An interview with the editors of Egress, a new literary magazine devoted to innovative writing

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Biblioklept: What is Egress?

David Winters: Literally: the act or way of leaving a place; an emergence, opening or exit. Egress is also a biannual literary magazine devoted to showcasing the most innovative writers on both sides of the Atlantic today. Our first issue features, among others, Gordon Lish, Diane Williams, Sam Lipsyte, Kathryn Scanlan, David Hayden and Kimberly King Parsons.

Biblioklept: How long has Egress been incubating? How did the magazine come about?

DW: Incubation began in May 2017, over a lunch of okonomiyaki in Bloomsbury, London. We met through Gordon Lish. Little Island had published Lish’s White Plains, as well as books by his students Russell Perrson and Jason Schwartz. I’d also alerted Andrew to the work of David Hayden, author of Darker with the Lights On, who has two new stories in Egress #1So, there was a sense of shared tastes. A sense, too, that UK literary magazines–despite the efforts of a few pioneers—lacked the avant-garde spirit of US publications like NOON and New York Tyrant. We both saw a space for something new. Okonomiyaki, for the benefit of your readers, are a type of savoury Japanese pancake.

Andrew Latimer: Through David and Gordon Lish, I’d discovered writers like Christine Schutt and Sam Lipsyte (both in Egress #1) and desperately wanted a vehicle for engaging this type of work here, in the UK. Egress – the name, the style, the design – all came about quite naturally from a desire to bring writing like this into one place.

Biblioklept: For readers unfamiliar, can you describe the Lishian aesthetic, at least as you see it?

DW: Well, in a sense, there’s no such thing. Journalists in the eighties harped on about ‘minimalism’—a stupid label, with little purchase on the writers in question. Sven Birkerts once claimed there was a ‘School of Gordon Lish’. But Lish’s influence can’t be reduced in that way. Over the decades, hundreds of very different writers have worked with him, learned from him, bounced off him, swerved away from him. What the best of them have in common is an acute sensitivity to the power of language, and a commitment to creating new and lasting art—art that stands apart from the marketplace. Those are also the qualities we prize at Egress. But they are hardly restricted to “Lishian” fiction.

Biblioklept: That “acute sensitivity to the power of language” is on display in the two fictions from Lish in Egress #1, “Jawbone” and “Court of the Kangaroo.” The first Lish story, “Jawbone,” is about this seemingly unimportant minuscule moment, but Lish turns the whole thing into a drama about language itself. There’s this line in “Jawbone” that I kept tripping over, rereading and rereading: “Like lucky thing for the local citizenry someone on your side was there in there on duty on the nightbeat last night in the crapper last night.” The line is simultaneously gorgeous and ugly, elegant and clunky—rapturous really.

AL: Rereading is the key here. We’re familiar with rereading whole stories that we like or ones with endings that puzzle us. But what Lish, and writers of this ilk, ask us to do is to reread sentences in the course of making our first reading. This assumes a reader, a listener even, with the patience to linger over the page, its construction. (Gary Lutz prefers a “page-hugging” to a page-turning reader.)

DW: “Gorgeous and ugly” — exactly, yes. Donald Barthelme once said, “every writer in the country can write a beautiful sentence, or a hundred. What I am interested in is the ugly sentence that is also somehow beautiful.” Lish, when he was teaching, called this “burnt tongue”: “God only listens to those whose tongues are burnt, twisted, crippled.” Writers of fiction can achieve extraordinary power by attending to everything wrong, skewed, erratic in their natural speech — and, rather than being afraid of that wrongness, amplifying it on the page. But power of this kind needn’t be purely spontaneous; it can also be elicited by editing. The sentence you mention went through multiple revisions; Lish reworks his stories obsessively, right up to the final proof stage. When I edit fiction, in my lesser way, I often look out for those off-kilter sentences, isolate them, tweak them, try to increase their tension and pressure.

Biblioklept: How much and what kind of editing did you guys do with Egress #1. I mean, were the authors submitting finished pieces, or were you working with them through the process?

DW: It varies. Some stories are, with the authors’ approval, heavily edited. Some authors come to us in such command of their material that no editing is necessary. Sometimes, editing is simply about discovery: finding the new. Sometimes it’s about reinvention: getting stuck in and making it new. Between these extremes, there’s a whole spectrum of interventions.

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Biblioklept: I’ll admit that I opened Egress with the idea that I’d probably go straight to Lish and then maybe read Christine Schutt or Evan Lavender-Smith—some of the writers I’d already read before—before reading ones that were new to me. However, the first story in Egress #1, which is by Kimberly King Parsonhad a title that grabbed my attention: “Mr. Corpulent Wants Polaroid Proof.” So I started there, and all the sentences made me want to keep reading, and then read into her second story. Then I read the next story, Grant Maierhofer’s “Everybody’s Darling.” (The opening line “I suppose I took to mother’s unders when the end became too sure” sort of insisted Keep going).  How important is sequencing the stories (and essays) of Egress and what was that process like? How much of your editorial mission involves opening up a place for newer voices?

DW: Openings are important. Andrew and I share the view that stories should command attention from their very first sentence–what some would call the ‘attack’. Again, though, an attack doesn’t have to be nailed down straight away; it can emerge in the process of revision. However they’re made, the best openings astonish, seduce, compel us, as you say, to ‘keep going’.

And if literary art is about attention, so too is the art of the literary magazine. Drawing attention to unknown writers has long been the mission of little magazines, ever since the heyday of modernism. Incidentally, this has also been my mission as a critic. When I started writing about Christine Schutt, Evan Lavender-Smith and others, they were largely overlooked and unpublished in the UK. Both in mainstream literary journalism and in the academy, critical attention often fixates on the famous and commercially successful. This is especially true of prose fiction, which inhabits a different institutional ecosystem to, say, poetry. With the current renaissance of small presses, the pendulum is starting to swing the other way. Even so, the writers who make the Booker Prize shortlist or get reviewed in The Guardian are not, by and large, the writers who’ll be remembered decades from now. The market exerts a powerful pull on our collective attention. Good publishing, like good criticism, resists that pull. The task is to look away from what everyone else is looking at–look at what they’re not looking at–and then make them see.

AL: Absolutely – and the sequencing of the stories and essays plays a huge part in showcasing those new voices. As a reader, there is always that pull to go to the names you know and love first. (It’s part of why you pick up a magazine.) But, as an editor, you can’t just rely on the big names; you’ve got to be in the business of making new ones. You have a responsibility to disrupt the reader’s expectations, to put things in their way. Beyond names and reputations, there’s also a careful and deliberate counterpointing of the work in Egress. David and I think about how one story or essay speaks to another, how it’s placement can enrich another’s meaning, its rhythms. This kind of editorial work, the imposition of an overarching rhythm to the issue, wills the reader to ‘keep going’. Catrin Morgan’s illustrations (of various egresses – trapdoors and staircases) are a neat visual cue to the reader to push on, to explore what’s round the corner.

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Illustration for Egress #1 by Catrin Morgan

Biblioklept: Some of this blog’s readers might know Catrin Morgan from her illustrated version of Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String. How did you get her involved with Egress? Do you plan for each issue to have a different artist?

AL: Originally we asked her for an image for the front cover, but she ended up drawing all these bizarre stairs and exits that were so compelling I just had to use them. I’d like to continue using her illustrations throughout the text for the future, but there will be a new artist featured in the colour plates each issue. The “artist” for this issue is Hob Broun.

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Biblioklept: I know David has been enthusiastic about Hob Broun’s writing for a few years. Broun is sort of a “writer’s writer’s writer,” if that makes sense. The first issue of Egress features a section titled “Remembering Hob Broun: 1950-1987”; in addition to remembrances from the novelist Sam Lipsyte and Kevin McMahon, who befriended Broun when they attended Reed College together in the late sixties, you include a full color selection from one of Broun’s journals. Can you describe some of the journal for readers, and talk a bit about how the Broun section came together? For readers unfamiliar with Broun, what’s the appeal?

DW: Broun is a ‘writer’s (writer’s) writer’ only in that he isn’t well-known–his work isn’t at all opaque or aloof. He published three books in his lifetime, the novels Odditorium (1983) and Inner Tube (1985), and the superb short story collection Cardinal Numbers (1988). While writing Inner Tube, Broun underwent emergency surgery to remove a spinal tumour. He was left paralysed from the neck down. Remarkably, he finished the novel–and wrote the stories in Cardinal Numbers–using a kind of writing-machine: an oral catheter (or ‘sip-and-puff device’) connected to a customised word processor, triggered by his breath whenever a letter flashed on the screen. This aspect of Broun’s life lends itself to mythologization: what better image of writerly dedication? At the same time, it risks obscuring what really matters: the work itself. I was delighted, then, when Kevin McMahon got in touch. Kevin’s essay only glances at Broun’s illness, giving us, instead, a vivid portrait of the man behind the myth. Best of all, Kevin sent us Broun’s personal journal. It’s an extraordinary artefact–a scrapbook of doctored magazine clippings and miniature, fragmentary narratives–unmistakably Brounian in its pulpy, screwball surreality. Broun’s journal is continuous with his fiction (Cardinal Numbers contains the manifesto-like statement, ‘modus operandi: montage, collage, bricolage’), but, unlike his fiction, it wasn’t created for public consumption. Not unlike the art of, say, Ray Johnson or Joseph Cornell, it gives us a glimpse of a private world, a game played for inscrutable reasons—what Don DeLillo calls “the pure game of making up”. Our celebration of Broun ends with a wonderful essay by Sam Lipsyte–a writer Andrew and I both revere–who captures his essence far better than either of us ever could.

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Biblioklept: Which of Broun’s three books do you think is the best starting place for folks interested in his work after reading about him in Egress?

DWCardinal Numbers, without a doubtOpen Road recently reissued all three titles as e-books, but I’d recommend picking up the old Knopf hardbacks, which can be had for as little as a dollar. Another Broun novel–a previously unpublished manuscript–might be out in a year or two.

Biblioklept: Maybe Egress could get a hold of a few pages.

DW:  We’ve been looking at some of his unpublished work, yes.

Biblioklept: Why is it necessary to publish Egress in a physical, print form?

AL: Why is Egress in print? There are so many reasons, but I’ll focus on one. The role of curation has never been more important as it is now. We are distracted: information, entertainment, stuff causes our attention to bleed from one thing to the next. Egress, like all the best journals and mags, is a highly curated affair. David and I wanted there to be a palpable sensation derived from receiving and reading each issue of the magazine. The style of writing, the artwork, the design. Much of that effect relies on all the pieces being enclosed between covers – simultaneously held together and also cut off, if only briefly, from everything else that’s going on. It’s hard, likely impossible, to get that same sense of quietude, to enforce focus, when reading on a screen as infinite worlds suggest themselves merely clicks away. As well as this, there’s an indispensable sense of occasion one gets from a print magazine: ‘when is it out?’ The magazine, as a format, craves temporality.

Biblioklept: Do you envision future issues of Egress publishing some of the authors featured in the first issue?

AL: Yes, definitely.

Biblioklept: There’s an obvious aesthetic value to a literary journal or magazine publishing the same authors frequently, but are there any risks?

DW: There are risks and rewards. Magazines like Egress serve two roles in the culture. Our primary role is to discover and promote new writers. Often unpublished, unagented, and lacking industry connections, these writers reside at the margins. But we believe in them, fervently, and we believe they deserve to be heard. This gives rise to a second role. You might even call it a moral responsibility. Newness needs to be nurtured, protected, given a space in which it can grow. One contributor to Egress #1 only began writing fiction six months ago. She’d published nothing before she came to us. But what she’s doing is truly unique. Will we publish her again? You bet. We’ll do everything in our power to support her work. The same goes for any writer we believe in. If you do that and keep doing it–if you keep bringing new writers together–you become something more than a magazine. You become a community. Look at the best literary magazines of recent decades–from The Quarterly through to elimaeNOONTyrant and Unsaid–and that’s what you’ll see: artistic communities. Temporary autonomous zones; bubbles in which innovation can flourish. The risk, of course–and here I could name several lesser litmags–is that such communities can solidify into coteries, stables, ‘closed shops’. We’ll champion writers as long as they need us, but we’ll never close ourselves off in that way. After all, the real thrill is when someone comes to you from out of nowhere–no publications, no social media accounts, no ‘platform’, fuck, even no cover letter–just power on the page.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

DW: Sure, when they’re overpriced or out of print. Worse, I’ve had others steal them for me. Years ago, a friend went to great lengths to liberate Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers’ Order Out of Chaos from a university library for me. And a contributor to Egress #2 once smuggled an exorbitantly priced theology monograph out of a bookshop on my behalf. (Sorry Julie—see you in prison!)

AL: I’m bad for stealing books from places I’m staying at — friends’, hostels, BnBs — especially if I think I’d appreciate the book more myself. My favourite steal so far has been Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis, which I’ve read the covers off so can’t return that now (not that I would).

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Illustration for Egress #1 by Catrin Morgan

 

The first issue of Egress is out now in the UK. It will be available in the US on 21 June 2018.

David Winters is a literary critic. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of Books, BookforumThe Brooklyn Rail and elsewhere. He currently holds a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Cambridge, where he is writing a book about Gordon Lish. He co-edits both Egress and 3:AM Magazine, and can be found online at www.davidwinters.uk.

Andrew Latimer is editorial director at Little Island Press.

This interview was conducted via email during the month of April, 2018.

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Gordon Lish on John the Posthumous (Book Acquired, 6.26.2013)

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Some folks I know and whose taste I trust told me about Jason Schwartz, whose new novel (“novel” is not the right word) John the Posthumous is forthcoming from OR Books (the final cover art, which you can see via OR’s site, is much nicer than the reader copy above).

The book bears blurbs from Sam Lipsyte and Ben Marcus and Gordon Lish—so that should be enough for you. (It was enough to pique me).

What is it about? Violence. Cuckoldry. Murder. Satan. Ritual. Animals. Beds. Etc. I don’t know. I’m a little over half way through, and I keep rereading it compulsively, rereading the sentences. Schwartz’s prose approaches a dark, poetic logic of substitutions and omissions that is probably best left unexplicated, but I’ll do a write up after the Fourth of July anyway. Here’s Lish’s praise (a short story in itself):

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And two samples from the book (context is unimportant; or, rather everything—that is, the context of the entire book, in that the book is its own idiom, if you follow (or don’t)):

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Some Books I Plan to Read in 2013

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There are only a handful of forthcoming titles that I know about right now that I’m looking forward to reading next year: story collections from Sam Lipsyte (The Fun Parts) and George Saunders (Tenth of December), and a new novel from William Gass called Middle C. I’m also hoping Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child will finally get a US release, because I’d like to read it too.

There are a few newish books that I didn’t read in 2012 that I’ll try to catch up to this year—Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, and Laurent Binet’s HHhH.

I do not currently possess any of these books.

I also look forward to reading Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks, back in print again from Dzanc (who I am sure will get the copy I ordered to me any day now).

At the top of my list though are the books I’m currently reading: Alvaro Mutis’s Maqroll novellas and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds.

Stuff I’ve been saying I’ll read for a few years now that I hope to get to:

Cortazar’s Hopscotch, John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, and, at the top of the heap, Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual.

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I have a few books by Thomas Bernhard that I’ll probably get into this year (when I feel called to a misanthropic monologue), and I’ll gobble up anything else by Barry Hannah that I can get my mitts on. I read William Gaddis’s “big books” last year, but I still haven’t read A Frolic of His Own, which I’ve heard is superior to Carpenter’s Gothic.

I’ll reread Moby-Dick this year (or at least listen to William Hootkins’s brilliant audio version) and I’ll probably end up rereading some book that I hadn’t planned to at all (this happened with 2666 and The Savage Detectives this year—who knows? I haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow since college, and I haven’t reread Infinite Jest in full, and I’d love to go through Suttree again . . . ).

I dipped my toe into Finnegans Wake this year—I’ve found reading it on the Kindle late at night and then going through Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key the next morning is rewarding—and I’ll probably keep at it in 2013. Maybe I’ll make it to chapter 3.

But enough of my rambling—What books do you, dear reader, look forward to in 2013?

Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality (Book Acquired, 9.21.2012)

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Bill Peters — Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality. Not sure if that title is brilliant or awful. This one comes out from Black Balloon next month. Their blurb:

Rochester, New York, 1999: An arsonist is loose on the streets of a city in decline. Gone are the days of Rioting in the Vomit Cruiser, searching for a possible Tokyo Rocking Horse. In this hilarious, wildly original debut novel, Nathan Gray and best friend Necro live by the code of Joke Royalty, a system of in-jokes known only to a select few. But as the reality of full-time employment, possible spouses, and Neo-Nazis encroaches, their friendship unravels, threatening their dreams of becoming Kodak Park Winjas.
Among the gravest Hellstacheries: Necro’s strangely vicious drawings and his sudden interest in a group of weapons enthusiasts who may or may not be responsible for the fires erupting through downtown. With no Holy Grail Points left to his name, Nate ventures into Rochester’s strangest corners to find out if his best friend is a domestic terrorist Pinning Bow Ties on the Dead or simply Maverick Jetpantsing on with his life–perhaps even beyond The City of Quality.

Biblioklept fave Sam Lipsyte also provides a blurb:

Do you want laughter, suffering, and friendship, Rochester-style? Do you want to marinate in raucous sadness? I know you do. So be ready, everybody. Here comes the Vomit Cruiser to rescue your sense of humor, and Bill Peters to rescue your heart.

Book Shelves #13, 3.25.2012

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Book shelves series #13, thirteenth Sunday of 2012: Four by the late great Russell Hoban. A few Philip K. Dick volumes, although it’s worth pointing out that most of the good stuff I’ve owned by him has been loaned out and never returned and/or exists in ratty coverless mass market editions. PK Dick transitions to William Burroughs to JG Ballard (another writer who I used to own other books by before they were dispersed . . .). Martin Bax’s The Hospital Ship is a thoroughly obscure volume in a Ballardian/Burroughsian vein; it deserves a reprint. Gardner, Brodkey, Gass, Kosinski. I’ve owned Raymond Carver’s Cathedral since high school, or maybe freshman year of college. It’s all the Carver that any library needs. Lish comma Gordon. Two by Malcolm Lowry. Two by Barry Hannah. Four from Sam Lipsyte.

The Carver and Kosinski volumes are part of the 1980s Vintage Contemporaries line that all feature awful, hyper-literal covers. I have about a dozen such volumes and I’m planning a piece on them in the future. Observe:

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Book Acquired, 2.03.2012 — Edward St. Aubyn Edition

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Picador has put together all four of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels in anticipation of the final novel, At Last, which debuts later this month from FS&G. I haven’t read St. Aubyn’s stuff, which hasn’t been widely available in the US until now, but I do know that Open City put some of it out, and they put out stuff by heroes of mine like David Berman and Sam Lipsyte (who blurbs the book). Anyway, here’s a short description from Picador:

For more than twenty years, acclaimed author Edward St. Aubyn has chronicled the life of Patrick Melrose, painting an extraordinary portrait of the beleaguered and self-loathing world of privilege. This single volume collects the first four novels—Never Mind, Bad News,Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk, a Man Booker finalist—to coincide with the publication of At Last, the final installment of this unique novel cycle.

By turns harrowing and hilarious, these beautifully written novels dissect the English upper class as we follow Patrick Melrose’s story from child abuse to heroin addiction and recovery. Never Mind,the first novel, unfolds over a day and an evening at the family’s chateaux in the south of France, where the sadistic and terrifying figure of David Melrose dominates the lives of his five-year-old son, Patrick, and his rich and unhappy American mother, Eleanor. From abuse to addiction, the second novel, Bad News opens as the twenty-two-year-old Patrick sets off to collect his father’s ashes from New York, where he will spend a drug-crazed twenty-four hours. And back in England, the third novel, Some Hope, offers a sober and clean Patrick the possibility of recovery. The fourth novel, the Booker-shortlisted Mother’s Milk, returns to the family chateau, where Patrick, now married and a father himself, struggles with child rearing, adultery, his mother’s desire for assisted suicide, and the loss of the family home to a New Age foundation.

Edward St. Aubyn offers a window into a world of utter decadence, amorality, greed, snobbery, and cruelty—welcome to the declining British aristocracy.

I haven’t had much time to dip into this, even though it intrigues, because my wife immediately snapped it up. I had to go find it in her night stand to do this post. At the risk of mangling this completely though (and correct me if I’m wrong), it seems like a little bit like a contemporary Henry James shot through with Bret Easton Ellis (and maybe a touch of Downton Abbey). I will ask my wife to report.

The Subject Steve — Sam Lipsyte

A few years ago, I wrote about cult novels, and, in trying to define them, I suggested that “a cult book is not (necessarily) a book about cults.”  Sam Lipsyte’s first novel The Subject Steve is a cult novel about a cult, or at least heavily features a cult. Like many cult novels, there’s an apocalyptic scope to Steve, one in this particular case (or subject, if you will), that extends from the personal to the universal.

I’ll let Lipsyte’s compressed acerbic prose spell out the book’s central conflict—

The bad news was bad. I was dying of something nobody had ever died of before. I was dying of something nobody had ever died of before. I was dying of something absolutely, fantastically new. Strangely enough, I was in fine fettle. My heart was strong and my lungs were clean. My vitals were vital. Nothing was enveloping me or eating away at me or brandishing itself towards some violence in my brain. There weren’t any blocks or clots or seeps or leaks. My levels were good. My counts were good. All my numbers said my number wasn’t up.

The problem of death, or the problem of how to live a meaningful life against the specter of death, is of course an ancient conceit, and Lipsyte makes it the core of his book, upon which he hangs an often shaggy picaresque plot. The Subject Steve is post-modernist caustic satire in the good old vein of Candide; put another way, it’s just one damn thing happening after the next.

So, what are some of those things that happen? Steve (not his real name) is condemned to die of a disease with no name; he tries to make contact with his estranged wife and not-quite-a-genius daughter; he blows his life savings on hookers and blow; he heads upstate to a cult’s compound in the hopes of finding a cure to his unnamed (unnameable) disease; he suffers the cult’s sadistic practices; he escapes the cult’s sadistic practices; he reunites with his wife and daughter; he abandons his wife and daughter; he reunites with a new version of the cult somewhere in the Nevada desert; he becomes enslaved by the cult in the Nevada desert; he escapes the cult; &c. And he reflects on his life (and his death) repeatedly. I’ll let Steve reflect on his life at length, if for no other reason than to share more of Lipsyte’s marvelous prose—

And I was still dying, wasn’t I? Who would note? What had I ever noted? I’d taken my pleasures, of course, I’d eaten the foods of the world, drunk my wine, put this or that forbidden particulate in my nose until the room lit up like a festival town and all my friends, but just my friends, were seers. I’d seen the great cities, the great lakes, the oceans and the so-called seas, slept in soft beds and awakened to fresh juice and fluffy towels and terrific water pressure. I’d fucked in moonlight, sped through desolate interstate kingdoms of high broken beauty, met wise men, wise women, even a wise movie star. I’d lain on lawns that, cut, bore the scent of rare spice. I’d ridden dune buggies, foreign rails. I’d tasted forty-five kinds of coffee, not counting decaf.

I love this passage. In almost any other book I can think of, the final detail about coffee would puncture the passage’s inflation, serve as a comic anti-climax. In Lipsyte’s phrasing it’s both tragic and triumphant.

I don’t mean to gloss over the plot of The Subject Steve, but the book’s narrative, its sense of time, is so radically compressed (again, I think of the compression of Candide) that reading it is more like experiencing a rapid series of scenarios. I’m particularly fond of books like this, that seem to ramble and erupt in strange and unexpected moments. I think of Ellison’s Invisible Man or Woolf’s Orlando, but there’s also something of Aldous Huxley in Steve, that apocalyptic-comic axis, the satire of despair. The book is one of those pre-9/11 novels (forgive the phrase) that seems utterly prescient. Take the following observation for example—

Someday sectors of this city would make the most astonishing ruins. No pyramid or sacrificial ziggurat would compare to these insurance towers, convention domes. Unnerved, of course, or stoned enough, you always could see it, tomorrow’s ruins today, carcasses of steel teetered in a halt of death, half globes of granite buried like worlds under shards of street. Sometimes I pictured myself a futuristic sifter, some odd being bred for sexlessness, helmed in pulsing Lucite, stooping to examine an elevator panel, a perfectly preserved boutonniere.

The language here anticipates the Dead America that Lipsyte explores in his latest novel, The Ask, and reinforces a general argument I’d like to make, which is that Lipsyte is at heart a writer of dystopian fictions, fictions so contemporary that their dystopian nature becomes effaced.

These dystopian tropes coalesce in the frantic, hyperbolic ending of Steve, where our subject becomes the object of a bizarre cult’s ritual sadistic practices, all available via the panopticon of the internet. Lipsyte’s vision is of a post-human existence, a radical otherness of degradation through technological alienation. At this late moment in the book, the satire is so black that even Lipsyte’s tightest, pithiest sentences fail to elicit a laugh or a smile — indeed, I am almost certain that they are not intended to do so. Instead we are immersed in the apocalyptic horror of dehumanization (the book here reminded me of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing, of all things, both in its desert location and in its gradual movement from sardonic humor to vivid terror).

Like any cult novel, or destined cult novel, The Subject Steve is Not For Everyone. Those looking for plot development and tidy endings will not find them here, and, if the tone of this review has not already made it clear, the book is extremely dark. But it’s also very, very funny, and there are few stylists working today who can match Lipsyte’s mastery of the sentence. Highly recommended.

The Subject Steve is now available in trade paperback from Picador.

“I Don’t Know If You’d Call It Stealing” — Sam Lipsyte, Book Thief

Sam Lipsyte read live from his novel The Ask last year on HTML GIANT’s Ustream channel. The reading was cool but the best part was the q&a session afterward. We asked Lipsyte the one question all true biblioklepts are dying to know (and the one question we ask every person we interview): “Have you ever stolen a book?”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Here’s Lipsyte’s response, which you can hear/see at 31:25 in the video:

‘Have you ever stolen a book?’ There was one time when I stole a few books when I worked in a library; it was a university library and my job was to stick the metal strips into the spines of the books that would set off the alarm. And so if a particularly good book came through (and this only happened three or four times) I just wouldn’t–I don’t know if I’d call it stealing–but I wouldn’t put the strip in. And then once it was shelved I would take it.

That’s a pretty sophisticated operation. Kudos to Lipsyte for his candor.

 

Sam Lipsyte Makes Pork Buns, Considers Placentophagy

Win a Copy of Sam Lipsyte’s Debut Novel The Subject Steve

To promote their new edition of Sam Lipsyte’s first novel The Subject Steve, Picador will give away two copies of the book to two lucky Biblioklept readers (U.S. addresses only). What do you have to do to win? Simply post your favorite line (0r consecutive lines) from a Lipsyte novel in the comments section of this post (limit yourself to one response of one cohesive quotation, please). An Esteemed Panel of Honorable Judges will select their favorites. We’ll announce winners next week.

Home Land — Sam Lipsyte

[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review last year; we run it again in the spirit of Sam Lipsyte Week].

In Sam Lipsyte’s 2004 novel Home Land, minor loser Lewis Miner sends missives to his high school alumni newsletter, Catamount Notes, about his awful, sad misadventures in small-time drug use, petty copy-writing, itinerant busboyism, and chronic masturbation (he has a strong erotic disposition toward leg warmer porn. If this idea repels you (with no reciprocal attraction) this book is not for you). Miner wants to be sweet but he can be mean. He’s obsessed with the past–and who can blame him? His nickname in high school was Teabag, an appellation literally thrust upon him by the dumbest of jock-bullies. He carries this kernel of spite for years like a pebble in the sock, one that rubs up a giant blister–Miner is all blister. Writing ostensibly to his former classmates, but really just for himself, another form of masturbation:

It’s always been this way, as many of you might recall. Somebody chucks a snowball, I’m scouring the school yard for rocks. The bully just wants to shove sadness around, shake me down for spare change, I’m looking to scrape out his eye. I lack a sense of proportion. I have no sensitivity to sport. I’m the aggrieved rider on the grievous plain. I’m still pissed about the parade.

For all his anger though, Miner is an engaging, preternaturally sensitive voice. Along with his best friend/foil Gary, he muddles through a wretched life, finding solace (and an outlet for an outsized comic voice) in his letters to Catamount Notes–even if disgraced Principal Fontana won’t publish them. Despite his censorious discretion, Fontana reignites a downright silly mentorship with Miner. Fontana, a man after Holden Caulfield’s heart who calls everyone a “phony,” plays a weird father-figure to our favorite loser (even though Lewis’s own “Daddy Miner” is an ever-present terror in this tragicomedy).

Fontana, Daddy Miner, and the other characters in Home Land often feel like props rather than fully-drawn beings. Take the aforementioned Gary, for example, flush with cash after suing the hypnotherapist who convinced him that his parents sexually abused him repeatedly as part of elaborate Satanic rituals. His ridiculous past is par for course in the book. Such characters are the stock-in-trade of Home Land; they are, paradoxically, both its strength and weakness, beings who seem to speak entirely in misplaced metaphors and fucked-up aphorisms. There are too many of them for the book’s 200 pages. The fast writing never sags under the huge cast, but, nonetheless, its spine, its plot, its quick rhythm can’t bear their weight. There’s a much bigger novel here, but I don’t think I’d want to read it. Even Lipsyte’s normals are grotesques–or maybe it’s just Miner’s bilious perspective. In any case, sympathy is in short supply in Catamount country.

None of this is meant to disparage the reading experience of Home Land, which is marvelous, quick, funny, and a little bit gross (in a good way). Lipsyte crafts his sentences with a concrete, witty excellence that is near unrivaled in contemporary lit. It’s true that he sacrifices the depth of his characters here from time to time, and then includes passages that add nothing to the plot as a whole, like this one:

An older shapely woman swerved past on rollerblades. Bronzed, undulant in black Lycra, she clutched a pack of menthol cigarettes, danced on her wheels to something pumped through headphones. It was an admirable kind of ecstasy, hard-won. I wanted her for a lewd aunt.

That last line, of course, tells us so much about Lewis Miner and is also indicative of his overall method of storytelling. Not that he sees his letters to his alumni newsletter as part of a larger narrative–indeed, he’s to be forgiven all his esoterica, his mean, incisive commentary on contemporary life that doesn’t add up. Halfway through the book he tells us:

It occurs to me, Catamounts, sitting here composing this latest update, that someday, if and when the collected works of Lewis Miner ever see the light of day, some futuristic editor-type might attempt to assemble these dispatches in a certain manner, to, for example, tell a story, or else effect some kind of thematic arrangement of interwoven leitmotifs: Work, Love, Masturbation, Gary.

This would be a mistake. There are no leitmotifs. There is no story.

Miner then goes on to makes a pretty convincing case against stories (or at least against narrative arcs) and, tellingly, Home Land is better as a series of ugly, gross, hilarious anecdotes than it is as a novel with a traditional character arc. Which it is–a novel with a traditional character arc, climax, all that good stuff. Strangely, this is the book’s biggest failure. But that failure doesn’t get in the way of what is a pretty great and often very funny reading experience. Miner’s voice is a pleasure to inhabit for a while, a postmodern Falstaff heavy on the self-loathing. Home Land is a quick, easy read, a novel destined for cult-status, and Lewis Miner’s pathetic ironic braggadocio will hit home for many folks. Recommended.

Home Land is available in trade paperback from Picador.

 

Venus Drive — Sam Lipsyte

[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review last year; we run it again in the spirit of Sam Lipsyte Week].

The thirteen stories in Venus Drive compose a sort of novel-in-stories. The title of the collection takes its name from a banal suburban street mentioned in a few of the stories, and many of the characters seem like iterations of the same type or voice. There are washed up would-be indie rock stars, small-time coke peddlers, and underemployed and overeducated addicts. There are deviants and perverts and outsiders. There are bullies. There are dead or dying mothers, dead or dying sisters. In short, Venus Drive is its own tightly-drawn, tightly-coiled, and highly-compressed world.

As the plot points double and re-double in these stories, so do the themes. “Our culture is afraid of death, and considers it something we must wage battle against,” says Tessa, a pain specialist, a peripheral character in “Cremains.” She continues: “I say, surrender, submit. Go gentle. Terminal means terminal.” Death informs almost all of these stories in some way, and Tessa’s commentary presents the problem with death, or at least the problem these characters have with dealing with death: it’s not easy to go gentle. It goes against our culture and our nature to surrender. If she’s presented as a voice of wisdom, she’s also an ironic character, one of the many would-be authorities Lipsyte’s weirdos and outsiders can’t help but mock. “The Drury Girl,” part-suburban satire and pure pathos, posits a pre-pubescent narrator obsessed with his teenage babysitter; his dad’s cancer plays second fiddle to his lust. Thus the story neatly ties together the overarching themes of Venus Drive, sex and death. Admittedly, these are probably the only real themes of proper literature, but Lipsyte does it so damn well and lays it all out so bare and does so in such humor and grace that it really sticks. It’s good stuff.

That humor is desert-dry, of course, and succeeds so well because his characters are so endearing in their pathetic pathologies. The antiheroes of “Beautiful Game” and “My Life, for Promotional Use Only,” are also-rans in the sordid history of underground rock, addicts approaching washed-up (Are they the same person? Maybe. They have different names, of course. Doesn’t matter). A scene from “Beautiful Game” shows the ambivalence at the core of many of these characters: “At the bank machine, Gary doesn’t check the balance. Better to leave it to the gods. Someday the bank machine will shun him. Why know when?” Gene, the ex-rocker in “My Life, for Promotional Use Only” now suffers the indignities of working for his ex-girlfriend. Everyone in the story is an ex-something, everyone is growing up and leaving art (or is it “Art”?) behind. In a poignant and funny and cruel scene, familiar to many of us, Gene sees some of himself in a waitress:

Rosalie calls over the waitress and they talk for a while about somebody’s new art gallery. The waitress is famous for a piece where she served the Bloody Marys mixed with her menstrual blood. Word had it she overdid the tabasco.

I wait for the moment when our waitress stops being a notorious transgressor of social mores and becomes a waitress again, look for it in her eyes, that sad blink, and order a beer.

Gene, a former “notorious transgressor of social mores” himself feels both sorrow and hate for the waitress. He sees her job as menial and pathetic — just like his own. He doesn’t seem to think much of her art, either. Lipsyte telegraphs so much there with so few words, his sentences clean, spare, precise, and rarely of the compound variety. There’s a truncated, clipped rhythm that Lipsyte builds over the thirteen-story run that helps propel the immediacy of his tales. The stories are short, too; the longest is sixteen pages and most run to eight or ten. Lipsyte’s rhetorical gift is to shine the grubby and, at times, his sentences can feel almost too perfect, too-fussed over–but this (minor) complaint, it must be noted, comes from someone who admires occasional ambiguity or incoherence. Lipsyte removes his own authorial voice and thus achieves lucidity in his characters’ voices; somehow, though — and paradoxically — these voices bear the ghostly trace of his absence. But that seems like a silly conversation, and certainly not one for this post.

Venus Drive reminds me very much of one of my favorite books, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which I would also call a novel-in-stories, also a spare and precise collection, also a study of weirdos and addicts and outsiders. Jesus’ Son is something of a standard in creative writing workshops (or at least it used to be) and a sensible teacher would add Venus Drive to her syllabus as well. Finally, like Jesus’ Son, Lipsyte’s book is seething, funny, and poignant, with characters tipped toward some redemption, awful or otherwise, for all their myriad sins. The book might take its name from a geographic location, but the “Venus drive” is also a spiritual inclination toward love and hope. Highly recommended.

Venus Drive is available in trade paperback from Picador.

“There Are at Least Two or Three Masturbation Scenes” — Sam Lipsyte Defends His Novel The Ask

It’s Sam Lipsyte Week at Biblioklept

It’s Sam Lipsyte week at Biblioklept. Why? Why not? Okay, here’s a more concrete reason: this month, Picador publishes the trade paperback début of his most recent novel, The Ask, as well as a new edition of his first novel The Subject Steve. We’ll be running new reviews for The Ask and Steve, as well as re-running older reviews, an excerpt or two of Lipsyte’s weird comic goodness, and other odds n’ ends. Like this video of Lipsyte reading from The Ask. Thou hast beenst warnedst.

Sam Lipsyte on Teaching Creative Writing

Sam Lipsyte discusses teaching creative writing at Financial Times (yeah, Financial Times, I know).  A few excerpts–

When you teach creative writing, you are already on the defensive. People love to poke you in the chest and cry, “But you can’t teach writing!” This is precisely what I think about automobile driving but I let them rant while I rub the sore part where they poked me. I don’t know why people get so worked up about this subject. Nobody has asked them to teach creative writing or even to learn it. Apprenticeship, the sharing of history and technique, has always been a central feature of art-making. Yet people cling to a romantic idea of the self-made genius toiling away in a garret or napping undisturbed in a sleep module. . . .

You can teach sex, can’t you? Why can’t you teach writing? Most people need to be taught sex. That’s why there are books such as the Kama Sutra and The Joy of Sex, not to mention people, like your best friend’s older sister, or places, like the neighbour’s garage. Nothing’s more natural, and more dependent on natural talent for its most transcendent demonstrations, but sex is still best if taught properly. So, what’s so crazy about passing along a few literary tricks and reading tips?

Books I Will (Make Every Reasonable Attempt to) Read in 2011

If you’re looking for a comprehensive “Books to Look Forward to in 2011” kind of list, The Millions has you covered. This post is not about books that are coming out in 2011, although some books mentioned here will come out in 2011. This post is really just about books I’d like to/plan to read in 2011 (it’s also kind of a dare to myself).

First up, I will finish the books I’m reading/listening to now. This means Adam Levin’s The Instructions (reading; McSweeney’s) and Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (listening; Iambik Audio). I’m on page 342 of The Instructions; there are 1030 pages; a calculator tells me that that is 33.2%. It’s easy reading, often entertaining, but it’s hard to see, even a third of the way in, how Levin can justify taking up this much space. Oh, what is it about? Okay, this kid Gurion Maccabee may or may not be the Messiah. In the meantime, he rules the special ed program at his suburban Chicago school, writes scripture, and gets in lots of fights. The best parts of the book (so far, anyway) are Gurion’s comments on Torah (I would’ve written “the Torah,” but this book seems to suggest that the definite article is pretty Gentile).

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart has been enjoyable, sardonic — funny but sad — and I’m coming up to the end soon. Basically, a trinity of scientists who helped invent the atom bomb (Robert Oppenheimer is the famous one) come back from the dead (sort of) to . . . I don’t know yet. It’s unclear. To hang out with a quiet librarian and her gardener husband as their marriage slowly dissolves? To lead our nation to world wide peace? To take part in a movable circus of weirdos and End Times prophets? Not sure. Full review forthcoming.

I already wrote about one of the Tintin collections I picked up late last year; I will read the other three collections (and likely hunt down more). I’ll also read (hopefully; that is, hopefully it will come out) the next installment in Charles Burns’s X’ed Out trilogy.

Also on the proverbial plate, non-illustratedwise, is Heinrich Böll’s The Clown, the story of a clown in post-Reich Germany who can smell through the phone (I think there’s more to it than that). Melville House is actually releasing several new editions of Böll’s novels this year, and they have a pretty excellent track record with the Germans, what with Hans Fallada and all, so hey, why not.

On the I-will-read-everything-Sam-Lipsyte-writes front, Picador is putting out a new edition of his first novel The Subject Steve (perhaps in concordance with The Ask coming out in paperback?). I will read The Subject Steve.

Books I bought this year and didn’t read but will make every reasonable attempt to read this year—

William Gaddis’s JR was, I think anyway, the last book I picked up in 2010. It’s really long, seems to be written entirely as a dialog, and hey, I read 2/3rds of The Recognitions and then didn’t even finish it (yet?) which is kinda remarkable/totally lazy. Maybe I should just finish The Recognitions. I just feel like “I get it already.” Lazy, lazy, lazy.

Loved the first chapter of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, even though it was really silly. Stay tuned, folks.

I read the first two stories in Barry Hannah’s Airships and then a few galleys bombed my doorstep and then I got distracted, but these things have Spring Break written all over them, so, yes, look for the Airships report in the future (or be a hipster douchebag and write in to tell me how awesome you already know Hannah is now that he’s dead blah blah blah).

I remember that I bought Renata Adler’s Speed Boat the same day I bought Airships (because, y’know, the titles). I read the first 30 or so pages and then read them again and then read them again a week or so ago. Kind of dumbfounding stuff. It’s been hovering around the coffee table, the nightstand; it’s been jammed in briefcases, wedged in coat pockets. What is it? What is she doing?

After slowing down my consumption in 2010, I’m ready to feed the addiction again in 2011: Bolaño, Bolaño, Bolaño. I need to read Amulet; I’ll also read The Insufferable Gaucho and probably something else.

And:

The Pale King

But everyone’s buzzing about that already, right?

Vice Interviews Sam Lipsyte

Vice interviews Sam Lipsyte–good stuff. From the interview, here’s Lipsyte on writing comedy–

The page is very different than what a stand-up comic does. A comedian has a physical body—gestures, vocal intonations, double takes—whatever they’re going to do to bring across the comedy. They can make a phrase funny just by the way they say it. Authors don’t have any of those tools at our disposal, so we have to find lingual ways to do it. So much of it is how you build to something, how wide you make a loop of description before you veer off and land somewhere totally unrelated. You have to learn how that rhythm works in prose. It has to be something you feel.

I don’t want it to be too jokey, I don’t want it to be making claims for itself as funny, but then you must laugh because it is a funny moment. I pursue… something strange, usually, in every paragraph. It may be funny, or it may be something I don’t think is that funny. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “That was so funny!” and I think, “Dude, that’s the most devastating moment in the book.” I’ve realized that it’s both. In my work the funniest thing is usually the most devastating thing, and that’s where they play with each other.