Fangirling & Fanboying: Sweetbitter, Binary Star, Guster is for Lovers

 Guster at the house of blues, courtesy of  front row boston .

Guster at the house of blues, courtesy of front row boston.

 sweetbitter.

sweetbitter.

Lisa Janicki -- Not surprisingly, there’s a theme of consumption in Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter, which takes place largely in an upscale NYC restaurant near Union Square. There’s the eating, obviously, and the drinking and the snorting coke, maybe just as obviously. But there’s also being swallowed up by a new place, its inhabitants, and its rhythms. Some days, the city where you live is on your side: you go from A to B in one continuous movement: you breeze through turnstiles and catch every train; it’s all green lights and walk signals. There’s a welcome loss of self in times like these. Through Tess, Sweetbitter’s narrator, we experience this through the eyes of a server: “Specks of dust taking off from bottles, shadows darting onto the floor, glasses listing over the edges of counters and caught just in time…The reflex was to see beyond my line of vision, to see around and behind myself. The breath between consciousness and action collapsed. No hesitations, no projections, no order. I became a verb.” That passage is immediately followed by the best description I’ve ever read of what it means to be in the weeds during your restaurant shift. And how once you’re there, suddenly wrecked and paralyzed by your own surroundings, you can’t get back to the other side, you can hardly remember it. Danler presents to us these varieties of consciousness, and how slipping back and forth between the two can happen in an instant and is seldom in our control.

 Lost Ground.

Lost Ground.

Eric Beebe -- About every Memorial Day I dig through my stacks of old CDs (yes, some of us still have such things) for Lost Ground, an EP by the band Defeater. The band made a name for itself with, aside from its myriad of talent, a distinct narrative style to its lyrics. Frontman Derek Archambault has so far written the lyrics to each new installment of the band’s music as different characters’ perspectives in a story linking all of them together. In Lost Ground, we are reintroduced to a homeless WWII veteran who plays the role of singing sage to the protagonist of the band’s album Travels. But the EP starts from this man’s adolescence, with a song titled “The Red, White, and Blues” kicking off his story as he drinks himself into oblivion before shipping off to war. Through six tracks, the EP takes us along the timeline of this man’s life. In the end track, “Beggin’ in the Slums,” our hero—returned home as a veteran and forsaken by his countrymen—spends his days playing guitar to passing crowds for change, and he sees the young man from Travels, on the run, and recognizes a look in his eyes he once knew as his own. With admittance of the time he’s lost, that he’s amounted to all he will, he finds hope that this young man will do better, somehow for the both of them. Because they both know the same thing: people deserve better.

 Binary Star.

Binary Star.

Nadia Owusu -- I should have found Sarah Gerard’s short but intense novel Binary Star to be disorienting. It is structured less like a novel than like a long prose poem. It’s about astrology and anorexia, capitalism and addiction, love and self-hate. It’s about all of these things at once, sometimes all at once in one sentence. Time is undefined. The past and the present collide without notice. Dialogue is unmarked and undifferentiated from thought. And yet, I was transfixed. The novel did not, despite its unconventional structure, feel confused. It was beautiful and raw and thoroughly original. Rather than being experimental for experimentation’s sake, one gets the sense that Gerard followed the architectural principal that form should follow function. Binary Star is about a woman and a world in chaos. The fact that the novel attempts to wrench the reader out of his or her literary comfort zone only serves to heighten the emotional power of the story.

 The Laughing Monsters.

The Laughing Monsters.

 

John Vercher -- There’s nothing funny about Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters. It is described as “a high-suspense tale of kaleidoscoping loyalties in the post 9-11 world”, but the end result is, almost impossibly, something far more complex. Johnson’s slim novel is told from the first-person perspective of Roland Nair, a government operative (for which government, we’re never quite sure) on assignment in Africa to track down his former colleague, Michael Adriko, an African native with whom Nair has had some dirty dealings. During their reunion, Michael introduces Nair to his fiancée, Davidia, whose lineage involves Michael’s military past. What follows is a tumultuous journey that leads Adriko and Nair on a path to capitalize on the fears of post-9-11 terrorism with an ill-conceived plot designed to separate bad people from their money. While Johnson adroitly manages the tension of the plot, it’s the machinations of Nair’s mind that cause the greatest discomfort. He is a misogynist, a racist, and while he proclaims a love for Michael, he’s simultaneously looking for a way to steal his fiancée from under his nose. It is in this aspect where Nair’s characterization is most captivating, as his desires for Davidia spiral into obsessiveness in a manner that makes you question his sanity, and perhaps the reality of his perceptions. He is the most unreliable of narrators from which you can’t turn away. And while I found it somewhat difficult, at times, to separate the prejudicial ideations of Nair from the possible perspective of the author (Johnson did in fact spend time as a journalist in Africa prior to writing Monsters), the sentence structure is in fine form and the dialogue is masterful.

 Guster is for lovers.

Guster is for lovers.

Daniel Johnson -- It's no well-kept secret that I am a tragic Guster superfan. In truth, I'm a little unsure whether recommending this band is a moment I was made for, or (much more likely) one I should have actively avoided, as there's just no chance I'll be able to articulate what makes theirs such timeless, quintessential, unbiasedly exceptional music. Regardless, here we are--you, me, and Front Row Boston's recording of Guster's January 15, 2016 homecoming concert at Boston's House of Blues, released in May of this year. The video is just over an hour long, comprised of 14 songs from their Night One set (I was at Night Two), spliced with commentary from vocalists/guitarists/bassists/everything-elseists Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner on their band's twenty-five year career. They formed in 1991, right down the road from the House of Blues, at Tufts University, where three of its remaining original members attended undergrad. So what's it like when they come back to Boston, when they come home? "It's always sort of emotional when we come back and play the place where we started--I mean, it's crazy," says Ryan. Adds Adam: "You can feel it, when we play, you can feel it in the crowd, you can see when you're looking out there ... Boston is the place that built our career." Such is the electricity with which they play during this show: beneath their characteristic lightheartedness, there's a palpable wattage of gratitude, sincerity, nostalgic revelry. It's no clearer on display than during their opus from Keep It Together, "Come Downstairs and Say Hello." These guys are object lessons in the rare sort of artistic brotherhood that endures and evolves (for a quarter of a century!), and as a fan, seeing that sort of synergy between them, strong as ever so late in the game, is intoxicating: to witness this concert for the first time or the hundredth is to understand a little better what lasting relationships at their strangest, funkiest, and most harmonious should look like. This is why--as we were reminded during the TNT broadcast of this year's NCAA Championship Game--Guster is for L<3vers.

 100 Love Sonnets.

100 Love Sonnets.

E.B. --  While City Lights’s translated collection of Pablo Neruda’s poems, The Essential Neruda, offers a grand overview of his work—his odes, his communist beliefs, his musings on Machu Picchu—it was his love poems that hooked me. Most notable to me was his poem “XII,” from his Cien sonetos de amor (100 Sonnets of Love). It’s impossible not to be enthralled by Neruda’s use of language, albeit translated, that touches upon senses that make reading his love poems feel nothing short of an aphrodisiac. Now, having tracked down and read Cien sonetos from cover to cover, I only find myself more impressed with it. Each poem is titled simply with the Roman numerals marking its place in a progression of Neruda’s musings. The emotions wax and wane, rise and fall, like the moon and waves he drew upon for symbolism. His use of natural imagery and picturesque landscapes blend with romantic sentimentality; whereas lesser writers would butcher such a mixture, this is Neruda’s chief triumph. He draws upon one image or another knowing full-well the associations they brought with them and carefully balanced these associations to create sex on paper. In a time when postmodern thought has cast more doubt than ever on what love is or even whether it exists, Neruda’s work calls out to demand its reality and prove that it’s something floating at will between our senses and psyche. It says we don’t need to know what love is or how it is, just to know it’s there and—most of all—feel it.

Fangirling & Fanboying: Jandy Nelson, Kurt Vonnegut, Arturo Pérez-Reverte

 From the cover of  I'll Give You the Sun .

From the cover of I'll Give You the Sun.

Daniel Johnson -- Confession: Young Adult Literature, until recently, was oft absent from my shelves, and is admittedly under-represented (read: nonexistent) in these staff picks here at Assignment. It’s a sensibility thing, both as individuals and as a publication, and I get it. However, on recommendation, perhaps on challenge, and also because I’m in the process of renovating and expanding my tastes, I read Jandy Nelson’s 2015 Printz Award-winning novel I’ll Give You the Sun, and I fucking adored it. Seldom have I held characters as dear as I did Noah and Jude, the book’s twin teenage Californian protagonists, who we follow through art school rejections, the separation of their parents, and the eventual death of their mother, all of which leads to a monstrous rift in their relationship. From the very first page, I cared so deeply for their bond, was so invested in its loss and redemption, in each sibling's tumultuous road to individuality and healing; I longed so fiercely to wedge myself between their bodies during what Noah calls “the smush,” a sedentary position in which each twin abuts the other “until we’re not only one age, but one complete and whole person.” How many people, I wondered, read this book and realized that to be one half of a smush is all they’ve ever wanted? Nelson gives us a story that seems, on the surface, elemental because of its elasticity: twins start together, twins grow apart, two arcs that begin as parallels before they bend and meander away from one another, until they eventually snap into symmetry anew. What sets it apart as outstanding, for one, is Nelson's Lerner-esque ability to drive the story almost entirely through the interior registers of her protagonists. And then there's her language, which processes as flashes of color more often than it does as formations of words. Here’s Noah, speaking of his sister: “Jude looks at me. Her eyes are the lightest glacier blue; I use mostly white when I draw them. Normally they make you feel floaty and think of puffy clouds and hear harps, but right now they look just plain scared.” Both twins are artists, and their voices, as here, seem somehow liberated from the representational deficiencies of quotidian language; thus, Nelson’s prose scraped feeling from me with terrifying page-to-page ease, some of which was so complex and overwhelming and new that I struggle to name it here. What I can articulate, and what you need to know, is that I’ll Give You the Sun understands the rhythms of relationships, like Noah and Jude's, that are galactic in importance: it will leave you assured that it’s okay—beautiful, even—if one person is the central star to your cosmos, just as long as you’re unafraid to be ripped from orbit every once in a while, to be forced to go rogue and experience the universe as a sovereign world. Nelson is offering a comfort, here, that when it comes to her characters, or any set of twins, siblings, any and all family—plainly, when it comes to those we love—an inexplicable gravity will always ferry us back to them.

  Slapstick.

Slapstick.

Eric Beebe -- To say I’m a fan of Kurt Vonnegut would understate the eye rolls and sighs of many friends of mine every time I mention his work yet again. I turn into a kind of missionary for his work—ironically, considering many of his themes—every time I meet someone who hasn’t read it, and I make a point of tracking down the gems he produced which didn’t receive the same fanfare as Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five or maybe just fell out of the public eye. This search brought me to Slapstick, which Vonnegut claims in its prologue to be the closest thing he wrote to an autobiography. “It is about what life feels like to me,” he wrote, which may sound strange regarding a story of a malformed, incestuous pair of twins narrated by one who becomes the last president of the United States, but therein lies the joy of the book. The story is so blatantly absurd, with things like telepathic orgies and a campaign platform of grouping the nation into artificial families, that it stands as one of Vonnegut’s best efforts he makes across many of his books with regard to showing us just how ridiculous humans really are. This book is a must while seeking distraction from real-life absurdities like the rise of Trump and other pains of the impending election, but it also satirizes such events like only Vonnegut could. It’s a story of triumph and failure in simultaneity, as is often the only true case, told through a hyperbolic comedy of the journey there which makes us question, in the protagonist’s words, “And how did we then face the odds, / Of man’s rude slapstick, yes, and God’s?” If you want the answer, go read Slapstick.

  the painter of battles .

the painter of battles.

Ted Flanagan -- If you make it to the surprising, soul-crushing denouement of The Painter of Battles, it will be as if Arturo Perez-Reverte has combined the blizzard-cold human condition of, say, Crime and Punishment, the tragedy of Anna Karenina, and the construction of the mirrored city of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and condensed it into 211 pages without missing a chord of the originals’ beauty and cruelty. The protagonist, Andres Faulques, is a retired war photographer living in abandoned lighthouse on an unnamed stretch of Spanish coastline, and spends his days painting an epic mural along tower’s inner wall, bearing witness to the horrors his camera recorded. Into this solitude arrives a former Croatian soldier, Markovic, whose life was inadvertently ruined as the result of an otherwise inconsequential photo Faulques took of him while covering the brutal war arising from Yugoslavia’s death throes. The photo becomes a worldwide sensation, brings Faulques great fame and money, but also costs him the love of his life, who stepped on a mine near a muddy Balkan road two days later. The picture costs Markovic dearly, too, and he arrives at the tower to engage Faulques in a conversation, ask the photographer some questions, and then: “I’m going to kill you.” Throughout the characters’ extended daily conversations about art, love, death and war, Reverte’s writing is lyrical, philosophical, building to its surprisingly emotional climax slowly, one beautiful word upon another, in the way of all great literature.

 From the cover of  Half an Inch of water .

From the cover of Half an Inch of water.

David Moloney -- The birth of twin Appaloosa foals on a Western Indian Reservation could be an intense enough event to carry a story. But in his collection, Half an Inch of Water, Percival Everett isn’t content with easy narratives. Here, in “Finding Billy White Feather,” the elusive title character tacks a note on a rancher’s door, offering to sell both horses. Billy claims to be a Sioux, but is described by many in many different ways to Oliver (the rancher): “a tall, skinny white boy,” and, later, “Could be he’s fat,” by another. The note sends Oliver in search of White Feather, but each time he is thwarted. Like many of Everett’s stories, this one is shot out of a cannon, propelled forward without any backtracking or history, all the way to its bleak end—Oliver never does find White Feather, and the twin foals die. So it goes for the rest of the collection: Everett rarely leaves you fulfilled. But in each story, as with White Feather, there’s an intentional mysticism that surrounds the characters. In “A High Lake,” Norma Snow, an elderly horse owner who still rides every day, gets lost with her horse one morning. As she tries to find her way back, she enters a spirit-realm where her dead dog runs alongside her. Everett writes it as if this is a sure sign of Norma having perished on horseback in a meadow—a fitting end to a character who died doing what she loved—but somehow she finds her way home, to her fireplace, where she remains as the story ends. We’re left with the feeling that we were tricked: Did Norma go on that ride? Did she dream it? Again, unfulfilling. You’ll never know the answer, but you’ll be glad Everett showed you what that last journey would have been like.

  Between the world and me.

Between the world and me.

John Vercher -- My father and I have never been close. There was a time though, however brief, during the mid-to-late eighties, when we connected for a few hours a week. Several days per week, we’d drive to the neighborhood gym. On those car rides, he’d tell me why my hair was different from other mixed kids and how I should assume all white people were racist until they proved themselves otherwise. Then we’d get to work on building our bodies. It wasn’t until I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World And Me that I began to gain some perspective as to what was really going on in those car rides, in those subsequent gym sessions. Written as a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, Between is Coates’s declaration of the imperative need to preserve “the sanctity of the black body”, to protect it from the threat of systematic racism “that makes your body breakable.” Through Coates’s eloquent narrative and frank confrontation of an eminently necessary conversation, I gained some modicum of clarity about what was really happening in those car rides, in that gym. While my adolescent arms quaked under a weight I could barely lift, my father’s shoulders bowed, not from helping me lift the bar, but under a love he almost could not bear, trying to protect me from the world I’d inevitably come to know.

DJ -- This week, I'll be recording an episode with our friends over at The Critical Breakdown, which, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is a little movie-review podcast with a single hilarious (and existentially lofty) objective: "We review movies based on their Rotten Tomatoes score, starting at the very bottom with 0% and working our way towards 100%. We'll learn what makes a bad movie bad, if ratings are fair, and maybe even something about ourselves." Right now, they're at 8%, and after reading my piece on horror films here, they asked me to help review The Number 23, a pseudo-horror/conspiracy thriller/pulpy, oversexed detective noir flick in which Jim Carrey, as an animal control officer, tries (and so catastrophically fails) to defeat the 23 Enigma. Now see, I'm typically a JC-in-non-comedic-roles apologist, and I remember watching this film in 2007, when I was sixteen, alone in my basement with a take-out order of onion rings, and loving it. You'll have to listen in to hear what my opinion is nine years later (spoiler: the movie is egregious, really, just downright insulting). Scott & Max, TCB's hosts, are erudite and funny, and their rapport with one other is seamless. Perhaps most impressive about their approach is the tender seriousness with which they consider each movie; this is almost impossible not to appreciate, given the broken body of cinema they've handled thus far (Good Luck Chuck and Battlefield Earth, to name two). They've even got an official podcast poodle, Walter, who occasionally drops into the studio for some canine analysis. In other words, they quite organically inhabit the airwave space between smart and absurd; this is why I consider them legitimate and sincere critics, and why they're such good radio.

Fangirling & Fanboying: Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Mogelson, Nuruddin Farah

 from the cover of  homesick for another world: stories

from the cover of homesick for another world: stories

Benjamin Nugent -- In his essay "Michael", John Jeremiah Sullivan points out that Michael Jackson’s best songs have the peculiar catchiness of schoolyard chants. You’ve got to be starting something, Hey girl with the high heels on, Billie Jean is not my lover, I’m bad, I’m bad, you know it, etc. One of the reasons I love Ottessa Moshfegh’s forthcoming collection, Homesick for Another World: Stories, out next January, is that she too is a master of the taunting cadence, only Moshfegh’s schoolyard abuts a high school or a liberal arts school: “The deluxe shopping center on Route 4, where the fattest people on earth could be found…”; “But having held my dick in her hand, she seemed to feel she’d earned the right to belittle me as much as possible”; “The shoulder pads nearly hit his ears, as he had basically no neck.” Lesser writers don’t trust the reader to engage with narrators who express contempt, so their narrators are artificially aw-shucks and nonjudgmental. But Moshfegh knows that people make fun of other people to shield themselves from their own self-loathing, fear and loneliness, and she knows how to twist a story at the end so that the mask of disgust falls away and we see the desolation that was always lurking behind.

  New American Stories

New American Stories

Daniel Johnson -- Why is it that all the world has yet to acquire a copy of New American Stories (2015), the 750 page anthology edited by Ben Marcus, and gorge themselves on it? Contained therein are over twenty-five pieces of short fiction--including installments by Don DeLillo, Mary Gaitskill, Wells Tower, and Kelly Link--that matter now, not only because they're individually outstanding with regard to their contributions to the endurance of the short story form, but also because, collectively, they're a clip of what the American voice sounds like now. It's The Unprofessionals, but more sweeping in scope. And sure, I'm quite aware this is a terrifically cliché way to talk about any book. But what else is there to say about the most quintessential curation of contemporary stories available? Perhaps that Marcus's intro is knockout: "The potent story writers, to me, are the ones who deploy language as a kind of contraband, pumping it into us until we collapse on the floor, writhing, overwhelmed with feeling." Perhaps, too, that the book as a physical object is gorgeous (see left), and simply feels like something substantial when you hold it. It's got the weight and paper gradation of a Bible. Just saying.

John Vercher -- As a new(ish) father, I find that certain books, movies and the like affect me on an emotional level they wouldn’t have pre-rugrats. Marlin finally reunites with Nemo? My chin crinkles. “Cat’s in The Cradle” plays on the radio? The eyes start to burn a bit. And don’t even get me started on that scene from Interstellar when McConaughey watches the video messages from his children back on Earth. So it went for me with Celeste Ng’s 2014 debut novel Everything I Never Told You. Lydia Lee, the teenage daughter of James and Marilyn, is missing. Her fate is revealed to readers by the end of the first chapter: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know it yet.” Despite the innards-twisting tension that Ng so deftly ratchets before divulging Lydia’s fate, it’s her family’s reactions to their loss and the memories conjured by it that deliver much of the novel’s emotional resonance. Ng writes with the painful beauty of a parent’s perspective as they bear witness to the cruelty of which children are capable. It’s stories like these that stop me cold, make me set the book down long enough to find my sons and hold them, with the hopes of protecting them from the world.

Sarah Eisner -- My mother often writes me lengthy emails about her childhood in Savannah, Georgia, and sometimes asks me questions about the way I remember mine in suburban California. I tend to respond like I’m less interested than I am, like I don’t know that I’m privileged to have a mom who wants to relive my life and share her own, like I don’t realize that someday I’ll wish I asked her everything I could. So when she mentioned that I should read The Rainbow Comes and Goes—a back and forth correspondence between Anderson Cooper and his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt—I told her it wasn’t my thing, thinking it was another lame celebrity memoir. It arrived on my doorstep on Mother’s Day anyway. I was surprised to find how deeply satisfied I was with the way Rainbow explores motherhood, ambition, identity, aging and grief, framed within a unique narrative of a very particular kind of American privilege and pain. The relationship between Anderson and Gloria illustrates the way families remember through parent and child, and inspired me to ask my mom a few more questions.

 from the cover of  bright lights, big city

from the cover of bright lights, big city

Eric Beebe -- After far too long, I finally picked up Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and got to making up for the lost time it spent buried in my reading list. It quickly shot into place among my favorite books. The novel gave me the feel of following thoughts rather than plot, but with no lack of an arc to show for it—just gems of true consciousness that seem universal to human experience: “No. Stop this. This is not your better self speaking. This is not how you feel.” The universality of the protagonist’s thoughts is one of the novel’s greatest triumphs; it’s only aided by the way McInerney's style allows us to feel we know the character so well. In a world where we’re constantly pummeled with the differences, assumptions, and enigma surrounding baby boomers, millennials, or whichever generation, it’s an extreme relief to read work which—touted as definitive of one age and place—feels purely, innately relatable in its humanity. Bright Lights, Big City isn’t just a coming-of-age novel, or a New York novel, or an eighties novel. It’s a story about the disillusionment and disappointments that can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time, and the fleeting efforts we make to cope. Rumor has it that The Paris Review’s sitting on a forthcoming interview with McInerney, and after this, I’ll be counting down days.

David Moloney -- Luke Mogelson’s first collection of stories, These Heroic, Happy Dead—a title borrowed from the E.E. Cummings poem, “next to of course god america I”—would have you know that when veterans return from war, there’s no glory awaiting them. Rather, what happens is a continuance of trouble and violence. What is especially empathetic about these stories is how Mogelson not only focuses on the veterans, but also the people close to them: mothers, neighbors, and co-workers. In “Visitors,” a mother, Jeanne, loses her son a second time when he returns from war and kills a man in a bar fight. Jeanne is in denial, as she believes her son merely “had to go away again.” But Mogelson doesn’t condemn his characters for feeling wronged. Instead, he allows them to act out their anger and anxiety---as in “Human Cry”---only to find them in a worse way. The protagonist in “Human Cry” explores his own involvement in a man’s death and how he subsequently dealt with it with a self-imposed isolation from the world. But the full extent of the isolation isn’t understood until Mogelson switches point of view in the final page, revealing the protagonist’s bizarre and embarrassing actions to the reader---he’s been living in the man’s home, the man he is responsible for killing. These Heroic, Happy Dead is a book of war stories---perpetual war---and the consequences of sending men to kill and then asking them to return to family, work and normalcy no different.

 from the cover of  maps

from the cover of maps

Nadia Owusu -- In Nuruddin Farah’s rich and lyrical novel Maps, a young boy by the name of Askar bears witness to the violent redrawing of Farah’s native Somalia and neighboring Ethiopia post-colonialism. At the same time, he must make decisions about who he wants to be and what he is willing to fight for. Although the political and geographical context of this novel is specific, there are many parallels between Askar’s wars (internal and external) and the wars that are currently being waged, from the Sudans to Syria. Examining themes like religion, class, and community, Maps reminds us that identities and borders (particularly, perhaps, in Africa) are fluid and rarely easily defined.

Ted Flanagan -- The recent paperback reissue of Richard Price’s The Whites drops the hardcover’s unfortunate author attribution of “Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt” in favor of simply his name, which any devotee of Price would have known by the end of paragraph one. Consider the opening lines: “ ... a quarter past one in the morning and there were still far more people piling into the bars than leaving them, everyone coming and going having to muscle their way through swaying clumps of half-hammered smokers standing directly outside the entrances. He hated the no smoking laws.” The book has all the Price-ian staples. Its protagonist, Billy Graves, is a conflicted veteran police detective, now working a kind of overnight bunco-cum-broken-windows squad in NYC, all the while stewing about a case from his past involving a triple-murder suspect Graves could never pin with the crime. And then there’s the mysterious stalker, intent on destroying the Graves family. The change on the paperback cover just goes to show that a Price novel, even one intentioned to be a simple whodunit penned under a pseudonym, will always be a Price novel. If there’s a writer living today with a better ear for honest, human dialogue, or a more pathological inability to see every character in anything but full 360-degree, four dimensional view, who illuminates the wider world around us by focusing on the narrow world within his characters, and turns up the heat slowly, so you don’t realize you’re in hot water until it’s too late, I don’t know who they are.  

Fangirling & Fanboying: This Week's Recs from Assignment

 Enclosed: Facebook activists, but opposite

Enclosed: Facebook activists, but opposite

Benjamin Nugent -- I’ve used a metal detector to extract a lead .59 miniball from the dirt near Manassas. I’ve sipped whiskey from a party cup at the site of one of the last charges of the Army of the Potomac. I’ve been to the Chancellorsville gift shop and seen the bookshelf that’s divided into three sections: Northern, Southern and neutral. But until recently I was fairly ignorant about what came after the Civil War. So I picked up Black Reconstruction in America, by W.E.B. Du Bois, and The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand. Du Bois is interested in the masses: why, he asks, did five million poor whites support a war on behalf of eight thousand rich whites to keep four million blacks enslaved? It’s required reading for the Summer of Trump. Menand is interested is the intellectual foment that attended and followed the war. His book is set in the salons of Cambridge, Baltimore and Chicago. There are characters like Zina Peirce, who believed that adultery should be punished by execution or life imprisonment, and her philosopher husband, Charles, who cheated on her a lot. It serves as a reminder of how hard it is to find role models in the nineteenth century; even the most ardent abolitionists espoused some pretty appalling views. Their heroism resides in what they did, not in what they said. Sort of like Facebook activists, but the opposite.

Eric Beebe -- Ever since reading “The Weirdos,” I’ve grabbed any piece of Ottessa Moshfegh’s work I can. Her short stories fit my tendency to read in twentyish-minute bursts, but when I heard about her novel, McGlue, I had to see what she did with the extra length. The book follows the title character’s inner monologue, picking up where he’s accused of murdering his shipmate and best friend, Johnson. McGlue’s constant state of impairment by both alcohol and head injury keeps clarity to a foggy minimum, and that was perhaps my favorite aspect of the whole story. Being tied to his altered reality, I learned to stop trying to distinguish the corporeal from hallucination and simply accept what he saw in front of him. The dichotomy between these two forces becomes integral to the plot as the weight of events leads McGlue to seek escape by any means necessary, even if it kills him. The resulting feel falls somewhere between reading The Things They Carried and watching Reservoir Dogs while our narrator teeters back and forth between blacking out and drying out. Moshfegh doesn’t hand us just any drunken sailor; she gives us a man floating between two worlds, battling with himself over which to choose, if he can at all.

 From the cover of  Bright, Dead Things

From the cover of Bright, Dead Things

Lisa Janicki -- My favorite poem in Ada Limón’s collection, Bright Dead Things, is “Downhearted,” which begins, “Six horses died in a trailer fire. / There. That’s the hard part. I wanted / to tell you straight away so that we could / grieve together.” She’s a city girl who moved for love to the south, where even the tragedies are foreign. She bumps up against new idioms and “tornado talk”— the subtle stuff that’s peculiar to regions and can be so disorienting to transplants (“All the new bugs.”). And from these small moments, she elaborates larger impressions of her existence. She had imagined herself differently in this new life—more agreeable, more open to its magic, more like a child. But when our grown-up selves allow us to become children again, it’s often in a way that’s less magical and more sullen: in “The Last Move,” she writes, “This is Kentucky, not New York, and I am not important.” I root for Limón as she cleans her big new house and tries to like gardening, though it seems clear she’d rather be in her Brooklyn apartment. I root for her because she threw it all in for love, because she moved to Kentucky for it, because she had no Plan B. And mostly I root for her because I get the sense that she’s resurrected herself before, and she’s about to do it again: “What the heart wants? The heart wants / her horses back.”

David Moloney -- You’d think Olive Kitteridge would be the focus of Elizabeth Strout’s novel in stories titled in her name. But we’re instead given thirteen stories that concern themselves more with the residents of the small, coastal New England town of Crosby, Maine. Olive is a math teacher there, and she seems to have had all the book’s characters in class at one point; she always finds herself crossing paths with them when they’re stalled in a threshold of self-destruction. It’s these characters that are most central to the novel. Whether it’s a former student who contemplates suicide on a beach, an anorexic teen, or even her own husband falling in love with a much younger employee, Olive---through her staunch and sometimes misplaced contemptibility for weak people---says what we’d only wished to have the courage to say. She tells the anorexic girl in “Starving,” after giving sound advice about never giving up, “I know you’ve heard all this before, so you just lie there and don’t answer. Well, answer this: Do you hate your mother?” Olive isn’t always right (sometimes far from it); that’s when the book is at its best. The stories are so human, so New England, and in the closing moments, we know Olive did her best, and we know she never gave up—and isn’t that all we can do? 

Nadia Owusu -- I first encountered Lydia Davis two years ago. I was thoroughly confused. What was I reading? Were these monologues? Prose poems? Scenes? “She is the master of the short story,” declared the instructor of my workshop as she assigned three of Davis’s stories to me. “But, where are the stories?” I fretted to myself as I diligently did my assigned reading, certain that I had made some sort of mistake. Don’t get me wrong: I liked what I was reading. I just couldn’t easily categorize it. Later, once my obsessive, ‘I need to make sure I’m doing the assignment right’ voice was quieted by a glass of red wine, I was able to admire the way that Davis was able to imbue such brief moments, untethered by much context or character development or setting or structure, with such feeling and meaning. This month, I worked on my upper body strength by carrying around her Collected Stories. In making my way through it, I tried to give some thought as to how she does what she does and why it works. I found myself particularly admiring how she takes her characters’ specific circumstances and in a matter of a few pages, or in some cases even just a few sentences (Davis’s stories are known for being minimalistic and very brief), makes them universal, raising and exploring difficult questions about the things in people’s hearts and heads that are often heartbreakingly left unsaid.

 From the cover of Crimes in Southern Indiana

From the cover of Crimes in Southern Indiana

Ted Flanagan -- Reading Frank Bill’s gut-punch collection of loosely-linked stories, Crimes in Southern Indiana, is to bear witness to a nihilistic muscularity of prose one might expect of the love child of Jim Thompson and Donald Ray Pollock, if such a thing were possible. Bill’s slim collection packs a weight far beyond its pages, delivered at a high-velocity. His characters hint that their squalid, violent lives are the result of choices, often (as in drugs or alcohol or regret) the righteous reward for their own. But also, as in poor teenaged Josephine, who’s own grandfather, Able Kirby, sold her into sex slavery to a local gang—some pay debts incurred by someone else. The opening story, Hill Clan Cross, follows two drug dealers avenging their losses against two associates who got all entrepreneurial with the gang’s drugs, a big no-no in a desolate landscape where the only thing thicker than blood are dollar bills. From there, the book accelerates through the bleakness and darkness until the titular story, the collection’s last, in which Mitchell, a local police detective, attempts to help Crazy, a member of the notorious gang MS-13, which has populated the ranks of workers in a chicken processing factory. For me, that’s the brilliance of the collection. Crimes in Southern Indiana, as it insinuates itself, whispers amongst the brawling, crashing, and exploding backdrop that this isn’t just Indiana. It’s the 21st century Animal Farm, decrying not Fascism, but a distant offspring of it.

John Vercher -- Addiction has a name, and that name is “Scotty.” He’s an incubus and succubus for men and women alike, dangerous in his charm and seduction, fulfilling all cravings while reaping wanton destruction. Scotty is, literally, crack cocaine. He is funny, repulsive and impossible to ignore. In his PEN/Faulkner award-winning novel Delicious Foods, James Hannaham tells the story of Eddie, his mother Darlene, and her relationship with Scotty. It is a story of tragic loss and horrific violence infused with irreverent humor. The novel explores the depths of maternal love pitted against chemical dependence in the shadow of the titular farm where both Eddie and Darlene find themselves held captive. Hannaham’s stark and concise prose is instantly engaging, and doesn’t shy away from the horror of the subject matter while avoiding the melodrama that could easily overcome it. In between the braided flashbacks of Darlene’s youth and the tragic events that lead to her eventual addiction, we’re treated to Scotty’s dark humor and cruel charisma. He’s a twisted conscience in a novel of painful truths about desperate acts and the systematic racism that lead to them. Delicious Foods is at once heartbreaking and breathtaking with richly textured characters that has stayed with me long after the final page.

 From the cover of  Vitals .

From the cover of Vitals.

Daniel Johnson -- You've got enough to read (and if you're really interested in what I'd recommend, check out my weekly selections at The Paris Review Daily's "Staff Picks"). Meanwhile, let's talk obscure music. Like many of their fans, I discovered MuteMath when they debuted their first single, “Typical,” on Letterman’s Late Show in the summer of 2007. The band’s performance—and particularly that of drummer Darren King—stunned Ed Sullivan theater such that once the music stopped, all Dave could say was, “How bout that drummer!” Eight years later, in the Fall of 2015—one guitarist, a Transformer’s theme and two underappreciated records since Letterman—MuteMath started its own label, Wojtek Records, and released their first self-produced studio album: Vitals. King’s percussive energy and Roy Mitchell-Cardeńas’ critically acclaimed bass-playing have been at the forefront of most of their music; Vitals, however, is unquestionably frontman Paul Meany’s opus. It’s all vocals, all keys. The result is something like a contemporary eighties record, if only, say, Earth, Wind and Fire had grown up in bluesy New Orleans, where Meany and the rest hail from. Both the album’s single, “Monument,” and “Light Up” share the insane vocal range of “September”; both have that same wedding-reception-banger vibe. And though the album feels at times like a throwback or an homage to Meany's influences (The Police being a big one), it's actually a welcome step into the future for the band: Vitals is heady and joyous and wonderfully hypnotic in a way that most MuteMath is not. Meany has said himself that, when composing a work, he wants the end product to be “a picture of something dark, but it should be framed in light.” This is their first album that’s more frame than picture--just listen to "Stratosphere," my favorite of all eleven tracks: "The sun has lost its gravity / and severed my connection to the starlight. / I never meant to have to start all over / without you."

 

A Digital Ghost Story

by Nadia Owusu

I have been haunted for five years and six months. The voice first came to me through my Blackberry and then through my iPhone. Mostly there is just raspy breathing and incoherent whispering. Sometimes the voice hums my name and laughs. Sometimes there is nothing but background noise—horns honking, a fork clanking against a plate. Once I heard a baby cry and then the call was ended.

Occasionally, I am haunted through my Gmail. The sending address is always different. It is always a man’s name like Fred or Robert or Carl followed by seven or eight numbers. The messages are not especially interesting. Often there is just a question. What did I have for lunch? Was I enjoying the beach weather? Recently, Larry7678919 wanted to know what I thought about the Republican presidential debate. In 2013, the emails were mostly one-sentence directives. Let love in. Don’t be afraid of what you really feel. Open up to new possibilities.

I assume that the voice on the phone and the words in my Gmail are from the same person. It might be the guy I went on one date with in the summer of the year that I got the first phone call at 1:30 in the morning. The guy’s name is Rob. It’s not really Rob, but I don’t want to use his real name because he has a wife and two children now. I know this because I looked him up on Facebook. I was looking for evidence. I don’t know what kind of evidence I expected to find on Facebook, but you have to start somewhere.

On our date, Rob told me that, years earlier, he had stalked a woman who he was too afraid to ask out. He didn’t do anything to her, just followed her around as she ran errands and met friends for brunch. When he told me this, his voice was gurgling in the way that comedians’ voices gurgle when they are telling a joke that they think is really clever. We were eating lasagna and drinking white wine on the patio of a restaurant in the West Village. It had been one of those sticky New York days when you feel like you are breathing in dirty steam instead of normal air. But, now that the sun had set, there was a breeze that tickled the romantic candlelight at our table. The breeze and the perfect crescent moon made everyone happy and beautiful with rustling hair and luminous skin. But, Rob looked like he had smoked a lot of pot. His eyes were red and half-closed.

The stalking happened before he knew how to talk to women, he said. He didn’t have trouble with that anymore because he had taken a weekend-long seminar with a man who wrote a book about picking up women at parks and bookstores. I met Rob at the Guggenheim. I was annoyed that he approached me to let me know that I furrowed my brow when I looked at paintings and that might give me permanent wrinkles in the future. But, after that, he started talking about Analytic Cubism in a way that was endearingly nerdy. Later, I learned that the book about picking up women written by his seminar instructor encourages readers to say something mean instead of something nice as an opening line. This is supposed to change the power dynamic and make the woman feel as though she needs to impress the man. I think that is stupid advice. I agreed to go out with Rob because of the endearing nerdiness and because I liked the idea of telling people that I met a man at the Guggenheim. It had nothing to do with him informing me that I was going to be wrinkly.

I did not go on a second date with Rob. He said “Stop being so uptight” when I told him that all the talk of stalking was making me uncomfortable. Then, he said, “Why do women have to make everything such a big deal?” I got up from the table without saying another word to him. I walked home, looking over my shoulder whenever I heard footsteps close behind me. The breeze no longer felt enchanting. Now, it felt ominous. A shiver worked its way up my spine despite the heat. At home, I told my roommate the story, laughing. I left out the part about being scared.

Rob is at the top of my list of potential haunters. Also on the list are:

1. The guy I worked with at the Pizzeria Uno at South Street Seaport during my freshman year of college. He got my phone number off the schedule that was posted on the staff changing room door and called me to tell me he loved me. I told him that I was flattered but I did not love him. He told me that he would wait until I did. Two weeks later, he started dating the pretty hostess with very large breasts, but sometimes he looked at me when he kissed her hello or goodbye.

2. The ex-boyfriend who showed up in front of my job to say that he was getting married to the woman he cheated on me with unless I told him not to. I did not tell him not to. I had let him break my heart for long enough. He got married at City Hall and texted me a photo of his smiling wife. I texted him ‘congratulations.’ I really wanted to text him ‘you’re an asshole.’

3. The creepy yoga teacher from the studio I used to go to on the Lower East Side who asked a lot of students out, including me. He could easily have gotten my information from the registration system. He got fired for masturbating in the acupuncture room.

4. A robot.

The calls generally come between 1:30 and 3:30 in the morning. They come from a blocked number. I answer because what if it is my brother calling me from Ghana or my friend Pascal calling me from jail? My brother sometimes forgets about the time difference between Accra, where he lives, and New York. Pascal is one of the kindest souls I have ever known when he is sober, but he gets too drunk and fights people in front of bars.


The only thing I ever say to the voice on the phone is ‘hello’ and ‘who is this?’ and ‘stop this.’ I say these things several times, then I listen for a few seconds before hanging up. I never respond to the emails.

I do not believe in ghosts, but sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with a feeling that something is in my room, floating above me or standing silently in a corner. I have had this feeling since I was a little girl who was afraid of the dark and had to sleep with a nightlight. It is a thumping of heart, a tightness of throat. Recently, I jolted awake and saw a man-like thing sitting in the armchair by my bed. When I turned on my lamp, the shape of the man became a pile of unfolded laundry. Fear is an unpredictable and, at times, irrational emotion. It can be caused by dangers both real and imagined.

The number one lesson in the book about how to pick up a woman is to keep her wanting. Smile at her but then talk to her friend instead. Pretend that you have somewhere important to be so that she thinks that she has to sparkle to convince you to stay. Very slowly increase physical affection. Wanting is perhaps the opposite of fear, but they are both urgent forms of anticipation. The book aims to teach men to create in women the kind of wanting that works like a phobia—a type of persistent fear (want) of a being, object, or situation that the affected person will avoid (pursue) in a way that is disproportional to the actual danger (appeal) posed.

My ghost is a seemingly benign presence. It never threatens or rages. Sometimes, months will go by in which I won’t get a call or an email. Then, the familiar ringing in the dead of night, the realization that I have been waiting for it. The goal of a haunting is the same as the goal of a seduction: to become embedded in the consciousness, to not be forgotten.

Perhaps this is why I am convinced that my ghost is the voice and words of a man who failed to seduce me. Perhaps this is why, once in a while, a summer breeze against my back as I walk home at night makes me pick up the pace, makes me turn to see who is at my heels, makes me, still, just a little afraid of the dark.


On Loving Contemporary Horror Movies

On Loving Contemporary Horror Movies

And so what’s the final temple? What’s our last defense from horrible death? After we have left our homes, all that we’ve got are our bodies. Which is why, so often, possession films are the most terrifying of all: The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Shining (sort of), The Conjuring. The reason we’ve seen such an oversaturation of these stories in recent years is because the horror industry has exhausted all its precedent anxieties. We’ve reached the end of a cycle in which the horror movies have systematically broken our sanctuaries down, violated them, reminded us we aren’t ever safe.

Read More

Beyond the Pale

by John Vercher

Laurie broke my heart. She didn’t mean to. I know that now. I’m sure I knew it then. But still.

My parents transferred me to the public high school after four years in two separate parochial schools. This is to say I knew no one. The first day seemed interminable. Class after class, I extended my hand to introduce myself and met with hard stares and warnings to not get caught in the parking lot alone when the bell rang at the end of the day. That all happened before lunch. Noon came, and I exited the food line, tray in hand and looked out across throngs of unfamiliar faces. They glared back. I weaved my way through the tables in the hopes that someone would slide a chair out for me instead of pushing the empty ones in. I ate alone and wished the day away.

Alphabetical seating arrangements left Laurie and me in the last seats of our respective rows of Algebra I. Blonde bangs hovered above her forehead, a waterfall that flowed out from the sawtoothed strands of her crimped hair. Before class began, she laughed with her friends and her braces glinted in the glow of the fluorescents overhead. Her laugh lines almost, but not quite concealed a mole next to her nose, a beauty mark, perfect in its imperfection. The second bell rang and as the students finished their murmurs and turned forward, she glanced back at me.

I opened to a random page in my book and hoped she hadn’t seen me. I felt her look away. Certain I was in the clear, I went to resume my stare.

She’d been watching me. This day was looking up.

The curtains pulled back and the movie trailer of our relationship played on the screen of my mind’s eye. Berlin sang “Take My Breath Away” over footage of me as I scrawled my first note to her. Will you go with me? Check yes or no. Sorry So Short. Cut to our own table at lunch. Cut to holding hands in the hallway. Cut to prom. As I stared off into space, I caught movement in my periphery. She looked at me again. This time neither of us looked away. My glasses, thick enough to see the future, had slid down my oil-slicked nose, and I pushed them back up. I finger combed at the duckling soft hair on my upper lip, smiled my gap-toothed smile (my braces wouldn’t come for another year) and just when I thought I the day couldn’t end any better, she went ahead and said it.

“You have a really nice tan,” she whispered.

The movie reel sputtered. The celluloid melted. The film broke.

* * *

In the countless times I’ve thought about that day, I haven’t figured out what I honestly expected Laurie to say. The truth is, I never expected her to say anything, at least not to someone like me; someone who collected comic books, played with action figures a little longer than he should have, and spent lost weekends with Sonic the Hedgehog and King Hippo. Someone whose clothes were less cool than his glasses, and with a complexion that resembled the terrain of a topographical map. I never thought about the fact that I had brown skin, a wide nose, and straight hair. I was a biracial geek before it was hip to be either. No wonder Laurie stared. To be fair, I shared her confusion, about what I was and about who I was. And though my struggles with identity had begun long before that day, Laurie still ended up my first.

With one statement, Laurie became the first person to make me realize that there was something else about me that people, particularly girls, would see before they noticed the barely-there moustache or my questionable fashion sense. That afternoon was my big bang, the event from which all other questions of my identity sprung forth. It was the beginning of a high wire act, on which I walked with a constant teeter, only able to take a step before I re-assessed my footing, before I found a balance between what I liked and what I was supposed to like. How I talked and how I was supposed to talk. Who I loved and whom I was supposed to love. As if being thirteen weren’t hard enough.

* * *

“I kind of have it all the time,” I said.

“Are you Italian?”

“Nope.”

“Spanish?”

I shook my head. She cocked hers with tight-lipped confusion. Her bangs didn’t move.

“So…what are you?”

“I’m black,” I said.

“Both parents?” she asked.

Laurie had exclaimed it with such surprise that a few students ahead of us turned. My face went hot, embarrassed at their watching, humiliated by her disbelief. My throat felt dry and I managed a nod.

“Huh,” she said, and turned back around.

* * *

My sons are three and one. My wife is white. Beyond the pale of her skin, my oldest boy looks little like her. He shares my wide nose, my gapped teeth, and my straight hair. My one year old has my wife’s features and her complexion. The frequency with which I’ve thought about that afternoon increased exponentially since I first found out we were pregnant.

My three year old might meet his own Laurie. She won’t stare at his skin color. She won’t list all the possible races and ethnicities she thinks he could be, (because that’s a thing to do), and she won’t bark in disbelief when he names the only one she didn’t guess. They’ll pass notes, hold hands and maybe he’ll even bring her home to meet his folks. That’s when the questions will start, both his and hers. She won’t understand why I look so different. He won’t understand why it matters.

I know what to teach my sons about who they are, but not about who the world expects them to be. I want to infect them with mine and their mother’s rampant idealism, with the notion that we all crawled from the same soup, that we are all human beings but I know that doing so leaves them vulnerable to pain. I know that as much as we don’t want it to matter, despite the declarations that we live in a post-racial America, it does matter. I want my sons to understand the struggle, but I don’t want them to experience it. And I don’t know if that’s right.

I know that Laurie didn’t mean anything by what she said. I do know that even at our young ages, the fact that she thought it was okay to ask those questions isn’t okay, that it’s representative of a problem ever present almost thirty years later. I also know that while I want my boys to know why Daddy is nervous when he gets pulled over, they won’t ever have to be. I know that while I’ll be concerned when they’re out late with their friends, I won’t be worried because their pants are a little baggy or they wore a hoodie that night. I won’t be worried about these things, because while they look like me, they don’t look enough like me. For that I am glad.

And because I am glad, I am ashamed.


John Vercher is a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. His piece, "Homewood," won the 2014 Assignment Student Contest, and can be seen in Issue #1.

Chill, Baby

by Nadia Owusu

There was, as is often the case, no warning that the G train would not be running past midnight. No flyers or posters. No announcements on the A train telling passengers not to bother getting off to transfer. Nothing. The woman on the microphone at the Hoyt-Schermerhorn Street station sounded thrilled about this inconvenience even as she apologized for it.  

I was pissed off because nobody came into the restaurant for dinner that night so I didn’t make any money. I only had two thirds of my rent that was due in a week. I was going to have to pick up shifts during finals. I stood around all night polishing wine glasses and folding napkins instead of studying for my statistics exam. Tonight would be another sleepless one. There would probably be crying. I usually cried when I studied for math tests because I’m very bad at math. Doing things that I’m very bad at makes me sad about all the things in the world that I will probably never really understand, like electricity and Einstein's general theory of relativity.

During my shift, the bartender I was in the process of breaking up with had gotten drunk and annoying. He flirted all night with that blonde woman from across the street, and not just in the compulsory bartender way. She came to see him every night, even in this snowstorm. Usually he was polite to her, but disinterested. She had thick, square, acrylic French-manicured nails. She wore sticky pink lip gloss. She always started out her evening with a Sex on the Beach. Her voice sounded like her acrylic nails on a chalkboard. But, he leaned over the bar and looked into her eyes. He probably talked to her about his art, how he’d dropped out of law school for it. I did not like the thought of him sharing that part of himself, the part I liked, with her. So what if I had ignored his phone calls for three days? I was supposed to be the one ending it, not him. And now the stupid G train wasn’t running.

I kicked an empty forty bottle that someone had discarded on the platform. It was still wrapped tightly in a brown paper bag. It rolled unsatisfyingly for a few seconds then stopped at a middle-aged Rasta’s feet. He had his head tipped up as though waiting for further instruction from the MTA. I was not holding my breath for any such thing. We were, I knew, on our own.

“Chill, baby,” he said.

I hate it when random men call me ‘baby,’ especially when they’re telling me what to do. I might have told him as much. I thought about it. I was in the mood for it. But I had kicked a bottle at him so I didn’t exactly hold the moral high ground. I scowled at him instead.

“I hear ya,” he said, even though I hadn’t said anything. “How we supposed to get home?”

“Yeah,” I said.

There was a bus that would get me close enough to walk to my apartment. Not as close as the G train, but closer than the A train. I had never taken that bus but I knew it existed because my friend Sarah who lived down the street was always going on and on about how she took it everywhere. She talked about taking the bus the way people talk about juice detoxes and meditation which is weird because there’s nothing about the bus that is healthier than the train. At least nothing I can think of.

Outside, the snow was still coming down in heavy, sharp white pellets. It was the kind of snow that made opening an umbrella look pitiful. I buttoned the coat button that pinches the skin under my chin. I had to do that so my hood would not blow off in the whooshing wind. Google on my cellphone told me that the bus stop was six blocks away. The bus, I thought, better be running as usual. My brain said this in threatening tones. I needed the universe to know that I meant business.

What’s nice about walking in a snowstorm when you’re somewhat unreasonably miserable is that it makes your misery more reasonable. I don’t mind snowstorms when I don’t have to go anywhere except down the street to my favorite hole-in-the-wall for a hot toddy, or when I can stay indoors reading books and making soup. I do mind them under most other circumstances.

There were very few cars out that night; very few pedestrians. Downtown Brooklyn didn’t feel peaceful though. It felt abandoned. It felt like everyone was safe and sound at home except for me. I blamed a lot of people for this. I didn’t care if my reasoning was irrational. I was not interested in considering association versus causality. Perhaps this tendency is why I was having such a hard time with Statistics II.

It was my landlord’s fault for raising the rent by $150 when I was already struggling to pay it. I knew that this would happen when the hipsters moved in. I blamed those hipsters and their rich parents. I blamed my parents for not being rich. I blamed the university I attended for being so expensive. I blamed financial aid for not covering my whole tuition. It was the bartender’s fault for flirting with that blonde woman and making me jealous enough to stay at the restaurant for an hour after closing time to drink whiskey with him. The MTA was the worst institution that ever existed. Never mind that it ran trains and buses twenty-four hours a day so that I didn’t have to own a car. The G train wasn’t running right now. I also had a bone to pick with the mathematicians who developed theoretical and applied statistics.

I was walking with my head down so that the snow didn’t attack my eyeballs. They’re very sensitive. Walking in that way made it difficult to see where I was going. I had to stop every block to check whether or not I had arrived at the corner where I was supposed to turn left. My sense of direction is very poor. I was standing on Atlantic and Nevins when something large and brown leapt past me and into the street. A bus, perhaps my bus, rolled over it. The bus kept going, leaving the street empty and white again, except for a mangy mutt that was now bleeding red into the snow.

The mutt was silent. I rushed over to where it was lying. Its belly had been crushed and split open. The sight of its exposed flesh and guts filled my lungs with freezing oxygen. It—he—was dead.  As far as I could see, there hadn’t been anything or anyone chasing him, nothing to spook him. I wanted to touch his nose but as I bent down and reached out my hand, I started to shake.

“Hey sweetheart,” called out a man wearing a backpack with a hard hat tied to it, “you okay?”

I don’t like it when off-duty construction workers I don’t know call me ‘sweetheart,’ but it didn’t seem important in that moment.

“There’s a dead dog in the road,” I yelled at him.

“Why?” he asked.

That the mutt had been hit by a bus was not the answer to that question. It was only a consequence.

“I don’t know,” I yelled. I didn’t need to yell. He wasn’t very far away. Maybe I wasn’t yelling at him.

I felt ridiculous standing in the street now, so I joined the construction worker on the sidewalk. The two of us stood in silence, looking at the mutt.

“That’s the way it is sometimes,” he said after a while. “It was probably the snow.”

What he meant by that last part, I did not know. But, I nodded and started walking towards the bus stop again. This time, I let it snow into my eyeballs. The snowflakes didn’t feel as sharp as I imagined. They just felt like cold water. I blinked and let them drip onto my cheeks. I had to accept that the storm would keep storming until it was over. And when I got to the bus stop, the bus would come or it wouldn’t. There would be reasons for whatever happened just as there must have been reasons for the mutt in the road. But, I might never know them. And they wouldn’t necessarily mean that any of it made sense.

So Go the Ghosts

So Go the Ghosts

I think the common misconception with Schrödinger’s experiment is that its findings can encourage indecision. But choosing to make no decision, to take no measurement, to send no text, are still in themselves active resolutions. I’ve consciously left the ghosts of those affairs in the box, cryogenically frozen, petrified in amber. They’re still there. In having done so within the Schrödinger framework, I elected for their life. Rather, I chose life and death and everything else; I elected for their infinity.

Read More

Winners and Losers

by David Moloney

A five year old’s birthday party at a Taekwondo school sounded like a bachelor party at an opera house. It didn’t make sense to me. I imagined kids clumsily kicking foam dolls, or throwing limp-wristed punches at padded walls, getting barked at by dudes in doboks until they collapsed in defeated tears. I didn’t imagine it was a place where a room of four- and five-year-olds would have barrels of fun.

There were twenty or so kids who attended. The school's Master told us to remove our children’s footwear upon entry. My daughter May ripped off her socks without hesitation and hurried over to the group. The kids sat on a blue mat and we parents were scattered throughout three rows of bleachers. The Master announced that we would have a day of fun and games in honor of Oliver, my nephew, the birthday boy.

The first game was dodge ball. I wondered how May would do with losing. May is dainty, cautious, and sweet. She would have been my first target in middle school gym class. The way the kids were so unsure of themselves made me remember the days of slinging the ball at the weaker kids first, the ones you knew would just stand still and frozen. I looked over the kids and I could instantly pick out the ones who would lose first, and the ones I would have hid behind early in the game.

Halfway through the game, a small boy lost and one of the instructors guided him off the mat. He cried. The parents in the bleachers exhaled a cohesive “awe” as he ran to his father. The instructors kept the music playing and the game going. The kids still in the game gave no attention to the boy crying. They played on, and no one else cried when they lost. The boy sat on his father’s lap and never rejoined the party.

May pirouetted her way around the bouncing ball. She twirled and skipped carelessly, as if she may not have even been part of the same game. She made it to the final four. When the ball finally found her, she walked off the mat smiling without searching me out in the bleachers.

*

There’s a growing concern among millennial parents about the absence of dodge ball in school. I’ve heard the argument that kids need to learn how to lose, that not everyone can be winner. My uncle Billy calls it the “pussification of America.” I’ve been entangled in this argument and I’ve championed the need for dodge ball, the need to “un-pussy” America. I’ve laughed in reminiscence about head-hunting the slower kids, the dainty kids, the kids like May.

The first thing my family mulled over at the after party was the dodge ball game and the crying boy. There was a collective praise from my siblings, my father, and my uncle Billy, about the way the crying boy was handled by the instructors.
    
“See how they didn’t even look at him?” my father asked. “That’s how you do it.”
    
This sort of praise was expected from my family. I am one of four children, and growing up, there was always a respected competitiveness amongst us. No one ever wanted to lose, even if the sport or spelling bee or game of flashlight tag didn’t include siblings. We always wanted to dominate. It came from the top down. My father wasn’t easy on us in games. He was notorious for the line, “I’ve never lost a game of (insert game here).” That included games against his children. He never let us win.

*

A string of snowy days the week after the party brought me to dusting off our Wii and setting it up for May. We sampled the games to find out which ones she was coordinated enough to play. She picked up Swordplay quickly, the game where two Mii’s battle on a platform with light saber type weapons until one gets knocked into the water below. May beat the A.I. fighters quite easily. Then, she challenged me to a duel.
    
Up until this point, our game-playing experience had been cooperative contests against a common enemy: get all the chickens back in the coup away from the hungry fox, build a rainbow so the Ponies can run underneath to a star dusted freedom. But now, I held the controller and stood against her.
    
May’s idea of trash talk was to make fun of my Mii’s ordinariness.
    
“Look at your eyes,” she said, “they don’t sparkle like mine.” She had insisted, when making her Mii, to have the eyes that were diamonds.

Best of three rounds, and without thinking I beat her round one. Her Mii fell into the water and she spun to me in disbelief.  She yelled, “Daddy,” and in that moment I realized the position I’d put myself in.

She then told me she was going to kick my butt in genuine confidence.

The next round, May swung up and down a few dozen times and my Mii fell into the water. She cheered.

Round three I made sure to make May work for it. I blocked her wild slashes until her arms were tired and the swings became tiny chops. I brought myself close to the edge and May gave a final sweeping blow.

When you’re the one of the kids in gym class with a good arm and good hands, when you can flatten to the floor under a high throw, leap over a bouncing ball, you love dodge ball. You count down the minutes through math class until you can roll around and smash a red ball off kid’s foreheads.

When you’re a kid and you’ve lost hundreds of games of chess to your father, trying to out-maneuver him, figure out why you can’t beat him, and, then, finally win on one foggy morning in a camper at Lake Sebago, the victory stays with you like a proud scar.

But when you have the say on whether or not someone else wins or loses, when you control the outcome, the game changes. You’re a giant gripping the ball as swarms of easy-target little people run around your feet.  You’re a teacher. You have knowledge of cause and lasting effect, of inevitable outcome.

As my Mii floated in the air with his normal-looking eyes, stayed suspended there for a moment, then plopped into the pixelated water below, I knew this first allowance of victory wouldn’t be my last. I’ll shelve the ball until she is ready to throw it back.


Leikmót, 2015

by Eric Beebe

 Photo Courtesy of Hurstwic.

Photo Courtesy of Hurstwic.

When Matt invited me to Bill’s house for leikmót, I decided I’d bring a pie. I felt like I owed some offering in exchange for the welcome Matt had extended to me from Hurstwic, a group of modern-day warrior-scholars of ancient Scandinavian tradition. I had attended and participated in a few of their combat training sessions before, but I paled in comparison to Matt. I liked Viking history and the culture of the Norseman. He practically lived it. He’d refused to shave his beard for about a decade, and his skin was decorated with tattoos of runes and symbols linked to Odin. When we first became friends I could see myself striving for the same, but then years passed, and I accepted my place in this century while he held the link between the periods tighter than I could even hold a sword.

I made the pie with wild boar and apple and acorn, striving for whatever historical relevance I could muster. The day of the event, Matt drove us to Bill’s house. Bill was head of Hurstwic, and he hosted the leikmót and annual Winternights Feast in his backyard. I remember thinking his home bore surprising Colonial influence for what I half-expected to be a Nordic longhouse. His driveway wound through a thicket of trees like some hidden path to a wise man from a fantasy series.

The other visitors hailed us from the back porch. I recognized few faces and introduced myself to the rest with trepidation. After only making training on a couple occasions, it was hard to feel worthy among the more dedicated at this yearly ritual. Even their conversation was alien to me. Talk with friends and family always seemed such a contest of who spoke first and loudest. But these men and women around me took time with their words, letting spans of silence pass between them in peace, enjoying the October air.

Within the hour, Bill called all to order with an opening speech. He gave the history of the leikmót as a contest of might, speed, and cunning held with annual feasts before days grew short and larders keenly measured. Bill announced there would be prizes for the most impressive competitors.

We played knattleikur first. Like much known of the Norse, many fine details were lost outside of the sagas, but what resulted was some distant relative of rugby and hockey. The Swift Wings of the Valkyrie faced off against The Old Berserkers, blocking runs, stealing balls, and trying to trip each other with their staves. The Swift Wings won a bag of Icelandic candy. Everyone broke after the contest to cast a silent vote on an MVP.

There were then shield- and spear-throwing competitions. I watched Matt throw a shield every conceivable way for optimum yardage. Reynir, our resident Icelander, hit truer with each consecutive spear he threw. I couldn’t hit anything with a shield, and my spear-throws were far from any of our target’s imaginary vitals.

After archery and barrel-fighting drills, we prepared to feast. I helped two other guests bake flat disks of bread beneath the pot over Bill’s fire pit, where he had been cooking stew over the open flame. We just warmed my pie in the kitchen stove. Wooden bowls were brought out for us to serve ourselves, and we gathered in a circle to eat. Plenty complimented my pie, but I found it too bitter after parboiling the meat in an IPA and wondered how they could enjoy it. Bill’s stew was much more appealing to me, but I waited and waited for someone else to lead the charge before daring to grab seconds. We washed our dinner down with beer and Brennivín, Icelandic schnapps traditionally imbibed with rotted shark meat.

As we finished the meal, two attendees brought out a wooden chest and a hula-hoop wrapped in decorative tape. Bill explained Nordic reverence for rings and oaths taken on them and held the hoop out between us to grasp in unison. With our hands locked in place he convened Hurstwic’s bi-yearly meeting of associates. We talked as much about the blessings native Icelanders sent us from their ancestors as we did the groups P.R. and marketing.

With talk of business done, Bill conveyed the day’s prizes: Icelandic licorice candies, certificates, and stones. In Iceland, Matt had told me, the locals protected even their smallest stones. They were a part of cultural history, the spirit of the land.

“Rocks don’t grow back,” he had told me.

But now Bill awarded stones from famous sites of the sagas to a number of the games’ participants, and somehow even I’d made the cut. He handed me one the shape of a rounded triangle he said came from the site of knattleikur in the saga of Gísli Súrsson. I told him it was going on my mantle.

We concluded the meeting, and Bill insisted we leave our dishes and take any leftover beer and skyr, yogurt still made from Nordic bacterial cultures and once used to extinguish fires. He gave out books that he and a colleague were ready to pass on. Matt and I were keen on his offers and last to leave. As we toted paper bags of our spoils back to his SUV, I carried my stone in my shirt pocket. We set course for home with a vessel full of weapons, bodies pleased by the ache of exhaustion, and a piece of Iceland’s soul resting over my chest.


Table for Four

by Sarah Eisner

We don’t always eat together—a necessary downside to our dual entrepreneur, Silicon Valley household—but we try to often, and tonight we do. We eat in the faded drape of winter evening light, all of us returned to each other from our busy days, at the dinner table. We eat in the same seats as always: ten-year-old Wilson across from me, eight-year-old Ben across from my husband, Noah.

Wilson is eating oiled broccoli with his fingers. Noah wipes his hands on a paper towel and says, “Hey buddy, use your fork please.”

Wilson is mid-chew, and Ben giggles and says to his dad, “You didn’t.” Ben is jolly, and right—we all love to eat with our hands. We take an irrational pride in not being formal, and we don’t dine so much as heartily consume.

Noah picks up his fork and spears a floret. “You got me,” he smiles at Ben.

“Hey,” Wilson says. “Let’s play thumbs up, thumbs down.”

We nod and Wilson starts. “Soccer,” he says. Our thumbs go up. We’re all on teams. Noah and I play in the co-ed adult league, our version of church, on Sundays.

“Donuts,” Ben says. He often dreams about chocolate glazed. I like apple fritters and the other two just eat plain.

Technically, it’s Noah’s turn next, but Wilson interjects.

“Divorce,” he says.

I look at Wilson across the table, surprised, though maybe I shouldn’t be, while getting my thumb in a low down position.

***

Until I was twelve, my family ate dinner together. I don’t mean usually, or on most weeknights. I mean every night. In our suburban family room in Concord, California, we sat in the same seats—Rick across from Mom, and Dad across from me.

With a classical music record on low and the TV off, we ate slowly, with our utensils, and we discussed our days as we listened to each other, just like studies—not yet conducted—now recommend.

Dad got home from San Francisco every night at five-thirty. At six o’clock, give or take five minutes, Mom would call Rick and me to the table by clanging her oversized, festive wall-mounted dinner bell, though our little house hardly called for such fanfare. We were usually just a few feet away doing homework or playing Chinese Checkers. Once seated we were not, under any circumstances—aside from the threat of death, destruction, or bladder emergencies—to get up, especially not to answer the telephone. That was fine with me, until boys started calling in junior high. I loved dinnertime and moved toward it like a sanctuary throughout my days.

The only part I didn’t like was saying grace. At six-o-five-ish, we held hands around the table, four voices together, and said thank you God for our food, Amen. I had no use for the flimsy promises of church or God and Jesus. I had faith in dinnertime, and the reliable calm of Rick, Mom, and especially Dad.

Every night we sat at the monumental oak table Dad had restored from a cast-off Boeing office desk, once used for blueprints of warplanes, jets, and cruise missiles. The surface was smooth enough to bowl on. Its deep drawers now held decks of cards. In California, earthquakes came, and the table sheltered us, Dad leading us with controlled urgency to duck, cover and hold on beneath our breaded veal cutlets and his single nightly Anchor Steam beer.

Then one September evening in 1986 after a dinner I don’t remember, the earth didn’t move, but Mom told us Dad was going to.

“We love you both very much,” she said, somber but composed, “but your dad and I have decided to get a divorce.”

Dad didn’t say a word. I suspect he couldn’t. He bowed his head and brought his white cotton handkerchief to his eyes. We’d given it to him, Rick and I, for Christmas.

I looked at Rick. Rick looked at Mom. “Can I go to Craig’s now?” Rick asked.

Mom told him to be home in an hour. She understood the disorientation, his nine-year-old desperation to escape. I sat there a bit longer, watching Dad try to lower the handkerchief, breathe, and raise it again, but Rick’s anxious exit marked the last time we all four sat at that table together. It’s the last thing I remember until I watched Dad labor to heft the table—that amber altar of my childhood—into a U-Haul six days later.

My dad’s wedding gift to us was the worn, oatmeal-crusted table we sit at now. I plan to keep it always.

***

“So,” Wilson says. “You and Dad won’t divorce, right?”

I don’t think Wilson is overly worried about Noah and me. But, with Noah’s divorced and remarried side too, Wilson has eight grandparents. He has three close friends that split their weeks even-steven, and not always amicably, between Mom and Dad. Over the years he has asked me questions: “Did Grandma ever love Grandpa?” and, “Does Ethan’s mom hate his dad, now that they’re divorced?” And I wonder how often he imagines what he could lose.

I’m not overly worried. My relationship with Noah is good. We are devoted to each other, our kids, and also to our soul-crushing business affairs. Our love and care for our startups, our employees, and to some extent our investors, is intense and heady. What makes us solid is that we have our own lives while loving one another without omission.

We’ll be mulling around making peanut butter and jelly for school lunches—I assemble, Noah cleans up—and he’ll say to me in front of the kids, “It’s amazing how many cities you’ve launched,” or to the kids in front of me, “Boys, Mom’s in the news again.” And I will pull him into my chest and promise myself to make more than five minutes to lay with him that night.

But lately, in what has seemed like a series of small misfortunes I couldn’t control, it’s become clear that I will lose my company. Now that it’s in jeopardy, I’m surprised to find myself wondering about the permanence of everything else. When my business fails—when I lose one of the routine mirrors I rely on to see myself—what else might I lose?

“Right Mom?” Ben says. He smiles at me, raises his eyebrows.

I reach across my near-empty dinner plate to rearrange the decaying nectarines in the bowl at the center of the table and look at Noah. He crosses his eyes at me and sticks out his tongue.

“Nope,” he says. “No divorce for us.”

“No,” I say. And I mean it.

While I don’t say it, I also mean “probably not,” and “I will work hard to prevent it.” Because a parent cannot say to a child: “We are a family. Husband, wife, brother, sister. This is our home. We live together, love each other, and we are forever. Thank you God for our food Amen.” Then say: “Actually, no. We are not a family. Ex-husband, ex-wife, part-time son and part-time daughter. Together, we have no home, Mom and Dad don’t love each other, and we will take turns with you. Let’s eat at the counter.” Or, a parent can say these things. Mine had. When they did, they taught me things about permanence and faith.

They taught me that the spoil of a marriage can be a gradual mellowing, a plum that goes soft inside before the bruise appears on the surface. It can sit protected in the silver coiled fruit basket for days before the small flies circle and one or the other of you finally reaches over, feels the rot, and says oh! And in this knowledge I am lucky, even thankful for what I gained, by the breaking of my home.


On the Porch

by Nadia Owusu

Five years ago, all members of my extended family who could arrange time away from work and school flew to Ghana in order to attend my grandmother’s seventy-fifth birthday. I was the last to arrive because I was defending my graduate school thesis in New York three days before the party. This meant that I would journey from the capital, Accra, to Kumasi on my own.

I chose the leather-seated bus with a very large Lamborghini logo spray painted on the back of it, along with the inscription, “Dolce Vita”. My other choices were “King of Krunk” and “Let Jesus Return Magnified”, both with Ferrari logos. I was much too tired from my day-long flight to reckon with Lil John or the Second Coming.

The man taking tickets eyed me and my yoga mat.

“Where are you going?”

“Kumasi.”

“What are you going to Kumasi for?”

 “I’m going to visit my Grandparents.”

“Are you a Ghanaian?” he asked, squinting at me.

The woman behind me, baby tethered to her chest, sucked air through her teeth at this inessential exchange.

“Why are we standing here?” she asked.

“Yes, I am,” I replied, maneuvering past him and onto the bus.

I was weary of this constant questioning, in ways subtle and aggressive, of my claims on this country, this continent, this place where I was born and raised. In America, drunk guys in bars—made expert by tequila and entitlement—would vigorously argue with me that there was no way that I was really African. I didn’t look it. My English was too good. In Ghana, I was treated like a tourist by strangers and like an esteemed guest from another world by my family.

Yes, Armenia and Turkey are responsible for the shape of my eyes and the bump of my nose; and America has occupied my voice. But with my first breath, I pulled Africa into my lungs. Its spirit dissolved in my blood and sparked my heartbeat.

On the bus, I sat next to an elderly woman with kind eyes who was devouring a bag of kelewele. She offered me some and I accepted. Grandma always served kelewele to the steady stream of people who stopped by to say hello as she held court on her front porch.

This is my granddaughter,” she pronounced to her guests during my last visit to Ghana. “Charles’s daughter.”

Everyone nodded as though it had all been settled, then. My father had gone to America and the result was Grandma’s new house with marble floors and central air and this foreign looking daughter who couldn’t speak Twi.

I watched as the bustle of the capital was replaced by abundant green vegetation and red clay earth. I fell asleep and awoke in the hub bub of the market in Kumasi. Market women called out to potential customers, naming their wares.
Shoppers raised their voices in protest at prices that they deemed too high. Taxi drivers prowled for fares. A little boy rode through the market on his father’s shoulders, waving at everyone and laughing when they waved back. My father used to carry me through this market like that. As I hopped off the bus, it felt like coming home.

At the house, Grandma was on her porch arguing with the housegirl, Afua, who had forgotten to put a mosquito net in the room where I was to sleep. My Aunt Jane was sitting next to Grandma on a stool, pounding cassava to make the evening meal of fufu and groundnut soup.

“My granddaughter is not used to the mosquitos-oh,” Grandma said. “Do you want her to catch Malaria?”

I wanted to remind Grandma that I had already ‘caught’ Malaria twice. I wanted to tell her that I didn’t want a mosquito net. I didn’t want any special treatment. But my protests had never worked before, so I kept them to myself.

I kissed her on her cheek and squeezed her hand. I smiled in apology at poor, patient Afua.

“So, you have come to see your old grandmother. Your grandfather is asleep, but he will not remember you anyway.”

My grandfather had Alzheimer’s. Before he got sick, he would always call me by my Ghanaian name, Adjoa. Once, when we went to a hotel for lunch and the waiter wanted to know where I was from and what had brought me to Ghana, Grandpa looked at him as though that was the silliest question he had ever heard.

“She’s my granddaughter,” he said. “Can’t you see the resemblance?”

But, when I visited two years ago, Grandpa asked Grandma who this Ethiopian woman was who had moved into his house. My tawny colored skin and big-curled hair are common features of people from the Horn of Africa. I remembered the look on that waiter’s face. I forgave Grandpa the confusion.

“Are you thirsty?” Grandma asked, “I’m thirsty but Afua, useless girl, keeps forgetting to bring my drink.”

“Would you like some water, Ma?” asked Auntie Jane.

“Did I urinate in your bed? Why am I being punished?” Grandma bristled.

Auntie Jane looked confused.

“She wants a beer,” I explained. “When she says she’s thirsty, it means she wants a beer. I’ll get it. I could use one too.”

“Finally,” smiled Grandma, “a real Tuffour.”

Tuffour is her maiden name. It is also her highest compliment. She had never called me a Tuffour before—“American,” “sort of Arab,” her “precious half-caste granddaughter,” but never a Tuffour. Everyone chuckled at what was, to them, just typical Grandma. But I could barely contain my glee.

In the kitchen, I helped myself to a handful of kelewele. Then, two beers in hand, I went to claim my seat on the porch.


Nadia Owusu is a current student at Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. She is the winner of Assignment's 2016 Student Contest, and will have an essay featured in Assignment Issue #2: Warzone.

Letter from the (Web) Editor: Assignment's Winter Reading at The Old Court

During the past year, what I've noticed most in the writing submitted (accepted or not) to Assignment is the haunting presence of place-as-character in nearly every piece. We're still a small, local publication with traffic mostly in northeastern New England. Our contributors are primarily based out of the Massachusetts-New Hampshire area. We've had contributions written about the backyards of Manchester NH, the marinas of Newport RI, the barcrawled thoroughfares of the Merrimack Valley in central MA. In each piece, there's this overwhelming sense that the story's keystone character is not the narrator's consciousness, but the setting through which it travels. This is true for our first print issue as well: post-9/11 Manhattan (more specifically, a Portugese restaurant), the slums and suburbs of Pittsburgh, and the changing neighborhoods of Brooklyn dominate their respective stories.

Because of this, we had the idea to unite Assignment's Bay Area (Boston's Metrowest) writers for a small reading at someplace local. There, we'd celebrate some of the mag's Massachusetts-infused writing. I'm thrilled to report that myself, Online Only contributor David Moloney and good friend of the magazine Ted Flanagan will each read from some of our work on December 30, 2015 at 7:00PM at The Old Court (upstairs) in downtown Lowell, MA. The three of us are, also, either a current student or graduate of Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction, which most notably saw two of its faculty members nominated for 2015 National Book Awards. Assignment's editor and SNHU MFA's director, Benjamin Nugent, will moderate the event. Admission is free, but we'd love it if you'd buy a beverage from the bar to support the venue.

Whenever I'm at a reading, I'm reminded of the last lines of Ben Lerner's 2011 novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. It is my favorite paragraph in all of American literature (it's also my favorite novel). The story chronicles the various relationships and artistic misgivings of its protagonist, Adam Gordon, an American poet, during his time abroad in Madrid on a prestigious research fellowship. In the final scene, Adam is preparing to read some of his recently published poems to a large audience in a skylit art gallery owned by one of his peers. Earlier in the story, he read at this same gallery, but did so while battling a crippling episode of panic.

Much of the novel's conflict is anchored in Adam's anxiety, as well as his warped perception of himself and how others in turn perceive him. Each of these internal tensions is at times exacerbated and mitigated by the language barrier between he and his Spanish friends. He often leans on his inability to translate English thought into Spanish speech as a conversational exit strategy when things get awkward. It also functions as the excuse he uses to rationalize why he can neither communicate with nor understand the depths of the several Spanish-speaking lovers he takes during his tenure abroad. The concepts of both concrete and abstract translation--literal and figurative--thus factor heavily into Adam's character arc: he struggles to translate the inner workings of his soul into his physical self, into the physical moment, into his relationships with others, into thought, into speech, into English, Spanish etc.

One of Adam's friends/lovers, Teresa, spends a great deal of the novel translating the poetic contents of his notebook into a cohesive Spanish chapbook. She eventually uses the press at the art gallery to publish the finished product. It is, arguably, the grace with which Teresa shuttles between her Spanish and Adam's English--her world and his previously inaccessible internal one--that has ushered the novel to this conclusion. Teresa is at Adam's side in Atocha's final scene, as the two of them prepare to read to the audience at the release party for the chapbook. The last paragraph is only two lines:

'Teresa would read the originals and I would read the translations and the translations would become the originals as we read. Then I planned to live forever in a skylit room surrounded by my friends.'

In those penultimate moments before the reading begins, the barriers that once separated Adam from Teresa and his other Spanish-speaking peers shatter with absolute finality. Perhaps, too, this helps bridge the gap that disassociated Adam from himself. In that gallery, he experiences some form of self- and communal love, and so the novel ends.

Whenever I attend readings I am, without fail, transported to Adam's skylit room described here. It is (and readings are), above all, a place of profound and unfiltered community. And so at the end of Assignment's setting-heavy year, there's no other environment where I'd rather celebrate our publication and its supporters than at this reading, in that figurative skylit and eternal place.

We at Assignment hope to see you at The Old Court on Dec. 30. We'll be upstairs, in a barlit room, surrounded by our friends.

- Daniel Johnson

We would like to thank The Old Court for hosting us. If you’re attending, please be sure to buy a beer and tip the bartender.

Please contact Daniel Johnson,
Assignment's Web Editor, with any questions. For more details, refer to the event's Facebook page here.

Two National Book Award Nominations, and a New Novel

These first few weeks of autumn have brought some exciting news to Southern New Hampshire University's MFA faculty. First of all, we’d like to congratulate to our newest faculty member, Angela Flournoy, whose debut novel, ‘The Turner House,’ has been long-listed for the 2015 National Book Award in Fiction. Also our affiliate faculty member Sy Montgomery, whose book ‘The Soul of an Octopus’ has been long-listed for the award in nonfiction. Angela and Sy are each one of ten finalists for the award in their respective categories.

Angela has also been nominated for The National Book Foundation's Five Under Thirty-Five award.

We’d also like to congratulate Chinelo Okparanta on the launch of her highly anticipated debut novel, 'Under the Udala Trees,' which came out this past Tuesday. The novel chronicles the story of two girls who fall in love against the backdrop of the Nigerian civil war. Chinelo was born in Nigeria and lived there until she came to the United States when she was ten. The Wall Street Journal says the novel ‘draws on the Nigerian folk tales from her childhood, and her family history.’ Kirkus calls Chinelo’s voice 'masterful.’

Acclaimed novelist Taiye Selasi, author of ‘Ghana Must Go,’ writes: ‘Under the Udala Trees interrogates constructions of womanhood, of nationhood, and of sexuality. In these elegant folds of restrained prose lies a searing condemnation: of violence, religion and patriarchy in modern day Nigeria. Raw, emotionally intelligent and unflinchingly honest, Under the Udala Trees is a triumph.’ Selasi joined Chinelo at the book launch event on Wednesday, September 23rd at Housing Works Bookstore Café in New York City at 7PM.