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A review of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction by Chris Andrews (Columbia University Press, 2014), Bolaño, A Biography in Conversations by Mónica Maristain, translated by Kit Maude (Melville House, 2014) and A Little Lumpen Novelita by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer (New Directions, 2014)

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Some readers turn to fiction to find not a mirror of the world they live in with all its ambiguity and ugliness, but a comfortable construct where beginnings are followed by middles and conclude with at least moderately-happy ends. The bad earn their comeuppance, while the good get the girl/win the man/score the job/enter heaven. It’s a version of the Elizabethan worldview, where a society riven with murder and incest and terror always rights itself in the end. “The time is out of joint,” Hamlet says early on the play, and at the end young Fortinbras will ride in to reset the clock. A broken world always ended up mended, all its gears and springs put back in place. We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the wayward quality of our lives. We tell stories to soften the painful edges and pull the sting out of the bad moments we wish had never happened. We tell stories because we always want everything to end happily ever after, just like we were taught as kids, when the big people read to us. Even our memories get a little soft and rounded over time, just to shine a kinder glow on ourselves. But the twentieth century also made vividly clear just how chaotic and uncertain life is. Evil can rise up in the pathetic guise of a nondescript German corporal, or of a skinny disaffected ex-Marine in his Texas backyard with a mail-order rifle, not to mention—going back a few centuries—the pious crucifixed footmen of the Spanish Insurrection who promised you heaven and then broke your legs. It’s the smiling soldier who marches you under the sign that claims Arbeit macht frei, or the man who calls you out of the dark doorway and draws you into the Mexican desert with his guarantee of mercy and salvation. This is the world of Roberto Bolaño; this is the carnival of wandering troubadours and lost souls.

wendy ortizWhat are you working on now?

My next book is slated for release in November 2014 from Writ Large Press. Hollywood Notebook is a prose poem-ish memoir-ish book of over 80 short chapters that was originally a blog I kept from roughly 2002 to 2004. It’s a book of ideas, appropriated text, lists, dips into the abyss, and the kind of joy and darkness one gets hit by when they’re in the middle of a Saturn return and Pluto transit.

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Leslie Jamison is the author of The Empathy Exams, winner of the 2013 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Jamison and her book are currently gaining some much-deserved attention, and we’re fortunate to have had a dialogue with her regarding not only her new book, but also the crafts of cultivating empathy and writing nonfiction.

9780374182212The cover of Jonathan Franzen’s strange, wonderful, and occasionally frustrating latest work, The Kraus Project, is immediately striking. Its peach smoke and antiquated type make for a different and mysterious feel. The typical Franzen cover is big, abrasive, traditionally American and in some cases, tactile or reflective. Into the world came The Kraus Project and it was greeted with a small well-mannered hooray and scarcely a glimmer of anticipation, like someone whom nobody was excited to see arriving late to a dinner party. The usual Franzenian hallmarks were strangely absent—there was no cannonade of tweets, motions for canonization or general controversy.

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Soon after we learned that our mother was dead, my brother and I went to a bar. We’d already worked the phones. Josh had called our grandparents, who’d been divorced for forty years but both still lived in Philadelphia. Grandpop said he’d book the first flight he could, but air travel was snarled from the attacks nine days earlier. Grandma was afraid of flying, so she stayed in her rented room in suburban Philly, wrecked and helpless. I called my dad’s house in New Hampshire, but he wasn’t home. Eventually he called back. I told him she was dead and a long pause ensued, one in a litany of silences between my father and me, stretching across the years since he’d left and the distance between us, thousands of miles, most of America. Finally he said she was a good person, that he’d always cared for her. He asked if I wanted him to fly to Arizona. I said he didn’t have to and hung up.

Riding SoloOn the online w4m casual encounters section of Craigslist, real women write ambiguously desperate posts like: let’s grab a drink and then… or spend some time together… or wanting it now!  They have grainy camera-phone self portraits taken in their bathroom mirrors. My laptop’s battery heats my thighs as I wait for these lonely women to come home—from what I imagine are evenings of failed dates, leftovers, and season finales of the Biggest Loser—and hop online for a quickie.

Scott Nadelson is the guest. His new memoir, The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress, is now available from Hawthorne Books.

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Not long ago, I stood in the office of Records Management in the Indianapolis City-County Building and watched as a man with crooked glasses punched my name into his computer. It was spring. A bright blue sky, sunlight danced between the glass and steel of the taller buildings. I was there in the sub-basement to search for criminal records—my criminal records.

Outside it was sixty-five degrees. The landscape was turning green, flowers were blooming—everything was being renewed, coming back to life, starting over.

About A Bout

By JJ Keith

Memoir

“C’mon. Bare-knuckle brawl. I win, you break up with her. You win and I’ll never bring her up again.”

He put his hands on his slim hips in dramatic protest. “I’m not gonna fight you. How do you think it looks if a black guy beats up a prissy blonde?”

I wasn’t worried about how it looked. Ernie could talk himself out of anything. That boy had a candy-coated mouth and friends in every corner of our mostly white, middle-class high school. My white ass, however, had four to six friends depending on how much I had been running my mouth. Some may have called me unpopular, but the disdain was mutual. During high school I took a full load of courses at a nearby community college so that I only had to go to high school in the mornings. That summer, I had just claimed my diploma a year early and was about to leave Ernie behind to finish high school without me. Not that he minded.

“Fight me!” I jumped up and down on his bed, throwing punches into the air. “C’mon. Let’s go. I wanna be a pugilist.”

Matthew Salesses is the guest. He is the author of two chapbooks, Our Island of Epidemics and We Will Take What We Can Get, a novella called The Last Repatriate, and his new novel is called I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying (Civil Coping Mechanisms).

My sophomore year of college, I was a thin, small girl with a pierced lip and pixie-short hair and a mildly broken heart and it was because of this last item that I left myself make a mistake by the name of Lee. This was such a small moment in the great, growing swath of my life, this frozen semester of weeping over romantic comedies and thrashing angrily to loud music and getting drunk off Malibu coconut rum which I didn’t even like. Such a small moment. Over the course of the last decade, these few months I spent with Lee have barely registered. They have been a blip. He did not hurt me badly, nor did he teach me any great life lessons. He did not matter, hardly at all.

But I think about him often, and the day I first let him kiss me, because that was a mistake.

PART I/July 2010.

 

I see him, but I hope no one else does. The guy leaning over between the train tracks and the station bar has a guitar in one hand and a plastic baggie in the other. I am stopped at the tracks waiting for the gates to rise, watching him on the platform, hoping no one else sees him because it’s the kind of thing that makes everyone involved uncomfortable.

Taylor is sitting next to me in the passenger seat, and she is not watching him. She is going through her purse looking for her checkbook so she can pay for the hour-long session with Lisa she is about to attend.

I drove en route to a one-bedroom cabin set off a lonely road from a remote highway in the north Georgia mountains where I’d have no cell phone reception. The cabin came with a mini-fridge, a shower and kitchen sink, a twin bed, a desk upon which I’d perch my computer, and the chair in which I’d sit to write. The windows looked out on a swath of mixed evergreen and deciduous forest that, in the duration of my stay, would blend into a kaleidoscopic of green and the yellow, orange, and red of fall.

“I quit, you bitches,” he yelled before ripping his apron off, throwing it on the ground, and storming out Starbucks, leaving me with my rival to finish the shift. Neither of us were sad to see the guy go — he was a grown man who replied, “Do I have to?” when asked to fetch a pastry or sweep — but we begrudged being left alone together to finish the shift without anyone to break up our passive aggressive feuding. Both of us were bitter that we had to be baristas in our mid-20s after earning college degrees and building professional resumes, but instead of bonding over our similarities, we complained to our boss about one another and swapped shifts to avoid working together. That evening we finished our work with a minimum of conversation. As we were locking up the store, we spotted the quitter waiting for us in the parking lot, idling in a late-model convertible. He sloppily hurled a melted Frappuccino in our direction, did a few screechy loops around the parking lot, and sped off. It was such a hideous and absurd display that all my rival and I could do was go get a few beers and laugh it off.

The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy. Brother Terrell reveled in that characterization.