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Reading in the Dark: My Winter with T. C. Boyle

By Michelle Brafman

I devoured T.C. Boyle’s novels and stories after the PEN/Faulkner Foundation asked me to moderate an event called “All Things Animate Beating in Unison: An Evening with T.C. Boyle.” I read them as he wrote them, a novel followed by a cluster of short stories, rinse and repeat. I started in late December and stopped the night of the Boyle event, six days after the end of a cruel winter.

I decided on that brisk spring night that I would not read T.C. Boyle for a long while, and it wasn’t because I didn’t love his work, because I still do, or that reading him would not make me a better writer, because it definitively would, or that I hadn’t found a dozen models of the point of view I am trying to pull off in my next novel, because I did.

I decided not to read T.C. Boyle past the sixth day of spring because I knew that I would always associate him with the winter of my developmentally disabled sister-in-law’s torturous demise. I know now that I will also link him with the joyful moments of my family and professional life, only made sweeter by the looming death we lived with every day as her caregivers.

In early January, I made a pledge that I was going to endeavor to read everything Boyle had ever written: 15 novels and around 100 short stories. I failed at my goal, but not without putting a nice dent in his canon. Breakfast is the only meal my family consistently shares, and while my husband divvied up The Washington Post, I sat at the head of the table with my shiny new red 915 page hardcover beauty, T.C. Boyle’s Short Stories Volume II. I didn’t read like a writer. I didn’t attach Post-It notes to my favorite pages or underline sentences that hummed or dissect narrative structures that should come with a warning: “Don’t try this at home.” I simply followed the stories wherever they took me: to an abortion clinic, an Alaskan bar, a virtual peep show.

I assigned “Balto,” and “Hit Man” to a student whom I tutor, and we unpacked them together, and then I read a dozen more stories sitting in the bleachers of my son’s swim meets. I read passages of “Greasy Lake” aloud to my husband, and he smiled because he appreciates a well-crafted sentence and an apt rock ‘n’ roll epigraph, although he’s not a Springsteen fan. And when friends asked me how I was doing, I often responded by describing a T.C. Boyle story or tidbit from an interview I’d just read because really, who wants to hear the gory details of a long and protracted cancer death? My family had built a cocoon around itself as confining as my sister-in-law’s apartment, thick with the scent of the Bengay her hospice nurses rubbed on her lower back. Periodically, we’d let relatives and close friends inside; for me, Boyle had taken up permanent residence with us.

I read “Chicxulub” after coming home from a difficult visit with my sister-in-law, her arms and legs skinny as chopsticks and excruciatingly painful to the touch. I cried, not only because I shared the narrator’s imagining of the tragic fate of a daughter, but because the meteor that had hit my sister-in-law hadn’t been kind enough to knock her out completely. Much of the beginning and ending of life revolves around waste management, and as my sister-in-law’s body shut down, ironically, I read Road to Wellville, its numerous scatological references resonating with me a little more than I’d wished. It did feel good to laugh, though. During one of many snow days, I curled up with When the Killing’s Done and renewed my connection to the natural world, its vastness taking me outside of myself for a span of pages. On the sub-zero degree night before my sister-in-law’s funeral, I read Boyle’s newest novel, The Harder They Come, in a Syracuse Hampton Inn while my children stretched out beside me on our king-size bed and watched reruns of an insipid Disney sitcom. I finished the book the next night in another Hampton Inn room in Pennsylvania because the snow thwarted our plans to drive back to DC. I found the novel’s violence a disturbing comfort.

Between stories and more novels, I read essays, the most profound, “This Monkey, My Back.” As a somewhat obsessive person, I was stirred by Boyle’s description of his writing as an addiction “as powerful and overmastering an urge as putting a bottle to your lips or a spike in our arm.” Yes, writing was just the vice I needed to make it through the winter, and maybe beyond. So I wrote, mainly junk and journal entries of moments with my sister-in-law: my little boy bringing her snow in a plastic cup, spending date night watching Family Feud with her, sitting with my husband while he told her that she wasn’t going to get better, that kind of thing. By simply moving my fingers across the keyboard, I was able to hold on to the human moments hidden in her suffering.

When I told a friend about Boyle’s influence over the past few months of my life, she suggested that I would have attached such meaning to anything I’d read. But that’s not true. I believe that books find you when you need them most. I wouldn’t have read them at all had I not had this assignment from PEN/Faulkner. I couldn’t concentrate without a good reason to, and even if I could have, I wouldn’t have sought out T.C. Boyle. And I wouldn’t have had a companion throughout my winter.

Now it is summer, and we are molting. My sister-in-law’s death is a receding headline in our lives, although if someone appears truly interested, I’ll find myself blurting out details about the funeral or shiva. But that’s rarer and rarer as the days progress. I am grateful to T.C. Boyle for his unwitting visit to our grief bubble.

It is time to let him go.

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Beneath the “Patriarchy-Animality-Metaphysics” Complex

This piece was originally published by LARB Channel Philosoplant

Essay and photograph by Michael Marder

Philosophy flourished in Ancient Greece on the basis of the question of nature, construed in vegetal terms. The Greek word for nature was phusis, alluding to growth and, in particular, to the germination and blossoming forth of plants. Nonetheless, the version of classical metaphysics that became predominant in the West was transfixed by the animal world. In fact, provoking the laughter of Diogenes, Plato characterized the human as a featherless bipedal animal and presented an indelible image of the soul as a charioteer who tries to steer a carriage drawn by two horses. Aristotle, in turn, defined the human as a “rational animal.”

The metaphysical privileging of the animal, hierarchically standing above vegetal life, has situated this mode of thinking in opposition to phusis-nature, closely linked to the world of plants. Paradoxically, the most ethereal, spiritual dimension of metaphysical thought unfolds contra natura, against nature, which is to say, against plants. We emphasize the paradoxality of this move particularly in relation to Aristotle’s philosophy, where the demand is to think each being according to what it is, in keeping with its nature, kata phusin. But what does “according to nature” mean, when the word is divested of its vegetal connotations? Perhaps, one can say that metaphysics thinks nature itself against nature and that, it is consistently with this de-vegetalized “counter-nature nature,” that singular beings and being as a whole are grasped.

Click here to read more. 

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“FEW SOCIAL PRACTICES now seem more antiquated than the formal duel by swords or pistols. The so-called ‘judicial duel’ became widely practiced in Europe in the early Middle Ages, influenced by Homeric and other Classical accounts of single combat, and survived more or less intact for centuries. Over the same span, duels appeared endlessly in stories, paintings, poems, and novels. Duels seem ‘particularly hospitable to literature,’ John Leigh proposes in his lucid and thorough new study, because they are ‘self-contained dramas'; ‘the most deliberate, self-conscious of acts,’ the ‘ritualized combat’ of a duel stipulates a consistent pattern of word and deed.”

Ivan Kreilkamp on Touché: The Duel in Literature by John Leigh. 

The LARB Questionnaire Interviews Avidly

This week, LARB’s channel Avidly celebrates its third birthday.  In honor of the occasion, Avidly editors Sarah Blackwood and Sarah Mesle sat down to respond to the LARB questionnaire.

 

How do you get up in the morning?

We get up twice, once on EST then on PST. Children screaming us out of bed on both coasts.

Do you succumb to nostalgia?

IT WAS HER ONE BEAUTY

Do you write long and cut, or short and backfill?

We cut the first paragraph. Always.

How do you feel about your Wikipedia entry?

We feel you should start one. Continue reading

Are You a Dark Horse?

By Austin Dean

On the first Saturday of June over nine million Chinese teenagers (and their parents) had something in common with the owners of the racehorse American Pharoah. Namely, all were among the most stressed out people in the world.

What was the cause of the stress for the group in Asia? Because years of preparation, worry and sleepless nights were about to come to an end, as Chinese high school students did their final cramming for the gaokao (college entrance exam). Their scores on this will determine if and where they go to university. The rest of their high school careers—grades and extracurricular activities—don’t count in admissions decisions. It is all about the test. Continue reading

Christopher Lee

The Killing Time

Our friend Ann Louise Bardach interviewed Christopher Lee for Los Angeles’s WET magazine in 1981. We post it with her permission here in memorium.

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Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born in London on May 27, 1922. During WWII, he served in the British Royal Air Force in some intelligence capacity, the details of which he says he would rather not discuss. After the War, Lee decided to try acting. He appeared in his first film in 1949 and starred in The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. Over the next decade, he became a fixture in the horror genre, often outclassing the gory potboilers in which he starred. In person, he’s quite tall but not spooky at all.

A.L. Bardach chats with Lee about his war years, which proved an odd sort of inspiration to his future career. Continue reading

John Brown’s Body Crosses the Pacific

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

On the last two days in April, I got a pair of emails. Each asked me to answer a question relating to China: one the predictable predictive sort I dread, the other the idiosyncratic off-the-wall kind I relish. The April 29 digital missive, from an editor at Foreign Affairs who was putting the same question to a variety of China specialists for a feature, asked me this: “Can the Communist Party survive another ten years if it fails to make ‘major reforms’”? The April 30 email was from the gifted banjo player and singer Abigail Washburn, someone I’ve long admired and recently become friends with; she wanted to know whether I could think of an old American song that had made its way into the Chinese musical repertoire in a particularly interesting fashion, and, if so, fill her in on things like when and how it had made its way to China. As I’m always leery of prognosticating, I answered the April 29 query quickly, spinning my response in a way that highlighted the foolishness of forecasting. The April 30 query has proven harder to answer. In trying to figure out what to write to Abby, I’ve found myself going off in different directions and heading down some initially promising byways that turned out to be dead-ends. This hasn’t been a bad thing. Quite the contrary: the fact that there wasn’t an immediately obvious answer to her question is one thing that made it such a welcome one to get. Continue reading

The Goats: A Middle Eastern Pastoral

By Joanna Chen

It’s that time of year. The goats are here again. They’re back with their shepherds, munching their way along the lower slopes below the forest that surrounds the village where I live. They have all the time in the world, wandering around from slope to slope leading down to the main road. They walk slowly along, dipping down to the low-growing bushes and the wild oregano, raising their necks to branches that crackle when bitten through.

These are the goats that belong to the Bedouin shepherds and they’ll be here through the long summer that lies ahead. I look forward to sharing the forest near my house with them again. They remind me that there is a different pace of life. Continue reading

Congratulations to New US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera

Congratulations to our friend, colleague, contributor and now, US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera.

Read his most recent poems for the Los Angeles Review of Books here:

“Hey Phil”

“And if the man with the choke-hold”

“Anthropoetry”

“WANDA COLEMAN, 1946-2013″

“For Jayne Cortez, R.I.P”

“Jack Gilbert, 1925-2012″

“Perched on Nothingness”

Sexpat Memoirs of China: 5 of the Best

By Paul French

Recently “sexpat” made it into the online urban dictionary —

Sexpat (noun), a compound of sex and expat or expatriate.

A sexpat is one who participates in tourism with the express intention of having sex.

Lately a number of “sexpat” memoirs concentrating on experiences in China have aroused some amount of curiosity and indignation on the internet. The most recent Shanghai Cocktales: A Memoir: 1 (indicating that there may be more to follow!!) by Tom Olden (a pseudonym) recounts various sexual encounters between a young European in the Shanghai of the early 2000s and an array of women. It sparked a bit of debate, some outrage, a few laughs, and one of the most amusing literary spats in China for a while. However, when considering your position on sexpat memoirs, please do not think they are anything new. Here, then, is a list of five of the best (none of which were written under pseudonyms, incidentally):  Continue reading