Category Archives: Big Loves

Big Loves: Paula Whyman on T.C. Boyle’s “Greasy Lake”


WhymanToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Paula Whyman. Whyman’s debut collection of linked short stories, You May See a Stranger, is out this month from TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. In the book, she follows Miranda Weber from her teens through her late 40s as she struggles with sexuality, marriage, politics, and the fate of her disabled sister. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly writes that these “smart, artful stories capture a woman’s life and the moments that define her.” Her fiction has appeared in many journals including McSweeney’s Quarterly, Ploughshares, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Paula is a Fellow of The MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. A native of Washington, DC, she now lives in Maryland.

We were nineteen. We were bad. We read Andre Gidé and struck elaborate poses to show that we didn’t give a shit about anything.

When I was in high school, I remember short stories being examined as if they were curios or warm-ups for the authors’ longer works. These were classic stories—“A Rose for Emily,” “The Bear,” “Barn Burning”—great stories, don’t get me wrong, but the message was that the novel was the real game: Faulkner and Hawthorne again, plus Dostoevsky and Melville. In college, there were more and more and more novels, in my case, 19th century English novels; novels by Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford; novels of the existential and the absurd; and, in a survey of American lit, novels by Didion, Bellow, Morrison, Vonnegut, Heller, and Roth. I had not yet read the short stories I could relate to, by Ann Beattie, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley, and others; all of those would come later.

Then, sometime in my early twenties, I was working on the production of a free 600-page apartment shoppers guide, a job that still involved a linotype machine, paste-up, and bluelines, in an office like the one that later became a hit TV show. I was living in a government-subsidized apartment that was not advertised in the magazine I produced, and my main entertainment was seeking out the happy hours that served the best free Buffalo wings, which would become my dinner, while hanging out with other disillusioned and financially strapped co-workers. In other words, just when I thought my life could not be more absurd, I discovered the early stories of T.C. Boyle, and I nearly drowned in “Greasy Lake.”


“Greasy Lake” is a story of teenage boys who want to be seen as bad, set out to prove it, and almost succeed. The narrator is a likable screw-up whom you root for even as he gets too close to the edge of “true” bad. After they run out of bars to go to and mischief to make, the boys park at a local lake where they unwittingly anger a dangerous character who’s making out with his girlfriend in a car. This happens:

 The first lusty Rockette kick of his steel-toed boot caught me under the chin, chipped my favorite tooth, and left me sprawled in the dirt….The three or four succeeding blows were mainly absorbed by my right buttock and the tough piece of bone at the base of my spine.

This is not “A Rose for Emily.” Boyle’s stories are about regular people doing regular stupid stuff. To some readers the Technicolor language and lurid scenes seem over the top—the lusty Rockette kick? the favorite tooth?—but to me, this is the way a certain kind of clever boy that age will describe and embellish his experience.

Even when imminent danger leads the narrator to reach under the driver’s seat for his crowbar, he admits he’s never used it for anything but changing a tire. The boys skirt the edge of serious transgression when they nearly gang-rape a girl they call only “the fox”—the girlfriend of the mean character they’ve accidentally riled. That they are stopped just in time doesn’t make them less bad. But it does save them.

cover1-683x1024One of the features of T.C. Boyle’s stories that I’ve always admired: the inevitable downward spiral. As a writer, it can be hard to allow your characters to hit bottom. Boyle’s characters often don’t stop, they can’t stop, until the worst has occurred. But in “Greasy Lake,” they stop just short of it.

While hiding in the lake to escape from angry steel-toed boot guy, the narrator stumbles into the drowned body of a drug-dealing biker. Everything seems alive, even the lake, even the dead body:

[I] was pitching face forward into the buoyant black mass, throwing out my hands in desperation while simultaneously conjuring the image of reeking frogs and muskrats revolving in slicks of their own deliquescing juices.

 A 19-year-old boy who summons up the word “deliquescing”? This feature of Boyle’s stories always gets me. His narrators may have poor judgment, but many of them have big vocabularies. They’re underachievers with a ready store of SAT words at their disposal. Sure, you could accuse the author of putting words in his characters’ mouths, but here, at least, the words fit.

The sheer exuberance and surprising sensitivity of this narrator strike me as distinctly contemporary and American. Will these boys become as bad as that dead biker floating in the lake? In the end, they pass on the chance. For how long? One can only guess.

Why love this story? For god’s sake, why not?

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Big Loves: Katie Chase on Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s Madeleine Is Sleeping

chase_photoToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Katie Chase. Her debut short story collection, Man and Wife, is out this week from A Strange Object. In these funny and subversive stories, marriages are arranged over tea, blood feuds simmer beneath football games, and cities burn while their characters struggle between holding on to their families and seeking out new ways to live and love. Publishers Weekly calls Man and Wife “a consistently provocative debut collection.” Chase’s fiction has appeared in the Missouri Review, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, and the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Born and raised outside Detroit, she lives currently in Portland, Oregon. Here she shares her love of Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s Madeleine Is Sleeping.

As a writer of short stories, I’m addicted to the sprint, to the puzzle. That out-of-breath hurtling toward an ending always in hazy sight, that picture-perfect sensation of clicking in the final pieces in revision (both fleeting: hence the addiction). I can’t be the only one constantly scouting for ways to cheat at novel-making: Do others have favorite novels that seem to have stumbled upon shortcuts to the finish? “Seem” being the operative word, for even the novella, even the novel-in-stories, necessarily has moves utterly distinct from those of the short story.

Let me take you back to a pre-VIDA Count 2004. This was the year that the National Book Award shortlist was scandalous and scrutinized for being composed entirely of women—little known women; women who had all written difficult, little books; women all living in New York, no less (as though we should picture them together at brunch, scoffing at the very Middle America in which I lived, plotting the takeover of just such a list). What is the purpose, went the debate, of such awards, and had the committee, led by known experimentalist Rick Moody, failed in their task? Writing for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Laura Miller calls Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s Madeleine Is Sleeping “novel-ish,” one of the “two weakest” on the list: “Neither book merits a spot…let alone deserves the award itself.” Yet, I am grateful for this uproar, and to this list for doing what one might think it should: helping into a reader’s hands a book she loved. I’m grateful even for Miller’s diss, as it puts a finger on what it is about this book that I love best, that it is novel-ish, that it just sneaks beneath the ribbon cordoning off that category.

MadeleineWritten in short, titled chapters—some only a sentence, none longer than a couple pages—Madeleine Is Sleeping conjures a familiar nineteenth century-ish world of corsets and castrati, and then melds it with the tropes of familiar fairy tales, from “Sleeping Beauty” to “Bluebeard” to Ludwig Bemelmans’s twentieth-century Madeline. The result is something far less familiar. As Madeleine sleeps, tucked into bed at her mother’s house in rural France, we enter her dreams. We’re introduced, piece by piece, to a cast of misfits and oddities: a hirsute woman resembling a viol; M. Pujol, aka Le Petomane, a “flatulist” sharing the name of an actual entertainer in nineteenth-century France. But are we in Madeleine’s subconscious, or in a reality tangential to her sleep? Soon it becomes clear that the pattern is not simply one of alternation between the real and the dreamed; the two will converge even as they diverge. On page four, a village woman described as “grotesquely fat” sprouts wings and raises herself to the sky. We are in her point of view. Later this same woman lands on the family’s roof and exchanges words with the mother.

Many of these short chapters seemingly could stand alone, stories in themselves. The language is detailed and lush; images recur, are repurposed; and in this way, many chapters—as with the short story—have more to do with the poem than the so-called novel. But before long, this misfit cast meets up, as Madeleine embarks with a “gypsy” troupe on an adventure that has her practicing as a contortionist, posing for pornographic photography, and falling in love. Yet even as the novel’s momentum begins to rely less on the mystery of its structure and more on the energy of a plot, its pieces remain parts to a puzzle: the truth behind why Madeleine sleeps and sleeps, why the fingers on her hands have melded together, deforming them into “paddles.” I will refrain from spoiling, but let’s just say that, as in a short story, there is much left off the page.

During this summary, you may have been plucking phrases for evidence that this book is not for you: “bearing resemblance to a viol,” “sprouts wings,” “’gypsy’ troupe.” Let me assure you that I too felt wary, at first, in the face of such quirkiness. Yet I am a lover of style in art to the extent that it’s possible I overvalue it. Never at the expense of substance, but the best stories, to me, are those in which the two are inextricable: How they’re told has everything to do with what they want to say. And ultimately, this book is so much more than clever acrobatics. It’s a profound portrait of adolescence, a subtle examination of the mores and undercurrents of society, and a celebration of and lament for the body, in all its beauty, grotesquerie, and attendant shame. Beneath an unconventional structure and a “voyage and return” plot, is a story fully under the sway of its own interior logic, laid line by line. Its ending holds such magic that it truly no longer matters what is dreamed and what is real.

cover-man-and-wife-finalIn Madeleine Is Sleeping, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum has on display all I want to read in a book, all I hope to write in one: lyrical writing with a sense of humor, metaphor and rhythm, subversive intentions, and a wide and generous imagination. It may not be a book for everyone, or even for a national award meant to stimulate book sales as much as honor good writing. But it belongs to a tradition that is, to me, much more illustrious, one of odd, difficult little books by women. Books judged for being little because they are short, as though unassuming, when among their aims and accomplishments is to shoot cracks through the ground that traditions stand on. I’d put among them Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and Joy Williams’s The Changeling.

I love this book for its inventiveness, its audacity, its utter originality, and most of all, for its answer to the question, What can a novel be?

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Big Loves: Nicky Beer on Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings

beerauthorphoto2013Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Nicky Beer. Beer is the author of two poetry collections, The Octopus Game (2015) and The Diminishing House (2010), both published by Carnegie Mellon. In The Octopus Game, Beer’s shape-shifting cephalopods visit the reader in films, dreamlike carnivals, and all the mysterious depths of our imaginations. Here, she discusses her big love for Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings.


Friends, I don’t think we talk nearly enough about how damn funny Yoko Ono is (I initially typed “Yolo Ono,” which proves that my fingers are much cooler than I am). In 2000, Simon & Schuster rereleased her Grapefruit: A Book of Instruction and Drawings in hardcover, first published on Ono’s own Wunternaum Press in 1964. The designation above the UPC code is “poetry,” and for a book whose accumulated contents were written over 50 years ago, it feels astonishingly contemporary, even timeless. But also, it will make you laugh:


     Write all the things you want to do.

     Ask others to do them and sleep

     until they finish doing them.

     Sleep as long as you can.


     Write all the things you intend to do.

     Show that to somebody.

     Let him sleep for you until you

     finish doing them.

     Do for as long as you can.

I can’t help but read “Room Piece” as a wry analog for modern dating:

     When a room is needed, obtain a person instead

     of a room.

     Live on him.

     When another room is needed, obtain another

     person instead of another room.

     Live on them.

And who knew that Ono had predicted the invention of the Internet in 1963?


Select a subject.

Write five million pages (single space)

on the subject.

Poets: Read Ono’s instructions during those times when poetry is making you feel dull andgrapefruit anxious and shabby, and you need something to refresh your palate (and isn’t it convenient that grapefruit season is at its best in February, just when the post-holiday blues set in?). Even as you hold the book in your hands—a cheerfully yellow, diminutive square—you’ll feel your attitude toward the written word recalibrate. After only a few entries, you’ll find yourself grinning, chuckling, or introspecting—in any case, you’ll find it a bit easier to get over your damn self. Treat it less as a book and more as a prescription for artistic malaise. The combination of Dadaist jokes, koans, and minimalist sketches will send you into an absurdist meditative state that you didn’t even know you needed.

People teaching poetry workshops: Use Grapefruit as a pedagogical tool. Take Ono’s impossible-to-execute instructions as imaginative prompts [“SHADOW PIECE: Put your shadows together until / they become one.”], and get your students to write their own. Give the more practical ones as homework assignments [“MAP PIECE: Draw a map to get lost.”]. Take your class outside and perform “Sun Piece” [“Watch the sun until it becomes square.”] for them. Listen to that one student get mad and ask if this means that anything can be art. Listen to that other student who dislikes him/her reply sharply. Listen to that other student who has a crush on either of them defend him/her accordingly. Allow the rest of the students to argue amongst themselves. Sneak away.

I close with an homage to Ono, written in the spirit of her own form:


Buy a copy of Yoko Ono’s book Grapefruit.15_beer_theoctopusgame2

Buy a grapefruit.

Eat the book.

Read the grapefruit.


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Big Loves: Howard Axelrod on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

Axelrod_Howard-264x264Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Howard Axelrod. Axelrod’s memoir The Point of Vanishing was recently published by Beacon Press. The memoir traces Axelrod’s movements, internal and external, and his sense of self and place in the world, after he loses vision in one eye. The book is a luminous reflection on solitude, nature, and the act of seeing. Here, Axelrod shares his love of Elena Ferrante.

No one knows if Elena Ferrante is a tennis fan. No one knows much about her at all. The identity of the author of the wildly popular Neapolitan novels remains a useful mystery—useful because it reveals the poverty of our literary-critical apparatus: without the usual cues of biography and author appearances and interviews, critics have been tripping over themselves to place her work. Feminist. Post-ideological. Neo-neo-realist. They’re not wrong, exactly. But to understand Ferrante, it might help to be a tennis fan—or, at least, to be a fan of one particular match. Krickstein vs Connors, U.S. Open, 1991.

You may have already seen it. Every year during the Open, if a rain delay leaves the commentators scrambling to fill time, the TV producers air the match again. The storyline is a sports cliché, a tennis Rocky. Jimmy Connors, lion in winter, age 39, grunts, staggers, and bullies his way to victory against rising star Aaron Krickstein. Age over beauty, grit over finesse…etc. But what’s riveting about the match isn’t the storyline. I was 17 when I first saw it, live on CBS, and what I felt was a kind of gravitational pull into the television, into the court. Connors was nowhere else. Nowhere else existed for him. In the final set, Krickstein kept glancing over to his player’s box, to the sky—you could almost see him imagining the post-match interview, the uneasy ride back to the hotel. But Connors had nowhere else. His entire life was cupped inside the stadium. Granted, he was a boor: he sat in the flowerbed, hammed for the camera, played to the crowd. Not a good sport, possibly not a good person. But judgements meant nothing to him. He had nowhere else to exist, it seemed, at least nowhere else to exist as fully. And so he was playing with his entire life—for his entire life, that is, for the possibility for his life to be expansive. His intensity was impossible not to watch, impossible not to admire.

That’s what Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels have. That’s why critics praise them as fierce, unapologetic, relentless. Her narrator, Elena Greco, a writer, has nowhere else to exist but in the pages she’s writing, nor does her best friend, Lila Cerullo. Nowhere else is capacious enough; nowhere else can offer their lives meaning. But Ferrante’s work isn’t only a display of that need—and this is where she goes far beyond what Connors hamy-brilliant-friendd to offer—but also a dramatic investigation into where that need comes from, and how it both rewards and punishes the woman who follows it.

Growing up in the nineteen-fifties in a neighborhood of Naples where husbands routinely beat their wives, where boyfriends routinely beat their girlfriends, and where families nurse feuds for generations, Ferrante’s narrator needs not just to escape but to escape with her inner life intact. Like Lila, who is more brilliant and more brash, she excels in school, hopes to be a writer, and knows herself most clearly through her instinctive detachment from the neighborhood: both need the neighborhood to know themselves, but to know themselves both need to know the neighborhood from a distance.

In the final scene of the first novel My Brilliant Friend, which takes place at Lila’s wedding to the neighborhood grocer, Elena remarks of Nino, the intellectual boy she has a crush on, “He could enter and leave the neighborhood as he wished, without being contaminated by it. He could do it, he was capable of doing it, maybe he had learned years before, at the time of the stormy move that hand nearly cost him his life.

I doubted that I could make it.”

Not being “contaminated” by the neighborhood isn’t just a drama of the moment, of their adolescent selves; it will become the drama of their lives. The question isn’t just how will Elena escape, but how will her identity survive? How will she make sense of the divide between her life and Lila’s? Between her past and her present? Between her outer life (eventually beyond the neighborhood) and her inner life (eventually containing it)? The drama isn’t just in the bildungsroman Elena is telling, it’s in the telling itself. She needs the telling to unify, without dishonesty or simplification, the disparate elements of her life, the elements no other forum can hold.  She needs to make a place to live fully—and a place for Lila to live fully.

Which brings us to what is hardest to talk about in Ferrante, and what I most love about her. The story of the artist born into a family hostile to art—Kafka, Joyce, Rilke—is nothing new. But for the focal point of a novel (or, indeed, a series) to be a friendship rather than one gifted person’s development, for the existence of an inner life and the necessity of its preservation to be expressed as matter-of-factly as the violence in nineteen-fifties Naples—this is new, and it keeps the writing deeply private. There’s the privacy of Elena’s experience—in which she admits to fepoint of vanishingelings, particularly in her complex friendship with Lila, most people wouldn’t admit to themselves; there’s the privacy of her need to understand her experience—which few writers would focus on as a drama as significant as the outer drama of the neighborhood feuds; and, perhaps most poignantly, there’s the privacy of Elena’s address—which, although not directly made to Lila, can be read as an appeal to her as a kind of projected conscience, as Lila is the only person Elena thinks might understand her, the person she hopes both to save and be saved by.

Privacy. Interiority. Literature as matter-of-fact tool for survival. All evoked quietly and fiercely, in our hyper-connected age, when our sense of privacy, of interiority, and of art as a necessity for nurturing the two is eroding. There’s no such thing as a literary rain delay—no act of God that would sweep rain across the pages and Kindles of everyone in the country on a given day. But perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if there were. The producers in the truck could cue up Ferrante. A classic, they might say, is a match that helps us to see all other matches, a book that helps us to see all other books. It reminds us of what we’ve been searching for all along.

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Big Love: Chaitali Sen on Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow

Chaitali SenToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Chaitali Sen. Sen is the author of the novel, The Pathless Sky, which was published by Europa Editions this month. The novel tells the story of one couple’s quest to sustain their marriage when political violence strikes their unnamed homeland. Kirkus calls her book a “poignant and sophisticated work couched in lyrical, effervescent prose.”

I haven’t seen a real snowfall in ten years. In 2005, I left the winters of the north and landed in Texas, and when someone told me I would miss a good snowstorm, I insisted I would not. I was wrong. I have dreams about my college campus where it snowed from November to April, and every winter here in Austin, when the sky is gray and it’s cold enough to mimic a promise of snow, there is a book that I crave. I open to a random page and read until I’m sated.

I have no memory of where I was when I first read the Danish thriller Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1993). I must have been in my early twenties, and someone must have given it to me because I would not have chosen it on my own. It had the look of a typical genre trade paperback, with a bold silver and black cover and the eye of a woman peering out from a small frame in the center. It was very unlike the version I read now, a twentieth anniversary edition with a more elegant font and a picture of snow-laden branches that more accurately captures the mood and beauty of this novel.

Like most mysteries, it opens with a death, this one during a Danish winter. The victim is a six-year old Greenland Inuit boy named Isaiah who has fallen off the roof of his Copenhagen apartment building. As an adult, I have not been an avid reader of mysteries, but the mystery in this novel is not what kept me reading the first time, and certainly not what keeps me going back year after year. I go back for a sense of winter, and for Smilla, a misanthropic woman in her late thirties who cannot help infusing herSmillia narration with warmth and nostalgia. She is half Inuit, the daughter of an almost legendary female hunter and a Danish doctor who fell in love with her while on a medical expedition to Greenland. Smilla’s sense of snow comes both from her nomadic childhood in North Greenland and her studies in Glaciology as an adult. Smilla reads the footprints leading to Isaiah’s fall and begins to investigate his death. What is most interesting about the plot of this novel is how strongly it is contextualized by the colonial relationship between Denmark and Greenland, the exploitation of Greenland’s native population and resources, and the oppression of Inuit immigrants within Denmark. In my opinion, embedding a plot in its historical and political context always enriches a narrative, but is not used often or well enough in modern literature.

In a way, Smilla’s Sense of Snow was a return to my first love. As a child, I read Nancy Drew books almost exclusively. Then I read the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton. These books were sent to me from India, where they were wildly popular and made many an Indian girl long for adventure in the English countryside. I read these books for the mood they evoked, for the feeling of being on holiday and coming across something slightly dangerous, slightly urgent, adventurism with time for a picnic. In adolescence, during the years that I began to think about what it meant to be a brown girl in America and to be considered foreign in the only home I knew, I read a few Agatha Christie books but found the genre no longer had anything to offer.

But Smilla’s Sense of Snow is not, at its heart, an adrenaline-charged thriller. It is an exploration of the trauma of displacement. There are long passages in which Smilla remembers her childhood with her mother in North Greenland:

She never kisses me, and she seldom touches me. But at moments of great intimacy, she lets me drink from the milk that is always there, beneath her skin, just as her blood is. She spreads her legs so I can come between them. Like the other hunters, she wears pants made of bearskin given only a rudimentary tanning. She loves ashes, sometimes eating them straight from the fire, and she has smeared some underneath her eyes. In this aroma of burned coal and bearskin, I go to her breast, which is brilliantly white, with a big, delicate rose aureole. There I drink immuk, my mother’s milk.

the pathless sky coverAnd from beginning to end, there is snow, ice, winter: “… I’m happy because I know that now the frost has gained momentum; now the ice will stay, now the crystals have formed bridges and enclosed the salt water in pockets that have a structure like the veins of a tree though which the liquid slowly seeps; not many who look over toward Holmen think about this, but it’s one reason for believing that ice and life are related in many ways.”

I read passages like this with a sense of mourning. Will I ever again see water freeze into sheets of ice? My mourning is particular to my choice to leave the north, but it is similar to the mourning Zadie Smith describes in her essay on climate change, “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons.” It’s possible Smilla’s Sense of Snow describes a Danish winter that no longer exists. In that case, this novel is also a eulogy.

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Big Loves: Zach Falcon on William Gaddis’s JR

FalconToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Zach Falcon. Falcon’s debut short story collection,  Cabin, Clearing, Forest, was recently published by University of Alaska Press. In sharp and lyrical writing, Falcon’s collection explores the interior lives and domestic relations of people shaped by Alaska, in all its isolation, beauty, and brutality. Here, Falcon shares his love of William Gaddis’s JR.

I am oppositional. Confronted with a task, I buck and tug like a willful puppy introduced to the leash. For instance, at the time of this writing, I have three pressing deadlines, and I just spent the last two days unnecessarily painting our bathroom. It’s a character flaw; I’m not proud of it. But it once led me to read JR by William Gaddis, for which I am grateful. It was during the fall exam period in my first year of law school, when I should have been reading anything but fiction.

After a full semester, attending every class and taking copious notes, I had no idea what I was doing or what the hell the law was even about. The worst of it was civil procedure, a subject which, near as I could figure, concerned postal regulations. On the off chance I was mistaken (I was), I elected to spend a leisurely afternoon in a bookstore searching out an easy-to-read study guide. Instead, I found myself in the fiction section. I noticed a paperback with an inch-and-a-half-thick spine. JR. I eased it off the shelf: 826 pages. The book was a very large bathroom to paint while deadlines loomed. “You should read that,” I told myself. “It won the National Book Award in 1976. You should finish that, and then study.”

Perhaps the sole benefit of an oppositional temperament is that you can make real headway on a project so long as you are ducking something more pressing. And a reader needs to make quick headway to enjoy JR. Much has been made of JR’s impenetrability (one reviewer dismissed it as “unreadable”), but it’s not actually difficult. It is written primarily in unattributed dialogue, without chapter breaks, and it takes about forty pages to find your feet. Before that, the reader may feel at sea. After, you can JRnovel (2)lock in and make sense of what the book is about, which is America. And Wall Street. And entropy. It is a bleak Long Island satire concerning business and education and culture and art. The title character is JR Vansant, an 11-year-old boy who hustles surplus plastic forks and penny stocks into an unhinged financial empire. It crystalizes the difference between the disingenuous and the naïve, and rages against the relentless debasement of the authentic. As compelling as its subjects are, however, the genius of JR does not lie in its content. That’s not why I love it, anyway.

I love JR because of what happened to me after those first forty pages. After I locked in. The book is a carnival of voices, dozens of voices, tumbling over each other, each with their own tics and patterns and echoes and repetitions. There is Miss Flesch: “PRwise it can’t hurt us educationwise.” And Mr. Whitbeck, “Yes well ahm, yes of course that does make things simpler.” JR: “Hey wait, I mean you’re not mad are you hey?” And the ranting Jack Gibbs: “God damn it listen!” The book is built of ellipses, interruptions, dissembling, babbling, hemming, and hawing. Here is the chaos of a crowd, including a school field trip, exiting a subway:

— Okay look what do you want for it, look I’ll . . .

— We can’t hey, we’re there . . .

— Boys and girls? Let’s wait till everyone gets out . . .

— Boy this train should have had a wreck hey look at all the lousy teachers on it . . .

— When we can’t even get room in the cafeteria for driver training because they took the Senior Citizens’ painting class out of the gym when they started the prenatal care program there what’s going to happen to the adult hobby show?

— For the kind of evaluative criterions you find in these kind of environmental settings . . .

— With the educational discount a lawnmower like that should be about forty-two dollars, so I said. . .

— When they tried to tell me I didn’t know enough math to teach it I showed them enough units for the certificates and you should have seen their faces . . .

— Like they do in Russia, so I said . . .

— Nine, eleven twelve are there? thirteen? You didn’t happen to count them Mister Bast?

The genius of Gaddis is that he absolutely trusts the reader to participate, to remember, to pay attention. His sentences resist passive consumption; they invite collaborative engagement. The voices become recognizable and familiar. They play in your head like old-time radio, immediate and three-dimensional. By the time one reaches the subway scene above, it is as clear as overhearing family in the kitchen. Unique among novels, JR leaves an exquisitely designed space for the reader to occupy—the text is incomplete until it’s read. As one character, a composer, explains: “I mean there are some things you can’t really write down especially simple things, they just have to be left for the performer and till the music is actually performed it doesn’t really exist at all.” Collaborating with JR, calling it into existence through thought, remains one of the most giddily thrilling reading experiences of my life.

I consumeCabin Clearing Forest Cover (1)d JR in a three-day fever, almost without stopping. When I did occasionally set the book aside, it was often to look up a word, usually a legal one. Several subplots concern the litigation that sprawls from JR’s schemes. Many of the voices belong to lawyers, arguing about trusts, corporate law, and yes, even the finer points of civil procedure. “There is no question of justice, or right and wrong,” I learned from Mr. Coen. “The law seeks order.” Which turned out to be a fine thing to know when I finally returned to my studies, oppositional fit extinguished, forever changed by Gaddis’s brilliant chaos.

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Big Loves: Laurie Foos on Steven Sherrill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break

authorphoto2 (2)Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Laurie Foos. Foos has published five previous novels with Coffee House Press: Before Elvis There Was Nothing, Ex Utero, Portrait of the Walrus by a Young Artist, Twinship, and Bingo Under the Crucifix. In her newest novel, The Blue Girl, mothers in a small lakeside town bake their secrets into moon pies and feed them to a silent blue girl. At turns lyrical, absurd, and heartbreaking, her fabulist novel about this strange blue girl explores the strangeness in all of us. Here, Foos shares her love for Steven Sherrill.

It was the cover that got me: the image of a half-man, half-bull sitting on a milk crate wearing work boots and a white cook’s coat with a red neckerchief, a cigarette between the thick fingers of his right hand, black horned head leaning into his left hand. And then of course there was the title above the image: The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break.  I remember thinking, If ever there was a book up my alley, this is it.

Of course it’s a risky premise, and part of the joy of a novel like The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break is watching Steven Sherrill walk that high wire to see how well and how long he can stay up, which, thanks to the verbal calisthenics and often startling beauty of the language, he does for the entirety of the novel. We meet the Picador-Minotaur-320x478Minotaur five thousand years post-labyrinth, where he is known only as M.—a Kafkaesque nod if ever there was one—and lives in the deep South in a trailer park. He works as a line cook at a steakhouse, an obvious joke, perhaps, though a writer as smart as Sherrill knows  you have to go for the obvious scenario, the one anyone can think of before you can spin it on its head. Poor M., who says little in the novel save for “Unnhs” and “Mmms,” though the other characters in the steakhouse are always asking him to repeat himself—”What’s that, M? You say something?”—is trapped within the physicality of his bull’s head. With “the cavernous expanse of his throat and…thick bovine tongue, his words (coming) out tortured and mutilated, deep, almost whining,”  he wants only to say, “I am tired of these horns and all that they mean.”  Prone to accidents in the kitchen and in love with a waitress named Kelly, who suffers epileptic fits, M. manages one painfully hilarious articulation early in the novel when he reveals to his fellow employees at the steakhouse, “I am a tit man.”

And there are many hilarious moments, but as the novel progresses, we watch Sherrill delve into the humanity of M who is painfully aware of the “transitional skin” where his human self meets his bull self. Sherrill, also a poet, writes, “On the Minotaur’s back the transition is less decisive…Sometimes this place, this division, throbs, swells, deepens, becomes a chasm, within the Minotaur that he will never span, though he will spend eternity trying…to believe for an isolated moment that he is a singular and whole being.”

We move through the novel with M., who is also quite good with his human hands. He is able to fix most any machine and has a special affinity for cars.  As we come to know M. and his life in the trailer park in the South, where he is often besotted both by memories of his thousands of years in the labyrinth as well as a painful awareness of his own alienation, it becomes increasingly clear how well the premise of the novel is so much more than the punch line the title might suggest. After a brief encounter with Kelly, the waitress M. pines for, we get a glimpse into his isolation as Sherrill describes “the architecture of the Minotaur’s heart”: “… the blood it pumps—the blood it has pumped for five thousand years, the blood it will pump for the rest of his life—is nearly human blood. It carries with it…the terrible stuff of human existence: fear, wonder, hope, wickedness, love. But in the Minotaur’s world it is far easier to kill and devour seven virgins year after year…than (it is) to accept tenderness and return it.”

The-Blue-Girl-356x535Certainly part of Sherrill’s premise concerns his satirical depiction of the American South and the crappy restaurant job that M. is relegated to, though the novel evolves, as we least expect it, into a kind of love story punctuated as much by Sherrill’s flair for gritty realism as for the absurd. The Minotaur, out of the labyrinth and into a trailer park where he drives a beat-up Vega and smokes menthols, wants only what any of us wants: to figure out how to be human.

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