Recent Work By J.S. Breukelaar

JS BreukelaarI’ve heard two things about you: One, that you wear your grandmother’s necklace to readings of American Monster for luck, and two, that the book is about an alien penis-hunter. Is that true?

Yes, but—


No buts. Is this some kind of affirmative action female predator alien girl-power bs?

Why? Does that make you uncomfortable?

american-monsterSometime in the night back in the Spill City trailer, Norma had woken up and eaten the last churro but in the morning had no memory of doing this, or of anything else. She tried to shrug the burn out of her shoulders, her night with Bunny slowly coming back to her. Calling Mommy down at the beach. Half-falling over some kid outside the pay phone.


I live in an incredible area. It’s a tough inner city hood boasting an elite private boys school, where doss houses sit alongside mansions and where strip clubs jostle with Portuguese butchers. Six months ago, one of those strip clubs, the iconic Sydney institution, the Oxford Tavern, closed down.


People who have known you all your life are often surprised when they read your fiction. People who have held you in their arms, buttoned your pajamas, put band-aids on your booboos, whose children you grew up with. People who are family, and who like to remind you about that once or twice a year over a Rubio’s fish taco at the mall.

I wrote this piece a while ago. I’ve been sitting on it. It’s about the Tin House summer workshop and it names names.

I went to the workshop last year. It had been the dream of twenty years and the flight, or flights, from Sydney, took twenty hours. I left on a dark Sydney morning in the dead of winter, where it was 8 degrees Celsius, and I touched down at 6 pm in Portland where it was a bright 90 degrees Fahrenheit. I must have picked up a bug in transit because by the time I walked into the dream, it had become a nightmare. Coming home can do that to you. I’d caught a hell of a cold. Except it was more than that.

Dead Meat

By J.S. Breukelaar


How do you start a new novel? Where does it begin?

First you straighten up your actual desk, then your computer desktop. Which leads to Facebook, of course, and Wired Magazine, and rereading the last story you submitted, finding a typo. A malignant one—dyzogotic instead of dizygotic in a story about twins. You will begin again. You will.

Verisimilitude is death. Every writer knows that. Any and all attempts to make a fictional character, place, or event true to any kind of an original guarantees the failure of the work. The truth is best expressed in stretchers, and no writer worth her salt can do it any other way.

But sometimes life falls at your feet so pre-stretched and warped that you don’t need to touch it. So broken and fragile that you fear too much handling will tear it apart. If you have the presence-of-mind to cup it in your hands, or the artist’s hardness of heart to make a note and file it under ‘material’, you do, but so often you don’t. It slips through your fingers, too beautiful (or something) to live.  But it marks you, changes you.

There is a character who haunts my work, a flesh-and-blood person, as unviable in life as he lingers beyond it. Like a monster. There has been a film made about him, which I won’t watch until after I’ve written this piece, until after I’ve exorcised the memory, tried to work out for myself why Richard Blackie just won’t die. And I may even decide to visit his grave. One day.

The really great thing about finishing a book is that you go to write your to-do list and ‘book’ is not there. Neither are any number of book-related entries.

Manuscript? Nope. Chapter 3 rewrite? Hell no. Research ‘anal retentive’ for Chapter 40? Ask that guy on Level 6 about formatting? Get the Czech word from Grandma Zuzi for a person-whose-hungry-heart-has-become-a-stomach-that-is-eating-them-alive. Update Evernote. Download that cool mind-mapping app… buy a new pencil sharpener/laptop-case/ring binder/more colored pens (or notebooks, butcher’s paper, chocolate, Merlot, beta blockers, cold medicine, miso soup packs…).  None of that’s there.

There is no better time for an epiphany than the holiday season, and this year mine was about how the world is divided into those who ‘do’ pastry and those who don’t. By doing I mean making their own. And by making your own pastry, I mean I don’t. These polarities abound. Those who beep at traffic lights and those who don’t. You either eat before noon or you gag at the thought. There is never a sometimes. You run, or you Zumba (fool!). Succulents. Love them or hate them. There is no in between. I’m not one of those moms who sits in the sandbox with her kids. But there they are, and here I am. It’s not the kids who put me off, it’s the other parents in there, and nothing short of a miracle can move me.


By J.S. Breukelaar


It’s that time of year again. Student papers are in and there are marking meetings to attend. But it’s all a bit hard to take—again. Helmet for Hamlet. That one’s getting old. Opheloria for Ophelia. There’s a new one. Someone in the meeting wonders if it’s catching. I eye the door. It’s closed so the students can’t hear us laughing at them. (Not at, mind you; just, you know, toward.)

We teach what’s called a “core unit.”  You have to pass it before you can get your degree. For a psychoanalytic reading of Hamlet, a student cites Dr. Carl Hung. A Freudian slip, perchance?

The marking meetings are a ritual. Once a semester, we bond over bloopers.

Hamlet’s problem? He was shellfish.

Most of us are what’s called “casual academics.” As part of a cost-cutting initiative to reduce full-time staff yet still meet ever increasing enrollments, humanities departments such as ours rely on instructors-for-hire, but there is nothing casual about the fact that we publish, lecture, teach, grade and often counsel a vast body of diverse students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend university. Some, I’ve discovered, have never read a book. And not because of any language barrier. They’ve just never read a book.

To sea or not to sea. It’s all the same to them. What matters is getting that piece of paper that qualifies them as a teacher, translator, nurse or—God forbid—psychologist. We try and hammer home that a semi-literate school teacher will find him- or herself working as a glorified babysitter, and an ignorant translator will end up delivering skip bins, but it just doesn’t seem to compute.

Frankenstein created ‘new spices.’ Who knew? Some wag blurts out a weary zinger about a reanimated Victoria Beckham. It’s been two hours. The pile of papers seems to be getting bigger not smaller. Descartes, a student writes, was a jew list (dualist). The meeting erupts.

Perchance what’s rotten in the state of Denmark is that in spite of glossy government initiatives to make tertiary education available to all, most of these students sweep in from Skelltown High so unprepared for Frankenstein, philosophy, and $4 lattes that they’re set to fail before they begin.

Alas, poor scallop.

F’s and C-minuses. Coffee cups and water bottles and laptops. Plagiarism and office politics. You never know. Funding for summer schools, learning centers or literacy classes might just eliminate, or at least reduce, the rationale for these meetings. And then where would we find our fun?

Three hours later we have a winner: good old Victor Frankenstein, haunted by his double dangler.

Analyze that, Dr. Hung.


My brushes with celebrity have been airy to say the least. I waited on tables in Sydney for years, served various ex-politicos and wannabe TV sleazes—their names barely resonate with the locals, much less with US readers. In LA, Pat Benatar’s people bought some earrings from us for a comeback tour, except that I wasn’t in the store at the time, but was nursing my daughter in the rest room, so my sister had to tell me all about it. Steven Seagal pulled up beside us on the freeway. Billy Connelly’s wife Pamela came into a Sydney fashion store I was working in (Billy waited in the car). I shook hands with cardboard cut-out of Sonny Bono in Palm Springs without realizing it was a cardboard cut out. Elizabeth Taylor came up to me on Rodeo Drive and admired my baby daughter. Sandwiched between two minders, Ms Taylor reached out and touched my daughter’s hand. ‘Beautiful child,’ she said. Tremulous, lovely. Her minders, grim young men, waited politely for me to step aside.

For a time, we lived next door to Nicole Kidman’s parents in suburban Sydney. Our Nik. Her father, Anthony, is a psychologist who runs seminars at the local hospital and has a practice nearby where he specializes in family issues. Nik comes to visit occasionally. They go for walks at dusk around the beautiful peninsula. Tall, slender as a whippet, she leans on dad’s arm—we strain to catch a few words, a bit of fairy dust. We try not to make any sudden moves.

Did I feel anything in their presence? Disappointingly, not much. Except with the cardboard Sonny Bono. But with the rest, I wanted to. I really did. I have a friend who talks about celebrities as if they’re her friends. Meg this and Meryl that. ‘The goddess,’ Virgil wrote, ‘can be recognized by her step.’ Nik walks in beauty, granted, and so (eternally) does Elizabeth Taylor, but I felt neither fear not trembling in their presence. I waited for the rush, for the encounter to change everything, or even just one thing, about my life, but all I was left with was my life, an after no different than before (on another note, I remember once on a modeling job the make-up artist was told to make me ugly for the ‘before’ shot. ‘Right, she said. I’ll just leave her as she is then.’ That still smarts.) I think it was the realization that there really is no mysterious divide between my $100 ASICS and Nik’s $1000 Blahniks or Liz’s $10,000 glass slippers. Just a couple of zeros.

Speaking of which I hate the z00. I have managed to avoid many of the world’s most famous animal parks. I just don’t get off on animals in captivity. I get really hungry at zoos. All those lines. All those tables littered with ketchup-soaked napkins. I feel guilty walking past all those cages, all those eyes on me. Wanting to rip my free throat out.

But watching the dolphins play off the southern coast of NSW, or the right wales making their way across the beaches to the North, spinning around, their wing-like flippers reflecting the sun, well for me, it’s kind of rapture. My skin burns, my heart cracks, tears sting my eyeballs, and it is all I can do not to jump in after them. To be in the presence of something at once so alien and yet so familiar. Unlike waiting in the supermarket line behind Hugo Weaving—yeah, I forgot that one—there is a strange pull to the wild. At least for me. Much more so than the time I shook Ian McShane’s hand at work. In contrast, there is that aha moment in which we recognize an almost human quality to the whale, or an almost animal quality in us, but it is a frontier, as philosophy tells us, that can be grasped only in flight. Still it tugs— the Melvillian lure of an alien world, and yet one to which we ‘feel the tie.’ Two species of mammals on either side of an uncrossable divide which we cannot help but imagine crossing. Imagine. Yearn. Return. Same thing, because what we feel during these encounters is a kind of separation anxiety. Homesickness, yeah, or what Freud called, Unheimlich—the uncanny.

Believe me there was nothing uncanny about my close encounter with Oprah in the ladies room at the Sydney Opera House. And nothing true either. But it could have been—Oprah-sightings abounded for a couple of weeks here—and I wondered what all the fuss was about. I wonder if the celebs do too. There can be a great deal of hard work and talent that goes into all those zeros but once you’ve seen, or been, one trapped mammal you’ve seen them all. Not so with the dolphins or the whales. They know, and seem to revel in the fuss. Look at us, they seem to say, we’re the ones that got away.

P.S. BUT. Put me a room with either Mick or Keith and all bets are off.

Truman Capote likened the finishing of a novel to taking your child into the back yard and shooting it. As a parent, I’m intrigued by the mind that could have created that sentence. Still, I take his point. I was all but undone by the completion of my previous novel, cried for days, became physically ill.  Wracked with grief for what I’d created and destroyed. But not with this one. This one felt more like letting go of a red balloon. There was that sense of loss, but also elation. I’d seen its shape from the beginning, knew from the moment I conceived it, that it wasn’t mine to keep. They never are.

It helps that this is the shortest novel I’ve ever written, that it’s almost pure genre, that it’s undercut by comedy and that, unlike with previous works, I have an agent waiting for it. It helps that I have the distraction of another book launch, some other big events at home. I wonder how long I should leave it to germinate. Is that the word? Ferment, foment? Will it sprout wings? A tail? Bubble and toil? Stephen King says the longer the better. Six months, a year. That makes sense when you’re juggling best sellers, movie deals and miniseries. But for the rest of us, when is ripe rotten? I won’t be the same person in a year. I may not remember what it was like to be the me of 2011, writing this novel. Why I did it may not seem so important. There may be other distractions, a new project. I may, over time, not be able to connect with the urgencies that impelled these characters at this time, in these places. And as any (speculative) fiction writer knows, timing is everything. Secret video footage of Princess Diana was central to my first novel. By the time I finished it, there WAS secret footage of Princess Diana.  An editor and I agonized recently over a short story that mentioned Osama Bin Laden. What do you do? Insert ‘the late’?  Replace Bin Laden with Al Zawahri? Who?

So, I’m thinking weeks rather than months. Catch up on TNB posts, hang up a Gone To Google+ sign on my Facebook wall; pull weeds, try to stay away from the body in the back yard. Murdered child, phooey. Get real, Truman, if finishing a book was like killing your kid, there’d be hell to pay.

On my way to the Newtown gym two weeks ago I passed a glassy-eyed trio hunkered down in a doorway with a bottle of port.  I didn’t give it much thought, but then when I was leaving the area an hour or so later I got a closer look at them. The men had moved off from the doorway, a couple of toothless harry-high pants the wrong side of fifty, staggering nose to nose, yelling and jabbing their fingers into each others’ emaciated breastbones.

‘You,’ one of them slurred, ‘you got all the fucken women in the world and what I got to know why is how you still want more.’

Slur, sob, bastard, cock, smellsock, blub.

I was wading in pain, raw and unstoppable, and its object, or subject, was a stout woman in sensible shoes sitting in a doorway, between a half-empty plastic bag and a bottle of port. But what I noticed about her were her eyes, red wet slits filled with tears.  I thought about how booze and drugs elevate our terrible human dramas to the cataclysmic and how, half a world away, a tornado in Joplin, Mo, had torn a hundred or more lives apart and I wondered how many of them had been people just like this, this lady who looked like she could be somebody’s mom, possibly was, the kind of mom who likes to sit in doorways sucking on a bottle of port and looking out at the world through crimson slits, and if a tornado ripped through Newtown this minute, how would she meet her end? Would she see it coming? Maybe it already had.

I’d be high all the time if I could get away with it. Who wouldn’t? It makes the sex good and the words flow and you can manage to kill a decade or so, but then you get a glimpse of those red wet eyes, waiting for you at the bottom of the stairs or in a doorway, or reflected from a window, just to remind you of what you can’t see coming. Who knew what tornadoes she’d lived through? So there I was in my gym gear and there she was on the steps in her sensible shoes and dirty blond hair and a rip in her shopping bag, and two old cocks fighting over what was left of her.

Whatever it was, it seemed good enough for the next guy that came around the corner. Maybe he had a few more teeth or longer hair, pants down a bit lower maybe, because she reached around and passed him the bottle, and he took a hit and passed it back and they watched the show for a while like that, mom and her geezer, never exchanging a glance, until until the boys’ finger jabs turned to throat-grabbing and something passed between mom and the guy then because she got to her feet and the geezer grabbed the bottle and they wandered off, still not a word between them, in the opposite direction to the sirens.

It was like they knew what was coming.

I am teaching Hamlet. This is a first for me, and it has given me a chance not only to revisit the play, but also Almereyda’s messy, masterful adaptation (2000); and one summer in my own life when the time felt most terribly out of joint.

It seems to me that Hamlet is not so much a guy who couldn’t make up his mind, nor a man who thought too much, or who lacked resolve, or any of those things—or maybe all of them. The guy was just too totally into himself. That’s what makes Hamlet so compelling. The lure of drama, whether a play, a book, or a film, is the desire to be seen. We wait for that moment when we become real in the eye of the character, when what they say, or how they look, makes us suddenly real to ourselves. But Hamlet refuses. There’s the rub. He obliterates us the way he feels obliterated. That’s how up-himself he is. It’s very frustrating.

Oh, he can see himself, up to a point. ‘I’m an errant knave’ he brags to the lovesick Ophelia, without really ever seeing the girl in front of him. All he can see, all he can be, is himself. He just doesn’t get, that in order to be, as Buddhist leader, Thich Nhat Hanh says in one of the most extraordinary scenes in the film, we have to inter-be. In so being, in being so himself, Hamlet cannot inter-be. He can only be, as the murderous Claudius says, his ‘character, naked’—a contradiction in terms. So be it. If I cannot see myself in him, then I cannot be either.  Watching Hamlet is being Hamlet…. unable to be because of not being able to see oneself in the gaze of another.

Hamlet takes twenties-something slacker solipsism to a whole new level; Ethan Hawke nails it. His Hamlet is self-reflection to the point of self-obliteration. He would extinguish himself and thus aspire to the extinction of all.

This is not the first time the Dane has gotten to me. When I was twenty-three I dropped out of school for the last time. Or so I told myself. Fuck them and the donkeys they rode in on. I broke up with my boyfriend, moved into a place by myself, and stopped seeing friends. But before I did, I did something kind of kinky. In love with Shakespeare, I approached my professor and asked him if he’d tutor me privately. I’d pay, I said, whatever he thought was fair. I just didn’t want to live if I couldn’t live without Shakespeare. Astonishingly, he agreed. An astonishing man. Diminutive and rail thin, pasty, with a reputedly critically ill wife that no one had ever met, he agreed to read with me over one weird summer every Thursday in a restaurant near his house and we would discuss Shakespeare. Macbeth, Richard III, Twelfth Night, Hamlet.

Of course, Almereyda had not yet made his movie.  Last Action Hero was just a twinkle in John McTiernen’s eye … I watched and wept with Withnail. My ex wanted to get back together.  I sent him a note, quoting Viola from Twelfth Night. ‘O time, thou must untangle this, not I; It is too hard a knot for me to’untie!’  Nerdy, right? The ex went off and bought himself the biggest most complete Globe Shakespeare he could find. It must have set him back a pound of flesh. It’s one of those big tomes with gold-edged pages and cheesy line drawings. I didn’t know this at the time, and the only reason I know about it now is because it sits on our bookshelf and whenever anyone in the family wants to check up on a quote, we refer to it. Our kids love the illustrations.

But that was all in the future. Like Hamlet I was too into into myself to really see my boyfriend, or a future with me in it. I was too concerned with my own character, naked, whatever that was. I couldn’t inter-be for the same reason Hamlet couldn’t: I was bereft. Like Hamlet I was grieving over a loss with ‘impious stubbornness.’  My best friend had died three years earlier, and I just couldn’t get past it. In the winter following her death I’d locked myself in my apartment and played old Beatles albums over and over again. Especially, ‘Here comes the sun,’ because I knew it never would.  Even though there was no suggestion of foul play, she’d died in an ugly, unnecessary way, and above all, without me, a terrible betrayal. I too thought that if I sat there for long enough on my own, my ‘too too solid flesh, would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,’ or adieu. Either or.

My only comfort were the dreams in which she’d appear, month after month, year after year, and for a few precious moments, or days, or however long the dream seemed to last, we were together again, yes, but it wasn’t the same. There was something wrong. A distance between us. She scared me a little. Remember me, she’d say, and there was something else.

Remember death, the undiscovered country, impossible dream. Memento mori, sixteenth century manifesto and the most paradoxical message of all. Remember your death, say our ghosts. Like that’s even possible. Sam Shepard is the ghost in Almereyda’s film, materializing in front of a Pepsi Lite vending machine.  ‘Wondrous strange,’ says Horatio, Horatio is Hamlet’s best friend. The ghost appears and reappears.  Don’t kill yourself, he tells Hamlet. Don’t go crazy. I need an untainted mind. Here is my story. I love you. Remember me.

Is that why they come, our ghosts and dream girls? Hamlet’s ghost, Yorick’s skull dug up by the clumsy gravedigger—we knew him once, didn’t we? Good night, sweet lady.

In dreams she’d be and wouldn’t be—alive and not alive—and she’d want something from me. Like Hamlet, I couldn’t give it to her. I wanted to, but it she wouldn’t look at me, not really. I’d crane my neck, will her to meet my eyes, but she’d turn away. That was the dream. Remember me, she’d say. And something else. And then she’d leave. And between her visits I’d do my damnedest to forget. I spiralled into the madness of not-forgetting. That’s all I could do.

The weekly meetings with my professor were therapeutic and instructive, but over time I sensed him becoming distracted and distant. Maybe it was because of his wife. I don’t know, but the summer ended and so did our Shakespeare sessions. I continued to be haunted by my dead friend. I had cut off all ties with her family, and with our group from school. I tried to go to a couple of reunions but was so traumatized by her ghostly presence that I hit twenty-something excess with a vengeance. I never talked about her and surprisingly I never wrote about her until very recently. Last year. Oddly enough it was a poem, the first real poem I ever wrote, and even more oddly, it was published, and stranger still, it was read and admired by the man who would become my agent.  There are indeed ‘more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.’

We are teaching our students that Hamlet just doesn’t get the whole political thing. He can’t or won’t play the game. He is too into being true to himself. Maybe if he was savvy he would have been able to get rid of Claudius while he had the chance. And then he could have taken the throne and lain the ghost to rest. But maybe that’s kind of what he didn’t want, not what he wanted to be—to be King and to still be bereft. To have the whole world and have nothing, to be and not to be. After the publication of my poem, the dreams stopped.  Every night, I’d go to sleep and think, please, maybe tonight. But she’s gone. Gone and not forgotten. Her story, finally, told. Memento mori. The impossible dream.

When Hamlet lies dying, Horatio would drink of the poisoned cup that killed his best friend. Like Horatio, all I ever wanted to do was to throw myself into the grave and shovel dirt over the both of us. But Hamlet, and maybe my friend, have a better idea. Stay, says Hamlet to the weeping Horatio. Stay alive. Tell my story. Remember me.

‘Amazing technologies, deviant desires.’ Map these onto 19th century America, throw in some hardscrabble characters and a strange journey that cuts across time and space, and you’ve got Enigmatic Pilot, the second installment in Kris Saknussem’s Lodema Testament. This is a seductive, enfolding trip of a novel, an audacious yarn that nods to the New Weird and tips its hat to the evolving traditions of Steam Punk, but owes much to the ghosts of Melville and Samuel Clemens, whose spirits, like the enigmatic script at the center of the story, illuminate the pages with the queasily addictive light of true lies. More than just a subtitle, this ‘tall tale too true’ takes up where Saknussem’s cult hit Zanesville leaves off, or rather before it begins, not so much a prequel as the source code. It is more accessible, less obscure, even more darkly hilarious, and packs quite a haymaker. If Saknussem has matured, he most certainly has not mellowed.