The late eighties were a great time to be a fanboy of weirdo new wave ladysingers from outer space (mainly Britain). It seemed like every time you turned on your new favorite show, 120 Minutes, some wackadoodle dame dripping with otherworldly moxie was popping up sporting a leotard or a tutu or a completely bald head, leaving your mouth gaping in wonder at the sheer brilliance of it all. You had your helium-voiced ethereal fantasist (Kate Bush), your ferocious and feline Weimar Republic throwback/riding crop enthusiast (Siouxsie Sioux), your tiny elfin powder keg (Bjork of the Sugarcubes), your scary trannie android (Annie Lennox of Eurythmics), and your testy and tempestuous ingénue (Sinead O’Connor). All of these ladies had allure to burn and the musical chops to back it all up.

Night Swim begins with a flash forward to present day California, showing Sarah Kunitz alone in her home, her children grown and her husband away on business. She receives an e-mail from the boy she grew up living beside, a boy she kissed under a broken pool table in her basement. Quickly, the story shifts back.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about pain, death, misery and failure. I tend to think about these things in January, and I doubt I’m alone. This year, as with last year, I find myself underemployed, with a Jack Torrance-grade case of cabin fever. It’s a cyclical phenomenon, as I am sure other freelancers – and anyone in retail – can confirm. Also (fun fact!) corporations tend to fire people at the tail end of the old or start of the new year, so I imagine that right now there are many other lonely, bored, depressed shut-ins among us. Obviously we’ll never meet since we never leave our increasingly smelly apartments, but I have a pretty good feeling you’re probably trawling the internet right now looking for an antidote to your misery or Googling the phrase “painless ways to die.” I dedicate this post to you.

Now that we’ve gotten the awkwardness of the first suicide joke out of the way (one of many more, I hope!) I’d like to offer you some comfort. I will partly do this simply by being me, which tends to make other people feel better about themselves. For example, right now I’m suffering from a unique confluence of agonies, as I’m both looking for a day job and submitting my freshly completed novel to literary agencies, thus putting myself on the receiving end of a two-front assault of disappointment and rejection. I should have probably staggered the attempts. Oh well.

Another thing I can do to help you: offer you amusement. Here’s a fun game you can play to help pass the time. Close your eyes, relax, and take a moment to scroll through your memories. Good. Now: try to pinpoint the exact moment in your life when you went so irreparably wrong and screwed everything up forever. It could be a job or a lover you turned down out of arrogance and to your everlasting regret. It could be an offhand remark you made that alienated the last of your friends. Maybe you regret mooning the German finance minister that summer in Dusseldorf. It doesn’t matter. Without ever having met you, I can’t tell you exactly where you went terribly wrong.

I have my own contenders. I’ve narrowed it down to about five non-consecutive occasions that I’m not about to go into here. (I’m a job-seeker for god’s sake. I admit no weakness. Future employers who may be reading this: I am a paragon of robotic perfection. I’ve never done anything wrong, and I did not just accidentally burst a hot-water bottle on top of several important licensing agreements.) Anyway, let’s just say that self-recrimination can be a fun and free way to pass an afternoon.

Another fun thing you can do is ponder the shocking, visceral spectacle of the First World War. You can do this through the prism of Downton Abbey if you’d like, since it’s always good to remain current and feel like you’re a part of cultural phenomena. (It’s also fun to marvel at the different ways the show’s writers arrange for Cousin Matthew to be on leave in every single episode.) There are few things more comforting to me than the tragic, troubling sweep of human history. I mean, the Great War was so calamitous, so poorly managed and so disastrously run that my own small mistakes become much easier to stomach by comparison. Take, for example, the ill-conceived attack by Britain’s 1st Rifle Brigade and 1st Somerset Light Infantry on December 19th, 1915. This daring daylight charge was to have two prongs: first, an artillery barrage was supposed to destroy the German barbed-wire entanglements; second, an overland rush by the foot soldiers, who theoretically would be able to walk right over the downed wire and into enemy camps. Just in case the artillery barrage failed, though, the soldiers were supplied with straw mattresses, which they were to lay over any remaining wire. Inevitably, the barrage failed completely and the soldiers, staggering under their 60-pound gear kits and ridiculous straw mattresses, caused open-mouth Germans to stare in disbelief when they saw them approach. Well, stopped them for about five seconds. Then the Germans shook it off and commenced total slaughter.

Whatever stupid things I’ve done, I have not yet caused the death of a million men. See? Perspective.

Sometimes, though, on particularly bad days, I have to reach even farther back. In my very darkest moments, nothing from the 20th century will do. I have to go all the way back to the 14th, a hundred-year period of unremitting famine, misery, disease, plague, war, and death. That century opened with two or three frigid winters in a row, and unseasonable cold marked its first decade or so. (The cold didn’t let up until 1700; historians call it “The Little Ice Age.”) Naturally, this led to a shorter growing season, which in turn meant certain starvation for a populace already too big to support itself. In 1315, it rained incessantly, crops failed again, and full-on famine resulted, leading to malnourishment and thus disease. People were reported to have murdered their own children for food, and a famine-ravaged village in Poland even resorted to taking down and eating corpses in gibbets. Famine would occur again in 1316 and 1317. What else you got? Papal schisms? Check. Violence? Yes. Social unrest? Ooh! Peasant revolts? Keep talking. A hundred-year war?! The Black Death!? Yes, please!

But in my world, the true urtext for this longest, darkest season of the soul is (naturally) Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. Sometimes I don’t even have to read the book all the way through to achieve catharsis; sometimes all I need are the dark, foreboding scenes before winter even strikes, when Pa sees the unusually thick walls of the muskrat nests and muses, “I’ve never seen them that thick.” I can just imagine the cold, dark horror that awaits them in the long months to come, and it’s enough.

In The Wilder Life, Wendy McClure writes evocatively of Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s less-then-beloved daughter. Apparently, she was kind of a little shit and nobody really liked her. She grew up angry, bitter and discontented – she hated her parents’ poverty – and lived a frustrated life as an artist who never really achieved fame. She won some awards for her short stories but it was her mother’s legacy, not hers, that lived on. Modern fans visiting the Laura houses-turned-museums bypass the glass display case of Rose memorabilia with barely a murmur of interest: “Most of us had no use for someone like Rose, whose Bitter and Complicated life was at least as imperfect as our own,” McClure writes. People would rather hear about a family beset by blizzards and locusts than a girl whose mild and trivial problems mirror their own. The trouble is, it’s always the trivial problems that get you down. Grand-scope misery is a relief compared to that. Why anyone would prefer tales of survival, resilience, and redemption over narratives of folly, misery, and failure, I don’t know. Secretly, I don’t think they do. If you read about the real-life Ingalls family in any depth, you’ll quickly learn they were massive fuck-ups just like the rest of us. At one point they were all reduced to working as servants in a hotel, and when they couldn’t pay their rent, the whole family had to flee in the night. Also: the reason they left their homestead in Indian Territory in Little House on the Prairie (I refer here to book two in the series)? They fucked up. Pa took a gamble squatting on Indian land and was busted by the government in the end. I think that’s the real reason people love the Ingalls family, they just won’t admit it.

I’ve decided the only sensible thing to do is go to Belgium.

Not just for war tourism, but out of a general curiosity. Much has been written about the legendary ugliness of the Belgian people, and I’m curious to see how this bears out in real life. “To this day,” writes W.G. Sebald, “one sees in Belgium a distinctive ugliness dating from the time when the Congo colony was exploited without restraint and manifested in the macabre atmosphere of certain salons and the strikingly stunted growth of the population, such as one rarely comes across elsewhere… I well recall that on my first visit to Brussels in December 1964 I encountered more hunchbacks and lunatics than normally in a whole year.”

This may be the place for me.

Just to clarify, I’m not moving there. I’m staying in New York for the time being (at least until poverty forces me to move in with my in-laws in Buffalo, or move back home to Canada where people live like kings). No, I’m just going for a weeklong sojourn. Who knows, maybe I’ll like it so much I’ll make regular visits; maybe I’ll find so much comfort in its war memorials that I’ll just keep going back, shuttling from NYC to Brussels until the money runs out, between my real life and my imagined life, forever rowing from one dark shore to another.

 

One of the publications I write for with some regularity occasionally throws me the bone of a restaurant review.  The reviews for this particular periodical are only a hundred words at most, so there’s no pay for them; your compensation is that you get to expense the check.  So a few weeks ago I went to Sunday brunch at (the place assigned), and Monday, I submitted this review:

full_nowtrends-B-hi-res
Karl Taro Greenfeld’s NowTrends (Short Flight/Long Drive Books) is worth reading simply for the exotic locations and unique settings, but there is much more going on in this collection. A layered sadness permeates these stories, often soliciting sympathy for the main characters. At other times, a sense of entitlement causes the reader to become frustrated and even angry at these spoiled people. And still other stories allow us to understand the uncertainty that life offers up, even amidst important events and epic moments, unsure of how to take these revelations, unable to change—even when willing.

STEVE ALMOND:  I wanted to start with a basic question I get a lot as a story writer: Why do publishers view story collections as risky? I have my own theory, but I’m curious what you think.

BRUCE MACHART:  There’s no question in my mind that, as a rule, collections receive only slivers of the big publishing house pie in terms of publicity and marketing attention. We can all point to the exceptions, but it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy among publishers that “short stories don’t sell.” Because they believe this, they don’t want to commit resources (whether it be time or dollars) to promote books of short stories. The surprising result? Well, most collections don’t sell.

Can you tell me something extraordinary?

I made it with a dolphin yesterday.

 

How was it?

Awesome!

Many early reviews have mentioned that your new collection, Stay Awake, is disturbing and depressing. One Amazon review says: “For those wanting to float in a dark world of unsettling edges and places you want to leave quickly, I’d highly recommend this book.” Another Amazon reader asks:  “I would just like to know what, if anything, makes Dan Chaon laugh.”

I do not know this word, ‘laugh.’ What is it? The sound of this word has an unsettling edge that I find disturbing and depressing. It makes me want to leave this place quickly.

You have a lengthy background in the New York comedy scene. That must have made writing a humorous book easier.

Actually, I think it made it harder.

 

Why? That seems counterintuitive.

Well, having told so many of the stories [in A Bad Idea I’m About to Do] on stage made me know what the funny parts were, I’ll give you that. But when you’re on stage telling stories, you have charm working for you. You have the ability to control the timing of things. Most importantly, your audience can see that you’re alive and okay and a relatively happy, well adjusted person. So you can go dark and know that your presence and performance help blunt the grim side of your funny tales. On the page, you don’t have those luxuries. I had to do a lot of altering of things, a lot of expanding of certain areas, and a lot of soul searching to include some very personal stuff in the book that I wasn’t used to delving into as deeply on stage. My earliest drafts read like transcripts of a stage performance. That’s not good. The stuff that shows up in the book is a lot more fully fleshed out and brutally honest, which is saying a lot, because I think I was already pretty brutally honest about this stuff when I would talk about it on stage.

 

Are you referring to how a lot of the funny stuff came from you being in a rough spot emotionally? 

Yeah. I like to mention that stuff with a smile on my face when I tell these stories on stage, then move on. In the book, I had to own up to it, head on, and also dive into not just my, but my family’s history. It was pretty tough. That stuff is very real. It has had a very real impact on my life.

 

What did your family think of you talking about them so specifically?

They liked it. I talk about how my grandfather was genuinely nuts. I was scared they would be upset with me, but they liked it. I had a very touching talk with my dad before I turned the final draft of that one in, and was so impressed that he wanted me to just be honest about his dad. My father is a good dude.

 

Even though you wrote about him trying to kill teenagers?

Yeah.  I mean, he has his moments of complete rage-filled insanity, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a good dude.

 

You sure?

Positive.

 

You’ve written books before, but nothing like this.

Yes. I worked at a magazine called Weird NJ, and that turned into a book series.  I co-wrote a number of books and authored Weird NY. We covered local legends, ghost stories, weird people – it is by far the best job I’ve ever had, or will ever have.

 

That must have helped you write this book as well.

Definitely, in the sense that I know how to sit in front of a computer and produce words. I can crank out words when it’s time to do it. But those books were specific projects with specific goals. They were humorous to a degree, but that was not the focus. Merging my writing life with my comedy life was a surprisingly strange and difficult process. Also this new book is so personal that I found it terrifying when it came close to the publication date.

 

Why terrifying?

I worked on it for close to six years, from proposal to publication. And that was mostly in a vacuum. The only people who read it for the majority of that time were myself, my agent, and my editor. I’ve read each of these stories over a hundred times. By reading number seven of each one, I had no idea if they were funny or not, I had no perspective on it by about a third of the way into the process. Then all of a sudden, we’re just gonna let anyone read it. That was scary. It’s so, so personal to me. I just hope people get laughs out of it. I hope if someone is having a bad day and they read my book, it makes them have a slightly better day.

 

Do you have confidence issues? 

I have a very unfortunate blend of unwarranted cockiness and crippling self-doubt.

 

Wait, those contradict each other.

Yeah, it’s confusing.

 

Does that mean you land in the middle as a completely normal human being?

Not at all. Not at all. Instead, I think I exhibit the worst aspects of both of those traits, somehow simultaneously.

 

You seem complicated.

I try not to be.

 

Wait, did we just quote the Wes Anderson movie Bottle Rocket?

Yeah. Good pickup.

 

If any young people are reading this and they identify with how you were feeling in the book, do you have any advice for them?

Be yourself. Don’t worry about if you’re normal or not. No one is. You’re good to go. Decide what you want to do and do that thing. Make it happen. You can. It just takes a lot of work. If you have a dream, live it. I promise you, you can do it. Know that quitting is an option, but it’s not necessarily a solution. Work as hard as you can. You might fail. That’s okay. It’s good to fail. People who work as hard as possible sometimes don’t wind up living the dream they set out to live, but more often than not they wind up where they’re supposed to be. I have seen that happen dozens of times. It’s happened to me thus far. I know this reads like sappy, inspirational dreck, but it’s so important to me that kids just go for it. Be punk rock. It works. Decide what your dream is, then give yourself no other options. Don’t spend as much time doubting yourself as I did.

 

Are the Knicks gonna get their shit together this year?

Probably not, man.

 

Why do you host a public access TV show? It seems like a “bad idea,” just like the stories in your book.

Because it’s fun.

 

But why don’t you have a show on a real TV network?

No one at a real TV network seems interested.

 

But you starred in a sitcom once.

Yeah, but I didn’t write it. I just acted in it. My show on public access TV can only be described as “bonkers” and sometimes “bananas.” It is truly crazy. It can only exist on public access. If it was on network TV, it would be by far the weirdest show on network TV.

 

Do you think anyone will take a chance on it?

Nope.

 

Does that bug you? 

Nah. I do the things I do for love, and then just pray I can pay my rent.

 

Can you?

Yeah, but I live with a roommate in Woodside, Queens.

 

How’s that?

It’s okay. It’s like the sixth coolest neighborhood in the fourth coolest borough of New York.

 

Sounds sorta shitty.

Nah, it’s fine.

 

Do you have any questions you want to ask me?

That’s a moot point. You are me. I have asked you all of these questions, just as you have asked them all of me. And you have answered them already, as you are me and I am you. The premise of this endeavor is a confusing and tricky one.

 

Please explain what just happened.

I was stung by a bee, and I think I’m going into an anaphylactic shock!

 

 

What is your earliest memory?

The American flag.

Closing off our “Six Question Sex Interview” series featuring various contributors to the anthology Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience, we decided to give the lone man in the book—foreword contributor, Steve Almond—a whirl with the questions.  One question (in which female contributors had been asked whether they would ever consider having sex with “their” male character from the book) no longer seemed to make sense, and so I struck it from the list . . . although in typical Steve Almond fashion, he had found a way to answer it, actually, in quipping, “Well, I am my male character, and I have sex with myself all the time.”

 

One of the galvanizing urges between movie buffs and music fans is a powerful love of lists. Whether the subject is “Best Sports Movies” or “Top Five Songs About Underwater Life,” we fans love the debate almost as much as putting our own lists in order. As a longtime fan of the film writing of TNB’s Associate Arts & Culture Editor Cynthia Hawkins, I needed to know her essential movies about rock and roll. She graciously obliged me and below are what we feel are ten essential movies about rock and roll. We prepared our lists separately and merged them after they were complete so as not to influence each other’s comments. In the case of one of the movies, this proved both telling and extremely amusing.