclaimer—Monson's not necessarily giving us perfect veracity, even if he's sincerely trying. Often here the words flow like conversation—a conversation with a friend whose preoccupations you may not share but you can appreciate nonetheless. As in a conversation with a smart but excitable friend, you may find yourself at the end wondering at those spaces left, the lies of omission, the thoughts abandoned to tangents—and hoping to hear from him again soon so he can fill in some of the blanks.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

ARE WE FEELING SAFER YET?: A (Th)ink Anthology

Keith Knight
Top Shelf Productions ($12.95)

by William Alexander

Pat Parker once wrote a poem called "For the white person who wants to know how to be my friend." It starts like this:

The first thing you do is to forget that i'm Black.
Second, you must never forget that i'm Black.

I'll be using Parker's Paradox to review Keith Knight's new anthology of (Th)ink cartoons, "Are We Feeling Safer Yet?" The first thing to do is forget that he's Black.

Knight's cartoons are single-panel snapshots of politics and current events. His adorable drawing style gives the impression that each cartoon is a window into a warm, happy world of harmless humor; instead he takes an unflinching look at war, torture, and poverty. There's a skillful negotiation at work here: Knight's wit and goofy style serve as pressure valves, releasing the tension that comes of tackling harsh material, but a topic like police brutality is also made more disturbing when the characters sport silly grins. The result is as painful as it is hysterical. Imagine Dick Cheney guest-starring on The Muppet Show, and you pretty much get the idea.

The Vice President gets a fair amount of abuse in (Th)ink, but the most recurring character is a tiny, grinning, giggling Dubya. He points at his television and laughs, delighted, when he wins the first democratic election in Iraq because we've lent them our voting machines. He hands drafting notices to homeless Vietnam vets, rides a tricycle, and shouts "Bring it on!" to Mother Nature during Hurricane Season. The wee character is so cute and clueless that you almost feel sorry for him. Almost.

To sum up: Keith Knight is an outstanding cartoonist, comedian, and political commentator. He's also Black, and don't ever forget it.

The main character of the K-Chronicles, Knight's semi-autobiographical comic strip, is Black. Most of the ordinary folk who walk through (Th)ink panels are Black. Most of the political issues in (Th)ink are of particular relevance to the African-American community, such as reparations, voter disenfranchisement, and the subtle difference between "finding" and "looting" groceries in a flooded New Orleans.

The comparison to Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks is inevitable; like Boondocks(Th)ink takes shots at the flashy materialism of gangsta culture and booty-ogling on BET. The two comics also share slightly geekier material, referencing Star Wars and X-Men (my favorite has Malcolm X sporting Wolverine claws). But (Th)ink is no Boondocks knock-off. Knight's visual style and sense of humor are his own, and the nation is lucky to have him.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007


Jules Verne
translated and edited by Frederick Paul Walter and Walter James Miller
Bison Books / University of Nebraska Press ($15.95)

by Ryder W. Miller

Mostly known for movie adaptations and a few books widely read by adventure fans, Jules Verne (1828-1905) has in recent years gained renewed attention for his prolific body of work. Verne, arguably the most successful French writer in the English language, is no longer remembered simply as the author of a few very famous science fiction books (20,000 Leagues Under the SeaJourney to the Center of the Earth, and Around the World in Eighty Days). He was also a poet, playwright, and arguably the founder of science fiction—writing such speculative novels before the moniker was coined.

This recently published edition of The Meteor Hunt ably shows why Verne is still admired by readers today. According to the translators in their foreword, we have largely been reading "frauds" and "criminally slapdash versions" of Verne's novels, many drastically altered by his son Michel—this very book, in fact, was previously released as The Chase of the Golden Meteor and reissued by the same publisher not long ago. But this more accurate text of The Meteor Hunt, along with Paris in the Twentieth Century and a few other titles, breaks the mold of what we are accustomed to expect from Verne: an un-crowded extraordinary voyage without a lot of romance. In contrast to the dense social novels of the same period, Verne's works focus on the intellectual challenges of scientific enterprise, presenting new inventions, explanations, and possibilities—and as is well-known, many of the technological predictions and issues he wrote about have since become real. There are no new technologies or modes of transportation in this book, but Verne does correctly predict here that we may someday be in danger from a meteor that is on a collision course with Earth.

Despite being book-ended by rigorous literary scholarship—in addition to the polemical foreword there are notes, an afterword, and an annotated bibliography—The Meteor Hunt is a charming novel, and the translators have gone to great lengths to keep it authentic and fun. The story revolves around a solid gold meteor on a collision course with Earth, which is causing a great deal of anticipation and consternation. Here we find well-rounded female characters, often missing in Verne's other famous works; we also find wry commentary on the economy (the golden meteor will flood the gold market) and human ambition (astronomers vie to be recognized as the first to discover the meteor), yet the satirical sense of the novel does not interfere with the engaging scientific tale being told. In this winning edition, The Meteor Huntwill surely add to the Verne renaissance currently underway.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007


Hala El Badry
translated by Nancy Roberts
The American University in Cairo Press ($22.95)

by Rudi Dornemann

Some novels derive their power from an in-depth view of a single individual facing a crucial time in their life. Others offer a panoramic view of many lives, perhaps across the events of many years. Hala El Badry's novel Muntaha achieves a dual effect, following Taha Musaylihi, the mayor of a Nile-side village during the years just after the end of World War II, but also showing us the joys and struggles of life in the village during the first six decades of the 20th century. In the end, Taha's story is inextricably bound together with the stories of those around him—his family, first, but also the villagers on whose behalf he works, and even the story of Egypt as a whole.

In a period when Egypt is no longer a British colony but not yet an independent nation, and local authorities can be arbitrary and harsh, small misunderstandings can quickly be compounded into crises that threaten the village's very existence. A shrewd judge of character who knows everything that goes on in his constituency, Taha is an excellent mayor, conscientious and widely trusted. He's often pressed into the role of intercessor between the villagers and the local police force, and carries out this role ably until the evolving situation threatens to overwhelm his best efforts.

This plotline alone easily provides enough substance for a novel, but El Badry's vision is broader, encompassing Taha's parents and siblings, his wife and children, and the residents of the village of Muntaha. The novel moves nimbly from one character to another and moves with equal ease from the present moment to recollection to flashback.

Taha recalled the day when he had decided to change the course of his life and become a grain merchant. He remembered the cartwheels as they clattered beneath the weight of his body, and the speed of the two horses as he flew with them over the dirt road like a shooting star falling into a darkened sky.

Slipping backwards or forwards in time allows El Badry to show the early seeds of events or to capture a sense of how the memory of those events shapes those who come later. Along the way, there are weddings and scandals, tragedies and moments of humor, and always the ongoing routine of everyday life in Taha's household. While the ordinary lives of Muntaha's inhabitants are central to the book, the novel is occasionally punctuated by eccentrics who wouldn't be out of place in a Faulkner story and wonders that would be at home in Garcia Marquez's work.

Sometimes lavish to the point of poetic, the prose is rich and descriptive, part of a reflective and intimate storytelling voice. By "storytelling," I don't mean to imply that Muntaha is a work of Arabian Nights-style exoticism. While there's much that a non-Egyptian reader will find unfamiliar in the lives of El Badry's characters, the novel has a feel of family stories remembered and retold. This tone fits with the ongoing relationship between the present and the past—and even the future—that is integral to the novel.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007


Alan DeNiro
Small Beer Press ($16)

by Rod Smith

German theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) coined "numinous" to describe "that which is wholly other," the mysterium tremendum et fascinans ("mystery awesome and fascinating") that leads people toward magic, religion, and the like. Alan DeNiro's stories have plenty to do with otherness and abound with awesome, fascinating mysteries. Yet he and Otto (English occultist Kenneth Grant, too, who used "that which is wholly other" to define "evil") harbor fundamentally different agendas.

For Otto, any union between human and numinous entity is both partial and fleeting, even within the high-yield realms of Pentacostalism or Vodoun. Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead's protagonists mostly start half-numinous and, practically begging for epigenesis, become more so—sometimes for good, as in "Cuttlefish." The Genoan street urchin who spends his days killing and dismantling the titular critters does so neither out of hate nor from the scant renumeration he gets from his only friend, a dealer in birds. He hears the thoughts of cuttlefish all over the globe, and merely seeks a little piece and quiet. Problem is, the telepathic contact continues even beyond the grave, seriously threatening his sanity until salvation arrives in the guise of a vampire squid.

By no means are DeNiro's characters always so troubled; for some, the miraculous is second nature. Before her transformation, the trapeze artist of "Fuming Woman" (like the cuttlefish boy, nameless) leaps higher and higher, catching one bar in her teeth, the next with her belly button, the third with a kidney, and the highest with "her slightly ironic, melancholic disposition," all while the circus beneath her is convulsed in a riot that threatens to bring the big top down. DeNiro makes the extraordinary ascent seem like part of her act.

Just as he both de-stigmatizes the wondrous and makes it seem perfectly natural, the author excels in bringing the sinister aspects of mundane existence to the surface. Blundering, overzealous, government functionaries (and their functions) bear the brunt of his wit-and DeNiro is often damn funny-in "The Fourth," when they nearly destroy a neighborhood over three packets of Kool-Aid an innocent husband and father receives in the mail.

DeNiro doesn't pick exclusively on squares, by any means. The title story's targets are the 23rd-century counterparts of today's New Agers and Boomer-style activists, royal pains one and all for the emancipated teens who make up the bulk of Suddenly's population, but especially thorny for the narrator (nameless until story's end) after he falls in love with a girl who's part dolphin. That the author captures the 18-year-old mindset perfectly enough to jog an octegenarian's memory only sweetens the fruits of his imagination. While he hardly lacks for peers—Benjamin Rosenbaum, Aimee Bender, and Small Beer Press publisher Kelly Link stand out—the extent of DeNiro's range and the suppleness of his voice would set him apart even minus the compassion that drives Skinny Dipping. Who could possibly resist a writer whose giants sit in their suburban living room around an XXL Monopoly board, as DeNiro's do in "The Friendly Giants," cheerfully moving massive, custom-designed pieces?

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007