It’s always the same. I load the weapon. I raise it. I stare down the barrel for a moment, as if it had something to tell me. I point it at my left temple (yes, I’m a lefty, so what?). I take a deep breath. Screw up my eyes. Wrinkle my brow. Caress the trigger. Notice that my index finger is moist. I slowly release my strength, very cautiously, as if there were a gas leak inside me. Clench my teeth. Almost. My finger bends back. Now. And then, as always, the same thing happens: a burst of laughter. An instantaneous laugh so raw and meaningless that my muscles quiver, forces me to drop the gun, knocks me off the chair, prevents me from shooting.
I don’t know what the devil my mouth is laughing at. It’s inexplicable. However downhearted I feel, however ghastly the day seems, however convinced I am that the world would be a better place without my annoying presence, there is something about the situation, about the metallic feel of the butt, the solemnity of the silence, my sweat dripping like pills, what can I say, there is something impossible to define that I find, in spite of myself, dreadfully comic. A millimeter before the trigger gives way, before the bullet travels to the source of rest, my guffaws invade the room, bounce off the window panes, scamper through the furniture, turn the whole house upside down. I’m afraid my neighbors also hear them, and to add insult to injury, conclude I am a happy man.
Devote your life to humor, a friend suggested when I told him of my tragedy. But except when I’m committing suicide, I don’t find any jokes funny. Continue reading
Every year sees the publication of dozens of new books about the charming, quirky little nuances of the English language, and they’re all crap. They’re. All. Crap. Crap, I tell you! Because while they purport to offer a thoughtful, revealing study of the subtleties of our language, they actually reveal nothing beyond the writer’s own social prejudices and pet peeves. “Down with the Oxford comma!” “Up with the non-gender-specific pronoun!” Give me a fucking break. This is how certain bored old white people try to re-assert their precarious hold on a certain echelon of society. It’s like quibbling over neckties at a country club.
And then, on the other hand—finally, for fuck’s sake—we have The Art of Language Invention by David J. Peterson. Peterson is a linguist (linguistics is that other way of thinking about language, the one that’s actually scientific and informative) and he’s a conlanger, which means he creates constructed languages (“conlangs”) for fun. For fun! For fun he sits around and puzzles out new ways of communicating, using the tools that are common to all languages. I’m not talking about Oxford commas. I’m talking about ergativity, semantic bleaching, phonological erosion, the pragmatics of intonation, and the reification of gender. You know, the real stuff.
In the sixth of her series of interviews with women who write nonfiction, E.B. Bartels speaks with bestselling memoirist and opinion writer Jennifer Finney Boylan.
Jennifer Finney Boylan’s memoir, She’s Not There: a Life in Two Genders (Broadway/Doubleday 2003) was the first bestselling work by a transgender American. A novelist, memoirist, short story writer, and an advocate for civil rights, she is the author of thirteen books. Boylan also has been a contributor to the op/ed page of The New York Times since 2007; in 2013 she became Contributing Opinion Writer for the page. She serves as the national co-chair of the Board of Directors of GLAAD, the media advocacy group for LGBT people worldwide, and serves on the Board of Trustees of the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. Boylan is the inaugural Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University.
EB: Why have you personally been drawn to writing nonfiction?
JFB: I wrote fiction when I was male; I have written nonfiction as female. I am sure there is a PhD thesis for someone in there somewhere. Still, it’s true: when I changed gender, I also changed genre. Maybe it’s that, in living a life that is more authentic, I felt compelled to create work that more closely reflected the truth of my lived experience.
That said, I’d be suspicious of anyone who says nonfiction contains more truth than fiction. For many writers I know, the truth of their hearts is more clearly seen in their novels than in their actual lives.
EB: Do you feel there is fluidity in genre as in gender? Have you ever written something that feels not quite fiction but not nonfiction either? Continue reading
Female friendships are volatile, magical things, as torrid as any romance and as complicated as a Rubik’s cube. Rachel B. Glaser’s debut novel Paulina and Fran deftly captures the intricacies of female friendship, set against the backdrop of a New England art school. Glaser knows this world well, having earned her BFA in painting from RISD and her MFA in fiction writing from UMass-Amherst, and the affectations of art school are everywhere in these pages: hours of thrift store shopping, the angst of being one of the precious few artists who “make it,” the competition for fellowships, the constant workshopping and critiquing (both in and out of the classroom), and the anxiety about earning an art degree and whether it will pay off.
Paulina and Fran, both curly-haired artists, meet at a house party, where the studied, careful ennui of aspiring artists flows freely, along with the beer. Paulina fancies herself a queen bee and harbors a vicious side; Fran is unassuming, innocent, quieter.
Paulina stared, realizing Fran was friends with one of Paulina’s enemies. Paulina couldn’t remember which girl. Her idea of Fran darkened. She wanted to be her, or be with her, or destroy her. She watched Fran’s breasts bounce in her dress. No one in the room seemed to be connected to her. Her cheeks concealed things.
It’s hard to write about Jonathan Franzen’s work without writing about Jonathan Franzen the Public Figure, an entity that seems to bear surprisingly little resemblance to the man himself. Now that his reputation as a crotchety jerk is all but set in stone, it’s easy to forget that Franzen’s original sin wasn’t dissing Twitter or calling Jennifer Weiner a hack but rather some rather tepid hand-wringing during an interview with Terry Gross about whether having an Oprah’s Book Club sticker on the cover of The Corrections could be construed as selling out. In the end—by which I mean by the end of his sentence—Franzen had decided that it didn’t, but that didn’t stop Oprah from disinviting him.1
The charges have shifted and morph over the years. More recently, Franzen has been assailed for being insufficiently grief-stricken at the death of his friend David Foster Wallace2 and, retroactively, for saying that his ambition for The Corrections was that it reach a male audience.4 You get the sense that these criticisms have less to do with Franzen than what he represents—an exceedingly privileged rich white male who nonetheless finds the world disappointing and unjust. Identity politics aside, I find it really hard to look at the facts of these claims and come away with any other conclusion than that Franzen has been frequently and repeatedly swift-boated. There’s part of me that wants to avoid it all, but with his new novel, Purity, Franzen seems be directly addressing—and quite possibly trolling—his critics. Here at last, he’s given them what they’ve been waiting for—a book that openly takes aim at millennial, feminism, and the necessity of secrecy in a world where privacy is becoming an ever more alien concept.
Cries for Help, Various by Padgett Powell comes out today!
It’s not only the latest collection of stories from a writer who adamantly defies classification and makes our tummies flutter with each sentence (check out our rave reviews of The Interrogative Mood and You & Me), it’s also the first book from a new publishing venture called Catapult, which combines the best of Electric Literature with the best of Black Balloon Publishing. If your tummy isn’t fluttering yet, reading these two stories from the collection will help.
We asked the author one question.
How are you celebrating the publication of Cries for Help, Various?
Padgett Powell: Let’s see:
I will celebrate with the observation that I am still alive, not in hospital or jail, yet compos mentis. I will imbibe a short steel tumbler of prune juice to keep the vitamins non-emetic. I will shoot a squirrel if I see one and skin it before girding loins and going to have the TSA feel me up and confiscate my toothpaste and then I will fly to a launch party for the book, which I have not, in my thirty-plus-year career of peddling books so good no one buys them, ever had. There, friends in high literary quarter will read from the book and I hope not embarrass themselves. Roy Blount writes better than I do and I am funnier than he is so he may have trouble. The thing is September 10 somewhere a Facebook link I don’t have on me may reveal to you, maybe my publicist will see this and add it, I invite anyone interested to come.
[Publicist’s Note] It would be great if you could please share the link he mentions. Launch party: Thursday September 10th at 7pm at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in NY, NY.
Get the book here.
New music! Sometimes old music. Music that we love!
We need more bands like Phony Ppl, mixing up new styles with old school sounds, and making great videos to go along with it! Why doesn’t someone just go find all these bands and post them in a blog somewhere? Oh crap, that’s my job. Well, here’s a couple great tracks from these guys.
– Brook Reeder
Watch it with us: Netflix streaming
When I came across the plot summary for Zero Motivation on Netflix, I had to read it a couple of times to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. “As they serve out their required term, an all-female unit of the Israeli army battles boredom and personal frictions at a remote desert outpost.” Come again? Workplace comedies, at least of the big-screen variety, are historically the provenance of male characters. A handful of films in the ’80s and ’90s focused on women in the workplace: Working Girl, 9 to 5, Private Benjamin, and the often-overlooked Clockwatchers. But for these women, a job is a means to an end, and the end is always marriage.
I say this to highlight the miraculous oddity that is Zero Motivation. The fact that it’s a workplace comedy about women in the Israeli army is astonishing on its own. But the comedic elements have more in common with Clerks and Office Space than with Private Benjamin, the only other comedy I could come up with that focused on a woman in the military. That film is a classic fish-out-of-water story and it is pleasant enough, but Zero Motivation takes the fact that women serve in the military for granted and instead focuses on the mind-numbing ennui that sets in when you’re assigned a boring and seemingly pointless task and simply told to obey or else.