Category Archives: Big Loves

Big Loves: Devin Murphy on Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children

DevinMurphy-300x200Every so often a book I have yet to read makes me nervous. I think this is a self-defense wall my writer-self intuitively constructs to steer wide of new voices that may influence me when I already have my own narrative voice locked into a project. This is why I circled Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children on my shelf for a while before I picked it up. I was afraid it would contain some sort of tick-like voice that would burrow under my skin. When I finally opened the novel, I knew I was right to be cautious.

This book makes us all culpable. We consume news, culture, and images that touch us but we swipe them away, or turn the page. We have our own lives. The image of some other life in the news may be poignant, but on the other side of the world, they seem so far removed it may as well be fiction. These photos may even become iconic but rarely cause us to act. Think of the naked girl in Vietnam running after napalm stripped off her clothing. Or the stirring green eyes of the Afghan girl on the cover of National Geographic whose life had been upturned by invading Russians. These images keep coming. In The Small Backs of Children, the central image is a picture of a girl in Eastern Europe being uplifted and tossed from an explosion at her back, an explosion that atomized her family and thrust her into a cold, brutal life.

Small Backs of ChildrenWith this upheaval we begin to see the world this girl is thrust into. Yuknavitch writes, “This is a world of men. They come into your country, they invade your home, they kill your family. They turn your body into the battlefield—the territory of all violence—all power—all life and death.”

The girl also enters into the consciousness of a woman on the other side of the world who is dealing with the paralyzing loss of a stillborn child. The grieving woman cannot let go of the image of the girl launched into the air and is so empathic that she is willing to sacrifice and act because of the photo. She looks at the fire-rimed girl and feels hurt. The woman decides the image is worthy of trying to make another’s existence less tragic, and sets out to save her.

Yuknavitch’s novel does not let us turn away from this image. She is fearless in her gaze and delves into all the cultural and personal culpability such an image masks. In doing this she slips into the grotesque, overtly sexual, and dislodged longings of her characters. The characters don’t have names. We know them as The Girl, The Writer, The Photographer, The Widow, The Poet, The Playwright, The Filmmaker, and the Writer’s Husband. Maybe real names bring accountability and hold us back from revealing our vulnerabilities, our deep, dark truths. Those truths are what this author spills onto these pages.

Boat Runner

This is at times a shocking book. Though what shocks us these days? Pictures of dead children don’t seem to. Bleeding children? Angry white men hoisting old Confederate flags? Black men being choked to death? It is all at our fingertips. We have a smorgasbord of suffering to tune out, to block away. Yuknavitch confronts us on this: “All the artists we admired from the past came out of the mouths of wars and crises. Life and Death. We come out of high capitalism. Consumerist monsterhood.”

Reading this book, we realize that it cannot be good for us to harden and remove ourselves from the lives of others outside our lanes. This book wants to swerve in and out of that mindless traffic, to disrupt, to raise the heartbeat of everyone nearby, to remind us that we are human and messy and so are those depicted in flat images we so easily swipe away. This is a book that aims for a difficult goal: To make us really see.

Devin Murphy‘s debut novel, The Boat Runner, is out now with Harper Perennial/Harper Collins. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University. His fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, The Chicago Tribune, New Stories from the Midwest, and Confrontation, among others. He lives with his wife and children in Chicago.

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Big Loves: Jeneva Burroughs Stone on Sir Thomas Browne


Photo by B. Farbo

Let’s face it: No one wakes up one day with the epiphany, “I must read Religio Medici!” Sir Thomas Browne’s works are funky, antiquated gems, somewhat obscure even for those who study 16th and 17th century English Renaissance Literature, as I did at Columbia University from 1987 – 1994. Browne clings like a barnacle to the hull of the old literary canon as it sails away from contemporary life.

Nonetheless. While diverse literary voices give me joy and it may sink my writing cred to embrace some dead, white British guy, I ❤ you, Thomas Browne, because I love the quirky, the strange, the cross-genre, mixed-genre, absent-genre, the unexpected, complex, contrary, and undefinable. Long, wandering sentences light me up.

Ted Tayler, a mercurial and beloved professor at Columbia, introduced me to Sir Thomas, who unwinds and rewinds “those wingy mysteries in Divinity” according to his own peculiarities of thinking, and then settles these into the commonplaces of Renaissance as though he were a geometrician explicating a proof: “I love to lose my selfe in a mystery, to pursue my reason to an o altitudo.” Browne, a physician by profession and a radical Protestant, enjoys reconciling the sciences with religion, art, and ancient cultures. He’s a consummate individual, searching for his own truths in an age dominated by the dictates of a religious establishment.

While this all sounds arcane and old-fashioned, Browne’s facility with language produce heart-rending bits such as these: “Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us” [Urne-Burial], “That whom we truely love like our owne selves, wee forget their lookes, nor can our memory retaine the Idea of their faces; and it is no wonder, for they are our selves, and affection makes their lookes our owne” [Religio Medici].

browne-book-coverProfessor Tayler was obsessed with the passage about that o altitudo (I confess I never quite grasped the whole of that), while I was entranced by a long passage which begins, Natura nihil agit frustra, or Nature does nothing in vain: “There are no Grotesques in nature; nor any thing framed to fill up empty cantons, and unnecessary spaces; in the most imperfect creatures, and such as were not preserved in the Arke, but having their seeds and principles in the wombe of nature, are every-where the power of the Sun is.” I won’t see this for a long time, but here Browne touches lightly upon an idea that Darwin will later call natural selection, and geneticists will understand as DNA replication and recombination.

The seeds and principles of my first book, Monster, sprouted from my son Robert’s sudden onset genetic illness at the age of one (which left him with profound disabilities). Suddenly, I was plunged into the mysteries of the body, medicine, and disability. The only way I could reconcile these new fields of knowledge was through literature—old and new, what I was once and what I must grow to become. My approach has been much like Browne’s, to meditate upon mysteries and unexpected connections.

Any able-bodied person coming to an enlightened understanding of disability must confront all the stereotypes that accompany it: ugliness, brokenness, irreconcilable difference, monstrosity. These wound. But in Religio Medici, Sir Thomas offers another way of parsing these insults that turns them inside out:

I hold there is a general beauty in all the works of God, and therefore no deformity in any kind or species of creature whatsoever: I cannot tell by what Logick we call a Toad, a Beare, or an Elephant, ugly; they being created in those outward shapes and figures which best expresse the actions of their inward formes; and having past with approbation that generall visitation of God, who saw that all that he had made was good, that is, conformable to his will, which abhors deformity, and is the rule of order and beauty. There is therefore no deformity but in monstrosity, wherein notwithstanding there is a kind of beauty, Nature so ingeniously contriving those irregular parts, as they become sometimes more remarkable than the principall Fabrick. To speake yet more narrowly, there was never anything ugly, or mis-shapen, but the Chaos; wherein notwithstanding, to speake strictly, there was no deformity, because no forme …

Granted, Browne sets his arguments within the context of Christianity—and I respect those who question religious belief, particularly Christian hegemony—yet when I read this passage, I skip the Christian context and read it as a statement of ethical humanism. That is, strip away the era’s reliance on the structures of religious faith, and that’s what I see: Be cautious as you deploy the dichotomy of beauty and ugliness, which may be at all times false.

monster_cover-copyBut returning to “the seeds and principles in the wombe of nature,” the more I studied genetics and genomics, the more I knew about DNA’s role in nature, the more I understood that DNA is the original and only monster: Its sole purpose is to replicate and produce variation, mutation, difference. As I write in “Notes on Creativity & Originality,” a meditation in Monster, “Evolution, therefore, might be an opportunistic engine expending energy in multiple directions simultaneously—not a progress toward perfection, if that’s what art is—or the making of it—revision ever onward toward an ideal.” So, yes, art may and must be monstrous, too: mixed-genre, asymmetrical, filled with irregularity, nonconformity, and difference.

I’ll always search for ways to speak of (but not for) my disabled son, and to complicate and unsettle disability stereotypes. For that, I have had Thomas Browne as a model of contrariness and individualism. Think freely; think for yourselves, no matter what norms or conventions you must overthrow or redefine.

Jeneva Burroughs Stone’s Monster, a linked collection of poetry and essays, is out now from Phoenicia Publishing. Her poetry and essays have appeared in the Colorado Review, Poetry International, Los Angeles Review of BooksPleiades, and other magazines. Her work in nonfiction has been honored with fellowships from the MacDowell and Millay Colonies. She holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, a PhD from Columbia University, and a BA from Middlebury College. She does volunteer work for Rare Genomics Institute and CareGifted, the first dedicated to helping families of undiagnosed children find answers, the second to long-term caregiver respite. She is also a contributing editor to Pentimento: Journal of All Things Disability, which is dedicated to promoting the voices of caregivers and writers with disabilities. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland.

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Big Loves: Michael Copperman on Willa Cather’s Five Stories


Willa Cather’s Five Stories, is a short, strange, beautiful collection of her short fiction that spans the course of her literary career. The first story in the collection, “The Enchanted Bluff,” is written in first person. It uses retrospection powerfully and overtly; the story concerns a river and a group of boys who grow up in a small town, how they are all taken with a story of a blue mesa and a city ensconced in it, hovering above clouds, where an ancient people once lived. They will go on to be dulled by adult lives. They never live up to their promises to travel to the mesa, though the fellow most taken with it still says he will. The story is about the pull of mystery, the magic of this imagined city of an extinct people, how the very existence of it enlarged these boys’ dreams, and too how time and circumstances dulled them and kept them from seeking the mesa. It ends like this:

“Tip Smith still talks about going to New Mexico. He married a slatternly, unthrifty country girl, has been much tied to a perambulator, and has grown stooped and gray from irregular meals and broken sleep. But the worst of his difficulties are now over, and he has, as he says, come into easy water. When I was last in Sandtown I walked home with him late one moonlight night, after he had balanced his cash and shut up his store. We took the long way around and sat down on the schoolhouse steps, and between us we revived the romance of the lone red rock and the extinct people. Tip insists that he still means to go down there, but he thinks now he will wait until his boy Bert is old enough to go with him. Bert has been let into the story, and thinks of nothing but the Enchanted Bluff.”

That end takes on such a size as a result of the retrospection; and though there is a sadness in how clear it is they will never go, there is a sort of hope, too, in how the story has been passed on, how now it has taken the imagination of Tip’s son. I have found that though Cather’s work is fiction, it instructs me most deeply in the craft of reflection, and its importance in writing memoir—for what is the real function of memoir but to make sense of the past from the vantage of the present, enlarge it in terms of the clarifying force of the years that have come between, when small memories take on size and importance, and what was immediate has receded?

willacather5storiesThe second “story” I had already read: it is the discrete, odd chapter “Tom Outland’s Story,” which forms the center of the novel The Professor’s House, a book I read when I was an undergraduate and did not understand. I would then have recognized mostly the grace and rhythm of the prose, and certainly, I noticed how the chapter seemed to stand alone, as if Cather had wanted to construct an entire narrative around one perfect and discrete and self-contained story, as if the entire story of the Professor was pulled toward the mystery of Tom Outland’s story. Tom Outland’s story is that of a young man and his friend Roddy who happen on the Blue Mesa and go into the city to explore. To Tom Outland the mesa is perfect, sacred, and his friend Roddy, believing he is doing right, sells the artifacts they unearthed when Tom is unable to get anyone in Washington to fund their exploration. Like the first narrator, Tom is looking back both on his time at the mesa, and at what has been lost: the mesa, his youth and innocence, and by his own choice, his friendship with Roddy. For in his anger at Roddy’s having sold the artifacts without consulting him, Tom tells Roddy to leave and is never able to find him again, even though Roddy meant the money for Tom to support his education. The story ends hauntingly:

“Now that I was back on the railroad, I thought I couldn’t fail to find him. I went out to Winslow and to Williams, and I questioned the railroad men. We advertised for him in every possible way, and had all the Santa Fe operatives and the police and the Catholic missionaries on the watch for him, and offered a thousand dollars reward for whoever found him. But it all came to nothing. Father Duchene and our friends down there are still looking. But the older I grow, the more I understand what it was I did that night on the mesa. Anyone who requites faith and friendship as I did, will have to pay for it. I’m not very sanguine about good fortune for myself. I’ll be called to account when I least expect it.

In the Spring, just a year after I quarreled with Roddy, I landed here and walked into your garden, and the rest you know.”

I think about that line—“Anyone who requites faith and friendship…will have to pay for it”—for I once nearly lost a best friend, neither of us able to forgive, though the first error was mine in turning my back on her. Close friendships can be difficult to sustain—they are as essential and intimate as any romance. But I do not feel I am exempt from Cather’s observation about the price of a friend’s loss: we may get only so many people who care for us deeply and can understand us fully, and so cannot afford to betray those loyalties without suffering the loss of something essential to ourselves.

What most interests me about these two stories, the only two in the collection written in first person, are how the stories echo back on one another, the Blue Mesa as figure, and the Blue Mesa as lost paradise, a pure but only temporary mecca. The stories overlap, reflect and refract, just as Tom Outland’s story itself ends by returning to the Professor’s story in a way that changes and enlarges that narrative. The Professor, as I remember it, becomes obsessed with what Tom Outland has told him, the Blue Mesa and the life Tom Outland had and the loss of Roddy’s friendship haunting his own days, but also enlivening his dreams.

In all of Cather’s first-person, the power and size of the narration is accomplished not by lyric—and she has considerable lyric talent—but by retrospection of the sort Fitzgerald uses in The Great Gatsby, moving through time to show us not just what has become, but the full measure of what we have been shown.

In a less generous writer’s hands, retrospection can ruin and overburden; it is a dangerous tool. Cather uses it with precision and heart.

Michael Copperman has taught writing to low-income, first-generation students of diverse backgrounds at the University of Oregon for the last decade.  His prose has appeared in The Oxford American, The Sun, Creative Nonfiction, Salon, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Waxwing, and Copper Nickel, among other magazines, and has won awards and garnered fellowships from the Munster Literature Center, Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, Oregon Literary Arts, and the Oregon Arts Commission. University Press of Mississippi published his memoir of the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta, Teacher, in September 2016.

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Big Loves: Chad Parmenter on Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters

chad11-1The first time I came across Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters was in Ed Brunner’s wonderful class, at SIU-Carbondale, on the book-length poetry project. When I opened it up, I noticed that he was thanked personally on the back page, and I probably started to read it based on a “hey, I know that guy” excitement, not really knowing anything about the book itself. And I don’t really know how the first reading impacted me, except that it probably demanded a second reading—not only the poems’ incredibly lyrical richness, or the mix of mystery and urgency in what they said, but some combination of those and more, that simply got me going back to it, and has kept it in my line of poetry vision since then, wonderfully and importantly resisting codification and attracting repeated readings through the MFA and PhD, and many other changes in between.

In 2004, visiting Carrowmore, I had the book’s first poem, with that name, not just in mind, but printed out and maybe in my pocket—not saying that to anyone, probably, because of not wanting to seem like a poetry nerd, but being one, anyway. It’s a megalithic cemetery not all that far from Yeats’s grave, and mostly humps of stone that might seem naturally set there if it wasn’t explained that they are graves. And the poem does some scene-setting, showing lambs “blotched blue, belonging,” running a root through the Romantic pastoral mode about as far back as one can go in the Western tradition, since lambs were a big deal back then, and goes in twists both dizzying and primordial through the presentation of a sacrificial victim, the speaker’s identification with her, and the fragmentation of attention and reference that make the poem bristle with referentiality that finally floats free of anchoring in any one statement, place, or persona. It wasn’t a lens on the cemetery, of course, being both about and not about so much more, but I walked around it getting fairly soaked in the fitting rain, and the poem’s mix of a seemingly peaceful surface and intentions with everything coming undone underneath, in lines like “my belonging I remember how cold I will be,” helped me accept the mystery of where I was.

Master+LettersThe project that frames a lot of the poems, epistles mostly in prose and some in verse to a mercurial addressee who’s sometimes the Master, seemed at first like a way of reading Dickinson, until, again, those repeated readings that the poems seemed to demand, with titles like “And Wylde for to Hold” and “The Sleeping Hollow of His Face Shall be the Straight Pass of Surrendering,” with so many moments of mesmerizing lyricism within them—”fanatic against the vanishing,” “The thrushes sing at auburn dusk / Like parlor ornaments wound up,” “the fire’s leathern eye”—started to show me so much more.  Maybe I had never seen intertextuality as a strategy to both build a poem, or series of them, and to make a sound that stays both surprising and amazingly cohesive, considering the intertexts, the references that go from Sappho to a famous execution in the “chair electric with bad news.”

One voice, and many voices, at the same time. Not the one getting subsumed into the many, like The Waste Land seems to me, or the other way that Whitman goes for me, but this balance, where the speaker acts as choir without losing that sense of an identity—a mystery of one, even a lack, but there, not only orchestrating but present throughout. Cracked mask after cracked mask, and the goal isn’t for the reader to delineate a face behind them, or to trace references through to a life story, at least for me—I started to find a play with language inseparable from a play with persona, that helped me see, really see, how much fun Shakespeare may have had, and to remember how much I definitely did as a kid with shifting from game to game that had their own costumes and parts to play, not as a way of hiding or even revealing, but connecting.

That’s another wonderful thing that I get from this book, and keep getting from it—a sense that the reader matters, is present for the speaker, but not stuck in a role, not fixed in any one place. Maybe the letters suggest that the reader is master in that reader-constructs-the-text kind of way, but “My Most Courteous Lord” and other addresses like it get dynamited out of any clear power relationship by the saying of the poems themselves, by a speaker who masters and, ha, remasters that leap from one persona to another, one setting and reference to another, and one urgent emotional register to another, even in the space of a single poem like “Did Not Come Back”:

                                                                   . . . the best of them,
The slowest velvet suffocation of their kind, did not come

Whittled back by autumn, at an hour between thorn & chaff,
Not come riddled with oblivion, the crossing & a shepherd’s staff,

The moment between Have & Shall Not Want, we who have salt
Always know, that we who have—the best of us—did not come

The speaker, and the speakers, of these poems, are mastered by no one, but potentially connected to anyone, to me.  And, maybe they argue, if they do argue anything—how can I not be?

Chad Parmenter’s poems have appeared in Best American Poetry and Kenyon Review, and are forthcoming in Crazyhorse.  His chapbook, Weston’s Unsent Letters to Modotti, won Tupelo’s Snowbound Chapbook Contest, and was published last November.

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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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