Zazen by Vanessa Veselka is an amazing novel, easily one of the most exciting books of the year.
The story is narrated by Della, a recent college graduate with a degree in paleontology, who kills time learning yoga and working in a vegan restaurant while her country, a slightly twisted mirror reflection of today's United States of America, slips into chaos amidst the failures of War A and War B. Della lives with her brother Credence, with whom she shares the disconcerting memories of extreme hippie parenting, and wanders her city (which resembles Portland, Oregon) wrestling with her anxiety, imagining acts of violence and developing desperate crushes on anyone who reaches out to her with a kind word. She's a wry, sarcastic narrator and a troublemaker, and the best thing about Zazen is the chance to see the world through this funny, brainy character's eyes.
As a bittersweet snapshot of a deeply confused alternative hipster counterculture, Zazen is reminiscent of Justin Taylor's The Gospel of Anarchy, another recent book I liked. But Gospel of Anarchy is about post-collegiate anarchists and punks, while Zazen is about post-collegiate anarchists and vegans, and Zazen is about ten times more manic. The comic prose recalls Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown, while the book's sense of traumatic disorientation and social disconnectedness calls to mind Tom McCarthy's Remainder. With all that said, Zazen is like nothing but itself -- a simply original story, emotionally resonant and crammed with nuggets of delightful observation.
This novel is one of the kickoff publications from a new publishing house, Richard Nash's innovative Red Lemonade, which invites you to read the entire novel online. But you may want to buy a copy of this book, or give one to an anarchist/vegan friend. I was very happy to have had a chance to ask Vanessa Veselka some questions about her brilliant work. Here's the conversation we had.
(As a longtime Ramones fan, I was very moved by Mickey Leigh's memoir about growing up as the younger brother of Joey Ramone, who died tragically of cancer in 2001. The book has just come out in paperback with a new epilogue. I was thrilled to have a chance to ask Mickey Leigh a few questions. -- Levi)
Levi: Though it has a sort of jokey title, I sense that I Slept With Joey Ramone is meant to be a serious entry in the field of punk rock literature, along with many other good books like Rotten by Johnny Rotten, Go Now by Richard Hell, Poison Heart by Dee Dee, Please Kill Me by Legs, the new Just Kids by Patti Smith, even And I Don't Want To Live This Life by Deborah Spungen. Why do you think punk rock has become so literary, or has it always been so?
The San Francisco Chronicle said John Reed "excels in the realm of the strange". Reed is the author of four previous books, including Snowball's Chance and All the World's a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare. He teaches creative writing at the New School and Columbia University and is on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.
His most recent title is Tales of Woe, published by MTV Press. The book is a compendium of true-life tragedies. However, Reed has done something subtly yet artistically important: instead of choosing tales that have a redeeming moral message or happy ending, he has deliberately chosen ones that do not. And he has done so for a morally serious reason: he wants to underline that life is sometimes brutally unfair. Justice, in other words, can be the result of how human beings do (or do not) organize their affairs as much as it can be the result of providential "forces".
I spoke with Reed by email and phone in August of this year.
FINN: Is the book partly an antidote to the Pollyanna-ish "arc" of so much contemporary culture? In other words, was it written in part to say, this is part of the truth of life on earth?
JOHN: That's it, exactly. Sin, suffering, redemption. That's the news, that's the movie, that's what they tell you to keep your hope alive, to keep you from accepting how much unhappiness there is, not only in your life, but in the world. It's not an accident, that story, it's a convenience of the class that own us. You'd think that model -- sin, suffering, redemption -- would make you feel better about life. Maybe it does for a few minutes, but it can't really help; you try to apply that model to your life, you'll meet with misery and resistance, because that model is bullshit.
(Goodloe Byron is a novelist -- with an unusual approach to literary economics -- as well as a book cover designer whose graphic work was recently featured on Mark Athitakas's Notes on American Fiction blog. The Wraith is his latest book, from his own Brown Paper Publishing.)
Levi: Your novel The Wraith is very charming. The portrait of hapless trailer park hipsters going about their lives reminds me of the affectionate stylings of Richard Linklater or Jim Jarmusch ... but I also understand that Jose Saramago was your primary inspiration for this novel. Can you tell me what your mission in writing this book was?
Goodloe: It is actually a knockoff of a Saramago book, but it warped in the rain having took so long! The original idea was to do something like the duplicated man; it would be about a little fellow who is suddenly deprived of the dimension of necessity. That is to say that he no longer needed to sleep, eat, drink water, come in from the cold, shave or whatnot. It would then follow that he didn't need to work either, or do anything. What I imagined was that this person would then flee this terrible freedom. He would then go about pretending to be alive as he was before and that his life would become a kind of hollow nightmare.
This isn't really a novel that many people would like to read, I think. That has not stopped me in the past, but it also wasn't enjoyable to write either. I started it about eight times five years ago, then I quit writing altogether. Then, last year, my friend Pablo D'stair and I were discussing the idea, which was the only book that I wanted to write anyway. In this discussion I figured out that the story could not really be told directly, as it was more of a static concept. So I decided to give it a Heart of Darkness touch and describe the story of someone on the periphery of such a man. Mr. Kurtz, for example, is much this some problem, because he is not a person so much as a concept; the collapse of civilization in the face of its underlying barbarity. Once I figured this out, it was very simple and I wrote it in a few weeks while another book was at the printer. All of the events involving the main characters I kind of made up on the fly, though a variety of them I'd thought up during my 'hiatus'. They came together all right I think. The brain stepped out of my way once I figured out the Kurtz thing.
Levi: I notice a strange price on the book's cover: $0.0. What's that all about?
Goodloe: All right, so ... this is kind of complicated to explain. But basically I don't really like to submit stuff places or do the whole writer thing. I just find it ghastly as an experience. Also I would like to point out that my books tend to be a bit of a drag and I design them that way. I want the audience to have to get a bit scrappy. Books that succeed in the market tend not to share this worldview. So instead I save up enough so that once a year I can print up about ten thousand books. Then throughout the year I roll out to different cities or wherever I can get and I hand them out for free or leave them in coffee shops.
Michael Largo is the author of "Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die", "Genius and Heroin: The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon Through the Ages" and "God's Lunatics: Lost Souls, False Prophets, Martyred Saints, Murderous Cults, Demonic Nuns, and Other Victims of Man's Eternal Search for the Divine". I was curious about the human being behind these unique books, and recently got a chance to ask the author a few questions.
Levi: I've enjoyed three of your books, but I don't know the first thing about you. Can you please fill me in on who you are, and how you became a writer and an alternative encyclopedist?
Michael: I became a writer because books captivate me. Gripped not only by words, or by certain authors’ lives, I like the very idea of what a book is. From earliest memories, I always had a book to read and at least a few in waiting. I read, and still do, anything and everything. But there were certain books that became better, or at least more interesting when I learned of the authors’ backgrounds, how they lived, wrote, and died. Hemmingway, London, Poe, Keats, Thoreau, D.H. Lawrence, Colette, Kerouac -- no matter the consensus on their works, all had intriguingly perilous biographies that hooked me when I was a teen: If you lived intensely, it might be possible to one day write a book people would read. Many have this idea; however, what turns a reader, even an avid one, into a writer is something different. I believe it has to do with the desire to defy death. With books, you can read the ideas of a writer who lived long ago, know of his or her life, and in theory, make them immortal. To become a writer I obviously had to write and keep writing even when everyone said to give up, get a regular job. Like most writers, I have a huge file of single sheet rejection letters. Persistence has to be a writer’s most consistent virtue. I wrote my first poem after reading e. e. cummings, and was deceived into thinking it was simple to break all the rules. I grew up in Staten Island, New York; back when it was a countrified suburb, and I had a relatively “normal” childhood, one that any kid of a New York City homicide detective might have. I got a B.A. at Brooklyn College, back when Clarence Major, Peter Spielberg, absurdist playwright Jack Gelber, and John Ashbery were teaching writing there. I had a chapbook of poetry, Nails in Soft Wood (Piccadilly Press) published in 1975, and a novel called Southern Comfort (New Earth Books), a few years later. I lived in the East Village during the 70s and 80s, was heavily involved in the small press scene, and edited a few lit magazines, most notably New York Poetry. I got a grant from the New York State Council of the Arts for fiction. I kept publishing or posting poetry and fiction when the Internet sprung up. (Here’s a sample of one in The 2River View.)
Bad Marie is a funny yet strangely haunting new novel by Marcy Dermansky. The hero of the book swipes the husband and young child of one of her only friends for a romp in Paris. She meets several movie stars, stays in very fancy hotels, and ends up flying back across the ocean to barge in on a family that hates her in one of the poorest sections of Mexico. Despite the fun Marie's having, the narrative dwells hilariously on everything she encounters that annoys her. Through it all, though, she never neglects to change a diaper that needs changing, and by the end of the book Marie seems to have even grown up a bit herself. I had a chance to ask the author of this enigmatic new hit novel a few questions. Off we go:
Levi: Bad Marie certainly is "bad", at least by any rational standard. She gets fired from her nanny job and then steals the baby, along with clothes, a husband or two and some credit cards. And yet, she is clearly a sympathetic and likable character. Are you trying to deliver a philosophical message about the relativity of good and evil, or what?
Ron Hogan -- media journalist (GalleyCat, Beatrice), marketing strategist and the only literary blogger I know who's been doing it as long as I have -- has just published an unusual book: Getting Right With Tao: A Contemporary Spin on the Tao Te Ching.
It happens I share Ron's fascination with the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese religious/philosophical text ascribed to a mysterious author named Lao Tzu, and with the set of ideas and traditions known as Taoism. The original Tao Te Ching is unquestionably a masterpiece, and the strong philosophy it presents has much in common with later movements like Buddhism, Transcendentalism and Existentialism. I still have my beloved, very beat-up Penguin Classic copy I bought in college; like Thoreau's Walden or Emerson's essays, this is a book you can pick up and return to often when you need inspiration or advice.
(Last week I talked to Ron Kolm, who's been a friendly and productive presence in downtown New York's literary universe for decades, about his newest anthology. Here's the second half of that interview, where we talk about what it's like to be a friendly and productive presence in downtown New York's literary universe for decades. The painting of Ron is by Bob Witz)
Levi: How did you first become a part of the NYC literary scene? What were your first impressions of the "scene", and what are your impressions of it today?
Ron: To be honest, I’ve never really been a part of the NYC literary scene. There was a brief period when Eileen Myles was the Director of the Poetry Project that I got paid to read there and was part of the New Years Benefit Reading -- but I was writing fiction then; small dirty stories about a couple (Duke & Jill) that sold junk on the street, and since I wasn’t a Language Poet, or any of that ilk, I fell off their radar, which was fine by me. What I did do was work in bookstores. I was at the Strand in the early to mid 70’s, when Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith worked there. In the late 70’s I worked in the East Side Bookstore with guys who would later found St. Mark’s Bookshop –- that’s where I got stabbed by a junkie, etc. By 1980 I was managing a bookstore in Soho, pre-tourist trap Soho, which was owned by High Times Magazine. I had to take a subway uptown to their office, where I partook from the canisters of nitrous oxide standing around everyone’s desk, before getting the checks I needed to pay for things signed. Then I worked at St. Mark’s Bookshop, and finally at Coliseum Books.
There's something wonderfully circular about the fact that Walter Kirn's novel Up In The Air, originally published in 2001, is now a $7.99 airport paperback. Like the hit film version directed by Jason Reitman and starring George Clooney, Kirn's novel affectionately skewers the modern corporate mentality that thrives on airplanes, in airports or in airport "edge city" chain hotels. Hollywood has brought a literary novel to its intended audience.
The book is very different from the movie, of course. Date-flick fans who appreciated George Clooney's gentle, sad Ryan Bingham may be disappointed to meet the book's jittery and insecure hero. Admirers of the movie's warm, loving tone may be put off by Walter Kirn's distinctive DeLillo-esque chill. The plots are also different: there is no perky entry-level office foil in the novel, though there is a charming "Alex", a slick boss, lots of people getting laid off, a kooky family heading for a wedding. But beyond the usual Jack Davis/Harvey Kurtzman transformations, the book and the film do converge on a basic message: what happens if we travel so much and so fast that we becomes disconnected from reality?
Arlene Malinowski is a Chicago-based playwright, actor and teacher. She grew up in New Jersey and has spent many years in Los Angeles. She has written and performed several solo plays, which draw on her unique experience growing up in a family where both parents were deaf. Her solo work has earned her an LA Garland award and several other nominations and picks. As an actor, she has appeared in numerous theatre productions around the country. She also teaches solo writing and performing. I caught up with her at the Cafe Selmarie in Chicago's Lincoln Square, where she gave me some insights into writing and performing in solo plays, as well as what it was like to grow up in a deaf family.
Michael: The first thing I wanted to ask about was: I see that you have two solo plays, What Does the Sun Sound Like
Arlene: and Aiming for Sainthood.
Michael: ... and Aiming for Sainthood.
Arlene: Those are the two full-lengths, and I have a few one-acts.
Michael: All right, so let's talk about What Does the Sun Sound Like first. Is that your oldest play?
Arlene: That's my oldest full-length. There are the one-acts which came before that. But all my work is autobiographical solo work, and it is autobiographical solo -- let me think of the right word -- it's social autobiography, which means telling one's story in the context of a cultural group.
Arlene: That's what it is. And so I say "I'm an actor and a performer".
Michael: And you write the play completely yourself ...
Arlene: I live the play first! Then I write the play, and then I perform it.
Michael: So you're it: you're the writer, the actor ...
Arlene: I'm everything.
Michael: What about the sets and the staging, do you have someone ...
Arlene: You know what, it depends on what kind of a venue I have. If I am doing a full length run in a theatre, then I have sound designers and lighting designers and scenic designers. A lot of my work -- once I have a couple of full runs -- I travel the country with it, and I do it at colleges and universities and theatres for one or two or three nights or a week. So when I travel like that, it's much more bare-bones. The good thing about solo is you can do a blank stage. You can be in a black box, and it's my job as the playwright to develop this whole world that people don't see, but that they make this quantum leap in their head. I play all the characters ...
Michael: Oh, so it's not just you -- it's multiple characters ...
Arlene: Yes: they're multi-character plays. I have a narrator, who narrates the play, and then I write scenes, and I have an internal narrator and an external narrator. And the external narrator is the narrator who is omnipresent, and that narrator knows the past, the present and the future -- that narrator knows everything that's happened. And then there is a narrator that is within the scene, who only knows what's happening in the scene. So, "when I was twelve years old, I went to a catholic school, and little did I know that this would happen" -- that would be the external narrator. The internal would be -- "so I'm walking to my mother's house, and it's really dark ..." -- so the internal narrator is speaking from within the scene with no knowledge of what's going to happen.
Michael: And the action is happening to that narrator.
Michael: This title is very interesting -- What Does the Sun Sound Like. What is this play about, and what does the sun sound like?
Arlene: The title of the play came from a conversation I had with my father. I grew up in a deaf family -- sign language is my first language -- and all of my material up until this point has been about cross-cultural intersections: between hearing and deaf, between men and between women, between classes, um, upper-class and lower-class. Because I grew up in a deaf house, I was my parents' ears. I listened for them. I was about twelve -- and it's a very natural kind of seamless dance that I had with my parents, and that most children of deaf parents have. There's a whole group of us, there's a whole history. There's a group called CODA, Children of Deaf Adults, it's going to be twenty-five years old. It was started by a woman who was writing a dissertation in deaf studies. She was a child of deaf parents, and so she started talking to other kids of deaf parents, and found that everybody had remarkably the same story -- with these huge threads that wove themselves through the tapestry of their lives. So growing up in a family like that, there were times that I was the parent, and there were times that they were the parent. In situations where a waiter would come by, I would need to speak for them.
Michael: and you were like twelve ...
Arlene: Oh no, I was seven ...
Arlene: I was five! And it starts very simple, "tell me when the toast pops, because I'm going to be in the other room. When the washing machine turns off, tell me. When the baby cries, come and get me." So that's how it starts. So "what does the sun sound like" -- I'm twelve. And during my twelfth year I was a real handful. Growing up, I was always treated like an adult, so I thought I was an adult. ( Laughs). So at twelve -- plus being an adolescent girl, plus being in a very strict household -- there were few times of peace in my home. And I remember that my father -- we shared breakfast together -- and I'll just quote a little bit from the play:
"it was another dreary, overcast day in a series of dreary, overcast days that marked that dreary, overcast summer ... of trouble." And it was fight, fight, fight, fight -- and then for the first time [in a long time] the sun breaks free from the clouds and the kitchen just floods with this light. And I remember my mother and my father and I just kind of looked out the window because it was just so long since we had seen the sun, and my father turned, and he said "what does the sun sound like?" And I'm like -- "the sun has no sound". And my father thinks, and I still see his expression, and he says "the sun hits the sidewalk. I read that. It has a sound -- you can't fool me." So I said, "Dad, that's not true. It's an idiom." And then the whole thing is how do you explain an idiom?
So then my father says "You can see the sun, but you can't hear the sun."
"You can see the rain, but you can hear the rain, but but but but ..."
"You can see the snow but you can't hear the snow. It's" and I use his deaf voice (very guttural) "Qui-et!"
"And you can't see the wind, but you can hear it."
And then my father looks at me and he says, "You know, sometimes it's hard for me to understand."
And it was like my heart just opened. So years later I go back, and I tell my father about this play, and he said "I don't remember that. That never happened!"
Arlene: And I'm like "Yes it did!" And it was this remarkable turning point. Like for the first time I really understood what it was like to be deaf. Up until that point it resonated with me on a whole different level. So that's where the title comes from.
Michael: What about the next solo play, Aiming for Sainthood. Does this kind of take your family life further ...
Arlene: It's the second in a trilogy. The first play, this is my blurb: "totally true tales of a hearing daughter who grows up in a deaf family and culture." Aiming for Sainthood is "when her deaf mother gets cancer, her middle-aged daughter moves back into her childhood room with two questions: "where is God?", and "who moved my Springsteen poster?"
Arlene: My plays are different than other disability-oriented work, because I refuse to treat ... (pauses). How about this: I have a very funny view of life. Things are funny to me. So, even horrible things are funny to me. So there's a lot of funny in my life, especially around the deafness. So, my parents' life is not precious, do you know what I mean? It's not that precious kind of writing. But the stories, the stories, the stories! My husband is meeting my parents for the first time. We had just been dating, but I knew he was the one. I was really careful about who I was going to introduce them to. So we're meeting my parents in a restaurant, and all of a sudden it hits me -- oh my God, I need to teach him some signs so it will be nice for my parents! So, I'm like: "I know you love me, and I love you, but the time has come. I need to teach you sign language before you meet my parents in the next few minutes!" And he's like: "Okay, just calm down, everything's all right". So I teach him to say "very good, thank you." And the sign is (makes the signs) "very" from the center out, "good", your palm facing heaven, "thank you", from your chin. He meets my parents, and my father says (in a guttural deaf voice) "How ... are ... you." And he signs it. And Dan - he looks at me, he looks at my parents. And he signs "fucking is good, thank you." (laughs). Instead of this (sign for very good), he does this (sign for fucking). The stories go on and on. Like my mother, who orders a penis colana, because that's what it looks like on people's lips. "No, it's a pina colada." "That's what I said, penis colana." So the stories go on and on. Cross-cultural intersections ...
Michael: So it's not -- sad -- but it's like: here were are, we're deaf, okay ...
Arlene: And here's the culture ...
Michael: And here's the culture, and this is funny. Yeah.
Arlene: These are some of the things that we've been through.
Michael: So it's a trilogy, though. Have you finished the third, uh ...
Arlene: I haven't started the third. The third comes later. I think in the next two or three years. The third one is going to be a look at disability and the [American] culture. While the story is about my parents, the story is really about me. And, I think I look at the culture now -- and you know, we are fast becoming disabled culture people - you know, baby boomers are all getting old -- and to really explore how the culture deals with disability. As we get old, my parents, when they get to that next level. That will be part of it. And then there is me, and I had some disabilities that are not spoken about, because I went crazy for a little while, and how families are much more willing to discuss, you know, hysterectomies [than that]. And I talk about as "losing my kibbles and bits."
Arlene: So it's going to me an interesting look at how disability runs us and how we run disability. So that's my next play -- I don't know what it's called and I don't know when I'll start it.
Michael: How long are these plays? One hour?
Arlene: One thirty.
Michael: An hour and a half?
Arlene:. One twenty-five is what I like to keep them to, because at one thirty people start looking at their watch. And the one-acts are probably thirty minutes.
Michael: So you have some other things that you wrote that are short, one-act, again -- solo ...
Arlene: One is called Kicking the Habit. I grew up in a Catholic school, and that story is about a mean nun, a Catholic school girl and her timid mother, who saves the day. And I was getting bullied by a nun, and my mother, she went in and read the nun the riot act. For the first time, and she was very timid of authority ...
Michael: Plus she was deaf ...
Arlene: And of course [she was going up against] the Catholic Church.
Michael: Those nuns are tough ...
Arlene: You know, the nuns were great. They taught me how to read, but Sister Mary Concepta, Sister Mary Concepta, you know, I have a little blurb about her: "Sister Mary Concepta is a hundred and ten years old and has been dying of cancer for decades but everyone says she's going to live forever, because she's so mean not even God wants her."
Arlene: And I swear ... you know, I went on one of those internet sites where you find your classmates, and they have chat rooms. I went back to St. Brendan's in Patterson, New Jersey, and the chat rooms were full of: "do you remember Sister Mary Concepta?"
[ ... ]
Arlene: My personal mission statement is ... there's this solo Artist named Claudia ... I can't remember her full name ... but she said, "Everybody has a story that will stop your heart." And so I take that as the major premise of my mission statement and I changed it to "everyone has a story that will stop your heart, but we've stopped telling them because people have stopped listening." And so, my goal is to help people find their voice and find the voice of their story, and help them always -- always -- listen to the story. So I look at this solo autobiographical thing, you know, spoken word salons, it's all about people sharing their stories. I think that we've gotten really insular -- and I know what it's like to be in a place where people don't hear you -- literally!
Arlene: Where people do not hear you. And you know, we know Oprah and we know "Who Wants to be a Millionaire", we know all those people intimately, but you know, I know very little about my neighbors. "The Second Story" (a performance venue) also is a place where people work a lot. So what happens is, you tell a story, and then you come off stage, and someone says "Oh, my God! Sister Mary Concepta! I so had a nun!" So I then get an opportunity to listen to your story, and it connects us: story by story by story. It connects us to who we are. And connects us to each other. Part of the reason this is so important to me: in the deaf community storytelling is a revered art form. And the story is not a punch line -- the story is in the telling! Because deaf people use their faces and their bodies and sign language. So the story is in the telling, and I grew up around amazing storytellers. At deaf club -- there is such a thing as deaf club -- my parents belonged to the North Jersey Silent Club -- people would talk, and there would always be one or two storytellers that when they started telling a story, everybody would crowd around, and watch. And they would tell the story, they would take on the characteristics of the person, and they would know how to build the story, and know how to tell a story-within-a-story. And that's what I always come back to.
Michael: Thank you.