May 2013, mark it on your calendars. That’s when we’ll be releasing a debut novel by an exceptional new talent, Bennett Sims. The book is called A Questionable Shape and it’ll knock your socks off, guaranteed.
Bennett Sims has had fiction appear in A Public Space, Tin House, and Zoetrope: All-Story. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he currently teaches fiction at the University of Iowa, where he is a provost postgraduate visiting writer. [Editor’s note: he’s only 26!]
Here’s the story: Mazoch discovers an unreturned movie envelope, smashed windows, and a pool of blood in his father’s house: the man has gone missing. So he creates a list of his father’s haunts and asks Vermaelen to help track him down.
However, hurricane season looms over Baton Rouge, threatening to wipe out any undead not already contained and eliminate all hope of ever finding Mazoch’s father.
What Bennett Sims has accomplished with this, his very fine first novel, is to turn typical zombie fare on its head and deliver a wise and philosophical rumination on the nature of memory and loss.
In the following mini-interview we chat zombies, studying with David Foster Wallace, and studliness.
Q: With zombies or vampires or werewolves, there seem to be some unanimous across-the-board rules and general narrative expectations. What impressed me so much about A Questionable Shape was how you employed what would be token plot devices for otherwriters – specifically, reanimation – and used them to explore much grander questions about our own human experience and how we relate to one another. Was that part of your initial approach or attraction to the story, or did this come about through writing and revision?
Even before I began the novel, I was up to my elbows in the grand questions of undeath, since my undergrad thesis was a long essay on zombies. What I found was that ‘the zombie’ keeps cropping up in different discourses as a kind of limit figure of the human condition. So in mind-body philosophy and neuroscience, the zombie is a mascot for non-conscious perception (aka ‘blindsight’), the brain’s ability to respond to visual stimuli without conscious awareness. In both Haitian anthropology and political theory, the ‘living dead man’ is a victim of social death, a biological body that has been stripped of all civil rights. And in psychoanalysis, the phrase ‘return of the dead’ is a ready-to-hand metaphor for describing a wide swath of psychological phenomena, from repetition automatism and the return of the repressed to our experience of the uncanny.
So in answer to your question, yes, A Questionable Shape was always a questions novel. It grew out of that project fairly naturally, as a way of dramatizing these questions and making them meaningful for a set of characters. If your undead dad shuffles back to his house, do you say that he’s the ‘same’ person? Do you say that he’s a person at all? How can you know what he’s experiencing, and what are your ethical obligations to him? This is a supernatural problem to be faced with, but of course there are other, more familiar issues bound up with it: the ethics of euthanasia; old age and senility; mourning, memory, and mortality.
Q: Was it frightening or liberating to write a novel that includes zombies when zombies seem to be the new vampires?
More frightening than liberating. The risk of exhaustion, of cultural saturation, is a legitimate one. I was mindful of this from the moment I started working on the book, in mid-2008—and that was back when Walking Dead was still a graphic novel; when Left 4 Dead had not yet been released; and when Zone 1 was just a twinkle in Colson Whitehead’s eye. (I can still remember the buttock-clenching dread I felt in December ‘08, when I read The New Yorker’s Q&A with him. Regarding future projects, he said, ‘I have a bunch of book ideas—my long-neglected Benjamin Franklin bio, my magic-realism zombie epic, my history of zeppelins in America…’ ‘Pick zeppelins,’ I remember thinking, ‘pick zeppelins!’) In the years since, zombie narratives have only proliferated, and I wouldn’t blame any reader for being bored by them.
With that said, the overexposure has felt liberating at times as well. Part of the fun of the novel was to try to hash out a different thematics of undeath, a wider Venn diagram of undeath, and to show that there are other criteria for zombism beyond reanimation and cannibalism. Criteria like memory and nostalgia, hauntedness, obliviousness, obsession, regret. Zombies may be the new vampires, but once you adjust your definition of undeath, you realize just how rich and long-tailed the zombie tradition is. Night of the Living Dead is a zombie movie, but so is Vertigo. George Saunders’s ‘Sea Oak’ is a zombie story, but so is Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat.’ Ditto Dostoevsky’s ‘Bobok’; or Euripides’s The Bacchae; or the Orpheus myth.
Q: You studied at Pomona College with David Foster Wallace. What was that like?
It’s difficult to talk about, to be honest. Dave was (and remains) a tremendously important mentor for me. He was one of the advisors for my thesis, and when I began the novel after graduation, he was one of my ideal readers. I never even got to show him a chapter. Some of my classmates have written movingly about his generosity as a teacher. In their memorial reflections and essays, they’ve already left an eloquent record of what we all cherished in him. He really did write us five-page response letters for our manuscripts, and line edit us with a ruthless jeweler’s-loupe scrutiny, and hold hours-long meetings in his office, to counsel us through crises. In a pedagogical culture that condones the absentee writer-professor—who gives 10% to his students and saves 90% for his novel—Dave gave 100% to everyone. He took us seriously as writers, and, what’s more, he required us to take each other seriously as well. We all felt honored by that attention. We learned to work self-martyringly hard to deserve it.
Good Lord. I wish that were the kind of stress I felt. I wish that when I sat down to write, I was thinking, ‘All right, you stud. You stallion. This sentence better be up to snuff. You were in Tin House!’ But the fact is, I still just feel like a failure every day: less like a stud than a spavined lordotic wreck, whinnying for John Wayne to shoot me. The problem with writing is that every page is its own pressure cooker, regardless of how many pages you’ve written (or even published) beforehand. No matter what, you’re always going to be banging your head against the limitations of your language and your inferiority to your forebears. It’s a minute-by-minute exercise in humiliation and shame. So far, I’ve had incredible luck in finding good homes for my stories. They’ve benefited from the input of whip-smart editors, and been printed alongside some supremely humbling company. But the stresses of writing are still the inherent ones, the daily ones, because it’s never my author bio who’s writing. The Bennett at my desk isn’t ‘a fiction writer living in Iowa City, whose stories have appeared in A Public Space, Tin House, and Zoetrope.’ He’s more like ‘a freelance idiot living in anxiety, whose story is about to appear in the trash can.’
If you’re a bookseller or are affiliated with the media, and are interested in receiving an advance copy of A Questionable Shape, write to eric[at]twodollarradio.com.
With debut authors, it’s natural for folks to compare them to someone who came before. Wells Tower likens Bennett Sims’ work to a young Nabokov, and Nicholson Baker. Benjamin Hale points to Thomas Bernhard and David Foster Wallace. Similar to these writers, Bennett possesses a mastery of vision, of language, that is rare. His grip and his focus are incredibly potent, and he never hiccups. And, similar to all these authors mentioned, Bennett’s writing is strikingly unique.
I first read the manuscript for A Questionable Shape on my laptop on the front porch. It was evening. The night grew darker, cooler. I remember sneaking inside to snag a sweatshirt. I remember the glow from the computer screen blacking out the surrounding night so that I was locked into this world that he had crafted. There are zombies, sure, but this is not a zombie novel.
Bennett has published stories here in Recommended Reading, as well as with A Public Space, Tin House, Zoetrope, and Orion Magazine. When I first read A Questionable Shape, Bennett was 26 years old. He is 27 now. That blows my hair back. In college football country, Bennett is what we refer to as a stud.
I don’t kid myself into believing that I was the very first editor that Bennett’s agent thought of when submitting A Questionable Shape (agents have to make a living, after all). Still I couldn’t believe that this beast of a book had found its way to me. I do feel as though I have been gifted with an incredible opportunity as an editor and publisher to be able to bring Bennett’s first novel into the world. I’m so excited to share it with readers.
I imagine that A Questionable Shape will be the only book of Bennett’s that we will be fortunate enough to publish at Two Dollar Radio, not because I wouldn’t publish his second novel (or his third and fourth) given the opportunity, but because I am convinced that Bennett will move on, he will move up, and he will create work that will outlive us all.
I hastily left the narrow street at the next turning. However, after wandering about for some time without asking the way, I suddenly found myself back in the same street, where my presence began to attract attention. Once more I hurried away, only to return there again by a different route. I was now seized by a feeling that I can only describe as uncanny. Other situations share this feature of the unintentional return. One comes back again and again to the same spot. To many people the acme of the uncanny is represented by death, dead bodies, revenants… The return of the dead.
- Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny”
Human love is implicated with death, because it implies either resurrecting the beloved or following the spouse into the death realm. It is fitting that the lost one is a synonym for the dead one, since the dead are lost de jure and one loses them de facto in the labyrinth. Marriage requires the spouse to follow his wife into the labyrinthine realm of death… To follow them into undeath, as Orpheus did. Orpheus is the model spouse.
- Jalal Toufic, Undying Love, or Love Dies
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE UNDEAD SO FAR IS THIS: they return to the familiar. They’ll wander to nostalgically charged sites from their former lives, and you can somewhat reliably find an undead in the same places you might have found it beforehand. Its house, its office, the bikelanes circling the lake, the bar. “Haunts.” The undead will return to the neighborhood grocery store and shuffle down its aisles, as if shopping. They will climb into their own cars and sit dumbly at the wheel, staring out the windshield into nothing. A man bitten, infected, and reanimated fifty miles from home will find his way back, staggering over diverse terrain—which, probably, he wouldn’t have recognized or been able to navigate in his mortal life—in order to stand vacantly on a familiar lawn. No one knows how they do it—whether by tracking or instinct or some latent mnemocartography—nor why, but it’s an observable phenomenon. In fact, what it calls to mind are those homing pigeons, the ones famous and fascinating for the particles of magnetite in their skulls: bits of mineral sensitive to electromagnetic pulls and capable of directing the pigeons, like the needle of a compass, homeward over vast and alien distances. It is as if the undead are capable of “homing” in this way.1
At seven this morning, an hour before Mazoch usually arrives, I sit down with a sheet of loose leaf to write out some of the sites where we’ll be searching for his father today. The list is for Rachel, who’s still asleep. I’ll leave it on the coffee table by our copy of FIGHT THE BITE, the infection-awareness pamphlet that the Louisiana Center for Disease Control doled out back in May, at the beginning of the outbreak (chapter titles include “1. A Bite’s Never Alright [sic],” “5. A Knock To The Head Will Stop ’Em Dead,” et cetera). Recently Rachel has been requesting a list of those places “you two go every day,” so that, if I’m worryingly late coming home, she’ll at least be able to tell the police where to start looking. She’s right, of course. At the heading of the sheet, first item on our itinerary, I write down Mr. Mazoch’s old address.
He went missing from his house in Denham Springs several weeks ago, and Matt emailed me shortly afterward to enlist my help. We gave ourselves the month of July, just before hurricane season hits, setting this Friday as our deadline. Assuming that Mr. Mazoch hasn’t been detained, quarantined, or put down already, he might still be wandering, compelled, toward his remembered places. We figured it was only a matter of determining what places these would be, staking them out each day, and waiting for our routes to overlap. If our trip to his house in Denham coincides with Mr. Mazoch’s, then he and Matt will be reunited. To inspire us each morning, Matt copied out two Thomas Hardy quotations on separate post-it notes and taped them to the dashboard of his car: “My spirit will not haunt the mound/Above my grave,/But travel, memory-possessed,/To where my tremulous being found/Life largest, best./My phantom-footed shape2 will go/When nightfall grays/Hither and thither along the ways/I and another used to know” from “My Spirit Will Not Haunt the Mound,” and, “Yes: I have entered your old haunts at last;/Through the years, through the dead scenes I have tracked you;/What have you now to say of our past—/Scanned across the dark space wherein I have lacked you?” from “After a Journey.” Each poem seems to speak to the other across the inch of dashboard leather that divides them, just as I imagine Mr. Mazoch letting out an unearthly moan, and Matt humming out the open window to keep awake as he drives, and that moaning and that humming speaking to one another across Baton Rouge’s fields and highways, across all the remembered and misremembered suburbs that separate Mazoch from his father.
Tuesday, May 14, 7:30 PM, Greenlight Bookstore Bill Cheng presents his novel SOUTHERN CROSS THE DOG In conversation with author Alex Gilvarry
New York-based author Bill Cheng has already received expansive praise from fellow authors including Edward P. Jones, Colum McCann and Nathan Englander for his dazzling debut novel SOUTHERN CROSS THE DOG. Set in part against a backdrop of the devastating Great Flood of 1927 in Mississippi, this saga about the bonds between a group of black childhood friends was inspired by Cheng’s love of the blues, and captures the savagery and complexity of the Jim Crow South in the first half of the twentieth century. Cheng discusses his work tonight with fellow author and former Hunter College classmate Alex Gilvarry, author of the novel FROM THE MEMOIRS OF A NON-ENEMY COMBATANT
So the new issue of the Slice Literary Magazine is now out. And so you should buy it. Why?
1 - Because it’s a super magazine, and magazines like this need your support.
2 - Because it’s not expensive, and actually you could subscribe to it for just $15. I just spent $17.00 on a terrible lunch, and you’ve probably recently done something similar, am I wrong?
3 - Because there is really good writing in it from lots of really good writers.
4 - Because I’m in it, and this particular story is a practically a gateway to my neuroses, and if that kind of thing interests you, well, I think you’ll like it. And if you happen to owe me $15 or more - and there are a few of you - buy the magazine and consider all debts paid.
If you’re a writer, chances are you’ve heard this before: “Oh, you’re a writer? I’d love to write a novel, if only I had the time.” It’s a frustrating and all-too-common misunderstanding that reduces the craft of writing to a simple exercise in typing—anyone can produce sound from a piano, but being a true musician takes talent, practice, and a certain kind of madness. It’s the difference between simplicity and elegance, laziness and grace. And it is the masters of the craft, writers who make the impossibility of fiction seem effortless, writers like Etgar Keret, who are to blame for this misconception.
Do not let Etgar Keret deceive you. The Israeli writer who’s worked in film, illustration, animation, and radio, is a storyteller in all senses of the word. Like a conman, he’ll promise you a simple story and then the next thing you know your emotional reserves have been completely emptied. It’s a literary bait and switch, and he’ll get you every time.
Here, in “Todd,” a story that also challenges the boundaries between literature and reality, Etgar directly engages with the wonderful deception of fiction itself. The titular friend asks the narrator, who resembles Etgar—an Israeli short story writer who frequently appears on NPR—to write a story that’ll help him get girls into bed. The narrator must then explain that writing doesn’t work that way: “A story isn’t a magic spell or hypnotherapy,” the narrator claims, and yet that is exactly what happens here. Etgar knows that fiction has the power to captivate you, to entrance you, to alter your perception of reality. Todd, the lonesome character in this story, isn’t asking for “metaphors and insights and all that” but wants a simple little story that’ll change his life. Just a bit of practical magic.
To convince a reader that a fictional world has bearing on the real world is both a miracle and a marvelous swindle. Like many of his stories, “Todd” offers us a simple concept and, as if by sorcery (or a postmodern sleight of hand), reveals an entire world of complexity. The story of course isn’t just about helping a friend get laid. It’s about the meaning of things—stories, relationships, and whatever “masculinity” is these days. Read it and find out for yourself, but just keep an eye on your wallet. And if anyone has spoken to Todd, please tell him to call me.
MY FRIEND TODD wants me to write him a story that will help him get girls into bed.
“You’ve already written stories that make girls cry,” he says. “And ones that make them laugh. So now write one that’ll make them jump into bed with me.”
I try to explain to him that it doesn’t work that way. True, there are some girls who cry when they read my stories, and there are some guys who—
“Forget guys,” Todd interrupts. “Guys don’t do it for me. I’m telling you this up front, so you won’t write a story that’ll get anyone who reads it into my bed, just girls. I’m telling you this up front to avoid unpleasantness.”
So I explain to him again, in my patient tone, that it doesn’t work that way. A story isn’t a magic spell or hypnotherapy; a story is just a way to share something you feel with other people, something intimate, sometimes even embarrassing, that—
“Great,” Todd interrupts again, “so let’s share something embarrassing with your readers that’ll make the girls jump into bed with me.” He doesn’t listen, that Todd. He never listens, at least not to me.
I met Todd at a reading he organized in Denver. When he talked about the stories he loved that evening, he became so excited that he began to stammer. He has a lot of passion, that Todd, and a lot of energy, and it’s obvious that he doesn’t really know where to channel it all. We didn’t get to talk a lot, but I saw right away that he was a smart person and a mentsch. Someone you could depend on. Todd is the kind of person you want beside you in a burning house or on a sinking ship. The kind of guy you know won’t jump into a lifeboat and leave you behind.
But at the moment, we’re not in a burning house or on a sinking ship, we’re just drinking organic, soymilk lattés in a funky, natural café in Williamsburg. And that makes me a little sad. Because if there were something burning or sinking in the area, I could remind myself why I like him, but when Todd starts hammering away at me to write him a story, he’s hard to stomach.
“Title the story, ‘Todd the Man’,” he tells me. “Or even just, ‘Todd.’ You know what? Just ‘Todd’ is better. That way, girls who read it are less likely to figure out where it’s heading, and then, at the end, when it comes—bam! They won’t know what hit them. All of a sudden, they’ll look at me differently. All of a sudden, they’ll feel their pulse start to pound in their temples, and they’ll swallow their saliva and say, ‘Tell me, Todd, do you happen to live close by?’ or, ‘Stop, don’t look at me like that,’ but in a tone that actually says the opposite: ‘Please, please keep looking at me like that,’ and I’ll look at them and then it’ll happen, as if spontaneously, as if it has nothing to do with the story you wrote. That’s it. That’s the kind of story I want you to write for me. Understand?”
And I say, “Todd, I haven’t seen you in a year. Tell me what’s happening with you, what’s new. Ask me how I’m doing, ask how my kid is.”
“Nothing’s happening with me,” he says impatiently, “and I don’t need to ask about the kid, I already know everything about him. I heard your interview on NPR a few days ago. All you did in that crappy interview was talk about him. How he said this and how he said that. The interviewer asks you about writing, about life in Israel, about the Iranian threat, and like a Rottweiler’s jaw, you’re locked onto quotes from your kid, as if he’s some kind of Zen genius.”
“He really is very smart,” I say defensively. “He has a unique angle on life. Different from us adults.”
“Good for him,” Todd hisses. “So, what do you say? Are you writing me the story or not?”
So I’m sitting at the faux-wood, plastic desk in the faux five-star, three-star hotel the Israeli Consulate has rented for me for two days, trying to write Todd his story. I struggle to find something in my life that’s full of the kind of emotion that will make girls jump into Todd’s bed. I don’t understand, by the way, what Todd’s problem is with finding girls himself. He’s a nice looking guy and pretty charming, the kind that knocks up a pretty waitress from a small town diner and then takes off. Maybe that’s his problem: he doesn’t project loyalty. To women, I mean. Romantically speaking. Because when it comes to burning houses or sinking ships, as I’ve already said, you can count on him all the way. So maybe that’s what I should write: a story that will make girls think that Todd will be loyal. That they’ll be able to rely on him. Or the opposite: a story that will make it clear to all the girls who read it that loyalty and dependability are overrated. That you have to go with your heart and not worry about the future. Go with your heart and find yourself pregnant after Todd is long gone, organizing a poetry reading on Mars, sponsored by NASA. And on a live broadcast, five years later, when he dedicates the event to you and Sylvia Plath, you can point to the screen in your living room and say, “You see that man in the space suit, Todd Junior? He’s your Dad.”
Maybe I should write a story about that. About a woman who meets someone like Todd, and he’s charming and in favor of eternal, free love and all the other bullshit that men who want to fuck the whole world believe. And he gives her a passionate explanation of evolution, of how women are monogamous because they want a male to protect their offspring, and how men are polygamous because they want to impregnate as many women as possible, and how there’s nothing you can do about it, it’s nature, and it’s stronger than any conservative presidential candidate or Cosmopolitan article called, “How to hold on to your husband.”
“You have to live in the moment,” the guy in the story will say, then he’ll sleep with her and break her heart. He’ll never act like some shit she can easily drop. He’ll act like Todd. Which means that even while he fucks up her life, he’ll still be kind and nice and exhaustingly intense, and—yes—poignant too. And that’ll make the whole business of breaking it off with him even harder. But in the end, when it happens, she’ll realize that it was still worth it. And that’s the tricky part: the “it-was-still-worth-it” part. Because I can connect to the rest of the scenario like a smartphone to wireless internet at Starbucks, but the “it was still worth it” is more complicated. What could the girl in the story get out of that whole hit-and-run accident with Todd but another sad dent on the bumper of her soul?