Nell Zink’s newest novel, Mislaid, has the official Jonathan Franzen seal of approval. The front cover blurb indicates that Franzen sees Zink as “A writer of extraordinary talent and range.” This is true, yet my dominant thought as I read the book was not “here is talent, here is range, here is writing at its best,” but rather, “this book is going to piss a lot of people off and I’m not sure whether it’s worth it.”
The novel opens with a description of Stillwater College, an all-girls school that is not a direct parody of either Wellesley or Sarah Lawrence. Yet, as is soon revealed, it is the typical picture of a women’s liberal arts college, full of bull-dykes and radical feminists and man-haters, which stereotypically amounted to the same thing in the 1960s and ’70s when the early sections of the book take place.
One of the main characters, Peggy Vaillaincourt, is everything her rich parents don’t want her to be. Within the first few pages of the novel, we find out that Peggy “was intended to be a man,” that “girlhood was a mistake,” and that she is a “thespian” (by which Zink means to convey a mishearing of lesbian). She is only happy many years later in life when she tells herself, in a moment of clarity, “You idiot… You’re a femme!” Only then does she find true love and happiness, when she wears pantyhose and makeup. I can already hear the roars of dismay from various factions of the feminist and LGBTQIA communities; as someone who considers herself a part of both, it is often hard to remember that the novel’s irreverence toward political correctness is (probably) purposeful. Whether it is satirical, however, is harder to decipher.
Pages Read: 150-200
In this section–the penultimate for our purposes!–two things of philosophical importance happen. Well, two things that we will discuss, as doubtless loads happen, but we can’t examine each one of them for fear of exhausting the ever-dwindling attention span of the modern day reader (whose diet consists mostly of blog posts). Let’s jump right in, shall we?
“So let’s talk about these books,” Nemira says, referring to an episode that begins on page 160. In this anecdote, Kate goes downstairs into the basement and begins to rifle through a box of books, most of which are in languages other than English. “First, what basement is she in? Is this the space where she’s living now?”
“I thought she was in the basement of her house.”
“Her house?” Nemira asks, accusatorily.
“Well… the house that she’s living in now. Whether or not that makes it ‘her’ house is a different question.”
If you’re queer, if you’re punk, particularly if you’re a riot grrl, chances are you’ve read Blood and Guts and High School. If you’re none of the above, Kathy Acker likely falls into that category of people-you-know-you-should-read-in-order-to-score-a-date-with-a-hipster-chick-on-OkC. Like many women continually searching for literary role models in the late ’90s and early 2000s, I spent my late teens and early 20s in awe of Kathy Acker. I didn’t want to write like her and I didn’t really want to be her, but I did find myself enthralled by her work, which was more aggressive and more vibrantly raw than anything I’d read before (and most things I’ve read since). Readers who encounter her now may find themselves unimpressed by her experimentalism and willful perversion, but this is only because her interventions as a radical/queer/punk writer have come into vogue.
To read Kathy Acker is to be at once revolted and turned on, and these were also the emotions that surfaced in reading I’m Very Into You, a collection of her emails with MacKenzie Wark, who is currently a professor of media studies at the New School. I’m Very Into You is a book that has generated some controversy: people seem to agree Acker wouldn’t have wanted these emails published, but she is unable to protest or consent, having died in 1997. (It’s difficult to track down her haunting, disturbing Guardian article “The Gift of Disease” but well worth the effort, unless someone you love is dying of cancer, in which case you should not read it at all, ever.)
Watch it with us: Netflix streaming
I would bet any amount of money that Grand Piano (2013) ended up on my Netflix queue because it was written by Damien Chazelle, director of the Oscar-nominated Whiplash. I forgot this some time between adding it to my queue and watching it last week, so it ended up being a pleasant surprise, a fanciful premise executed in a self-aware style.
Elijah Wood plays Tom Selznick, a former concert pianist who retired five years ago, after the death of his mentor. His wife Emma (Kerry Bishé), a famous actress, persuades him to make a comeback. But during the performance, he receives a message from an unknown assassin: if he plays a single wrong note, he and his wife will be killed by a sniper (John Cusack) hiding in the wings. It’s a silly premise, so I was skeptical when I read the Netflix description. Before he goes onstage, Tom has a heart-to-heart with the conductor (Don McManus) in which he expresses his fears about “choking” when he plays a particularly difficult piece. The conductor assures Tom that he will play wrong notes, but it’ll be fine because the audience will never know.
Pages Read: 100-148, then 100-150
Last time Nemira and I met, I was the one dominating the conversation, because I am the expert in writing about loneliness and melancholia (please forgive my bragging.) This session, she took over, telling me how she started to see all these parallels between the novel and her dissertation. This was frightening for me, because I am sort of pretending to understand the philosophical ideas she puts forth–there’s a lot of nodding and “mm-hmm”-ing and wondering if my facial expression belies my confusion. Anyway, at the risk of ignoring the plot for a moment–spoiler alert: Kate’s still in the beach cottage–let’s listen to Nemira tell us a bit about what she studies.
“My project is about how we represent perceptual properties–like colors, and sounds, tones, pitches, loudness, that sort of thing–and spatial properties, and how they’re more similar than people had thought. What I’m working on right now is an argument to the effect that one of the reasons people posit for thinking that we represent a space in which objects are located is to explain certain properties of spatial experience, right?”
I try to look like I understand. I obviously fail.
I began to seriously question whether or not I want to have kids one Wednesday at 9 p.m. while having my hair checked for lice. I was sitting in a black swivel chair, wearing a leopard-print hairdresser cape, as an older woman meticulously worked through my scalp with mint-scented conditioner, baking soda, and a fine-tooth comb.
For the past six months, since completing my MFA, I have been working as a nanny for a five-year-old girl to support my writing habit. The reason babysitters get paid as much as they do is because taking care of kids is hard. While my hours don’t come close to those of an actual parent, this sort of babysitting––working one-on-one with the same child, five days a week, for months––is much different than rolling in on Friday night, making popcorn, throwing on a movie, and then reading for three hours while the kids sleep. Instead, you get the whole range: highs, lows, joys, frustrations, emotional drain, and exposure to lice. Call it Parenting Lite. I’ve spent much time thinking about how, if writing while babysitting is challenging, could I ever be a writer and also an actual parent?
Meghan Daum has edited a collection of essays that addresses this topic: Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. Everyone is supposed to want to have kids. If people choose not to have kids, they often feel compelled to come up with an excuse: they can’t afford it, they had a messed up childhood, they don’t like kids, or they aren’t able to have children. “When people ask why I don’t have kids,” writes Elliott Holt, “I sometimes say, ‘I’m forty; that ship has sailed.’ Or I say, ‘I’m focused on producing books, not children.’ Or, ‘I can’t afford to have a child on my own.’ That’s all true, it’s just not the full story.”
Gutshot by Amelia Gray comes out today!
It’s the fourth book from an absolute wizard of short fiction. Gray’s stories come in many different moods—fanciful, haunting, tender, bizarre—but each one is surprisingly brief and surprisingly excellent. In “Gutshot,” a man who’s been shot in the gut exclaims “Jesus Christ,” and Jesus Christ consoles him by pointing to a plane overhead that’s flying to Dallas. (It makes sense when you read it.) In “These Are the Fables,” two lovers flee the parking lot of a Dunkin’ Donuts that is burning down, and their eccentric journey becomes a tale that they tell their child. Each of Gray’s stories is like that—a blast of ice water thrown in your face.
We asked the author one question.
How are you celebrating the publication of Gutshot?
Amelia Gray: When Gutshot comes out, I’ll be in New York. It will be the day after the great Franklin Park Reading Series, where I’m reading with Colson Whitehead, Tobias Carroll, Wendy C. Ortiz and Natalie Eilbert. I will start the day by trotting my hungover ass down to Bergen Bagels for Brooklyn’s finest bagel, untoasted if I’m up early enough, which I almost certainly won’t be. I will eat the toasted bagel with serious gusto while standing by the high counter and then I will walk to a coffee shop with my computer, a ThinkPad which weighs approximately eight hundred pounds, maybe actually gaining as the years pass, like the words all get jammed up in its weakening battery. Its keys have the kind of strong action that makes me feel like I’m saying the right thing. Continue reading
This parody of Bill O’Reilly’s best-selling history books (Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, Killing Jesus, etc.) is “by Bill O’Reilly” via Courtney Bowman and Nicholas Bowman, from their new book Killing O’Reilly.
WARNING: In order to keep readers turning pages, I have written this chapter as a noir. But don’t let the style fool you. What you are about to read is unsanitized and uncompromising. The murder of Harvey Milk, America’s first gay[i] politician, was brutal, but the full story hasn’t been told. Until now.
It had all started at a club on Castro two years earlier.
Harvey Milk is leaning on the bar, nursing the butt of a Camel. His jaw juts out of his face like a cliffside, his chin looks like his face is making a fist, and his dimples are deadly sharp.
It’s the summer of 1976, the gayest year in San Francisco history, but Milk thinks it could be gayer. Milk used to be on the Board of Permit Appeals. Appealing straight permits and letting gay permits fly, Milk was the most powerful gay man in the world. But he wanted more. That’s why he quit and ran for office. A race he just lost. He drops the Joe in a dirty glass. Milk makes to pay his tab when a man walks up.