516PPi-kpBLOne of my writing teachers said that readers of fiction secretly like to read about process, any kind of process — the process of cross-examining a witness or landing a plane or making cupcakes. When a process is well-described, with expertise, and an integral role in the story, readers love it, because they feel they are learning something along the way.

Butcher’s Crossing puts this idea to the test with big swathes of the book dedicated to process — but what a heart-rending and utterly American process it is, of the destruction of the great buffalo herds. The novel describes in meticulous detail the processes of boundless slaughter and skinning and sale, but also of how to keep oxen moving when they are dying of thirst, and of how to survive a winter when snowbound in the high country of the Rockies. (Another way of putting this is, as the Guardian says, “this book very nicely fits into the contemporary vogue for survival-manual entertainment as exemplified by films such as Gravity and All Is Lost.”)

The writing flows clear and elegant:

Without waiting for a reply, he turned again and walked toward the spring that trickled down some seventy-five yards beyond their camp. At the spring he removed his shirt; the blood from the buffalo was beginning to stiffen on his undershirt. As quickly as he could, he removed the rest of his clothing and stood in the late afternoon shadow, shivering in the cool air. From his chest to below his navel was the brownish red stain of buffalo blood; and in removing his clothing, his arms and hands had brushed against other parts of his body so that they was blotched with stains hued from a pale vermilion to a deep brownish crimson. He thrust his hands into the icy pool formed by the spring. The cold water clotted the blood, and for a moment he feared thathe could not remove it from his skin. Then it floated away in solid tendrils…

Another quote:

The horse was reluctant to go in; it advanced a few steps into the graveled bed of a shallow eddy and halted, lifting its feet, one by one, and shaking them delicately just above the surface. Miller patted the animal on its shoulder, and ran his fingers through its mane, leaning forward to speak soothingly in its ear. The horse went forward; the water flowed and parted whitely around its fetlocks, and as it advanced the water rose upward, until it flowed around the shanks and then around the knees. Miller led the horse in a zigzag path across the river; when it slipped on the smooth underwater rocks, Miller let it stand still for a moment and soothed it with small pats, speaking softly. In the middle of the river, the water rose above Miller’s stirruped feet and submerged the belly of the horse, parting on its shoulder and though. Very slowly, Miller zigzagged to shallower water; in a few minutes, he was across the river and on dry land. He waved, and the pushed his horse back into the water, zigzagging again so that the lines of his return intersected the lines of his going.

The novel is also a coming of age story for a young Easterner, Will Andrews, who has traveled west to find himself and his place in the world. He falls in with a crew of marvelous characters, especially the hunter Miller — we watch, horrified, as Miller obsessively works to destroy the creatures that form the core of the world that he loves. It is a great novel, a national tragedy of the commons dramatized as individual catastrophe.

Butcher’s Crossing was published in 1960. The author, John Williams, is probably best known for his novel Stoner. (Which isn’t about what you think it’s about if all you know is the title. It is the story of an academic, William Stoner and his life of quiet desperation — not a promising premise for a novel, but so beautifully wrought that writers have been recommending to one another for years, and it became a surprise best seller in Europe last year. I liked Stoner, but I liked Butcher’s Crossing even more.) Williams’s novel Augustus won the 1973 National Book Award.

Things it is like:

The NYRB edition of Butcher’s Crossing includes an introduction by Michelle Latiolais that describes Butcher’s Crossing as one of a trio of great demythologizing Westerns, alongside Blood Meridian and Warlock. (Whether Butcher’s Crossing is properly considered a “Western” when it doesn’t include cowboys or shootouts is a debate left to the reader.) All three are great books.

Warlock

Things it is not like:

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Fun fact:

Butcher’s Crossing describes how the large-scale slaughter and sale of buffalo hides was driven by an Eastern fad for buffalo robes. One character comments, “Why they wanted them in the first place, I don’t know; you never can really get the stink out of them.”

That sound you hear is the Earth Bull:

There was a mighty crashing and roaring, shrieking voices, crashing wood. My fingers grasped an edge of paving that worked to and fro like a living thing; I was rocked and tossed about as the strong-laid floor of Daidalos broke like water and surged in waves. And deep below, the Earth Bull boomed and bellowed, louder than the shouts of terror, louder than the thunder of falling column and floor and wall.

93941Published in 1958, The King Must Die is a version of the Theseus myth, cast as realist historical fiction. You might recall that Theseus is the guy who killed the minotaur in the labyrinth in Crete. He is also known for unifying many kingdoms under the rule of Athens.

This is a wonderful book, and I hope you will go read it. I can’t speak to its historical accuracy, but it feels well researched and deeply imagined. There are no monsters or sandaled gods, but Renault presents villains who might have turned into monsters as stories are retold, and Theseus is continually considering which gods he should honor or fear in a given situation. He also believes he can hear the voice of Neptune in a profound way, not unlike a Christian might hear the voice of God from time to time.

Renault recasts the minotaur’s labyrinth as a grand palace where youth from kingdoms subservient to Crete train to “bull dance,” which is a little like bull fighting, but without any weapons, and also involving attempting to leap onto the bull’s back. No one lives long doing this. The novel beautifully develops a subcultural world of bull dancers and their training and prejudices and squabbles.

Theseus, in the novel, is a credible, fascinating character, a natural leader who finds himself in impossible situations and then sets his mind to finding the opportunities and alliances that will help him to escape. He is fearless, but in the mode of the mystic who is willing to put his life in the hands of his god. At moments when Theseus explains how he learned certain lessons, he sounds delightfully like he is writing an ancient Greek guide to leadership.

As presented in the novel, some of the kingdoms around Athens adhered to Earth Mother religions in which a man was made king for only a limited time, perhaps a year, after which he would be killed. Even in kingdoms that had moved away from the Earth Mother, it was expected that a king should sacrifice his life when he knew the time to do so had come. Hence, the title. (And, indeed, several kings perish violently in the course of the novel.)

If you do pick up the book, be warned: the first chapter is the weakest material in the book, laboring too hard to plant events in Theseus’s youth to explain his character. But then Theseus leaves home, begins his adventures, and the book lifts off.

Things it is like: The Long ShipsD’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.

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Things it is not like: The Virgin’s Lustful Breeding by the Minotaur, maple blueberry scones, a St. Patrick’s Day wookie.

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Bonus fact: Word origin — a “clue” was a ball of thread, such as Theseus used to find his way out of the minotaur’s labyrinth.

photoSea Creatures is Susanna Daniel’s second novel, and it has been called “a gorgeous story that spans the full experiential spectrum of romantic and parental love, artistic impulse, betrayal, sacrifice, and redemption.” And it has been described as “a rich, languid read. When you’re done savoring the last page, you too will want to take a dip in warm salty water, lie in the sun, and ponder the care you give your loved ones and the limits of your own safe harbor.” I would add that it is a book that struck me as unusually fearless and rich with wisdom and complicated humanity.

It is the story of a Georgia Quinllian and her family, who move to Miami, fleeing an awkward, job-destroying scandal. Her husband has a frightening sleep disorder, her three-year-old refuses to speak, and then Georgia takes job running errands for a remarkable artist who lives in Stiltsville, a small collection of houses raised on stilts the middle of the ocean.

Susanna Daniel’s first novel, Stiltsville, was awarded the PEN/Bingham prize for best debut work published in 2010. Sea Creatures, was named an Amazon Editors’ Top Pick. Her writing has been published in NewsweekSlateOne StoryEpoch, and elsewhere. She is a co-founder of the Madison Writers’ Studio.

The interview below is three questions long, and each question is intended to be answerable with a photograph or other image, and a brief explanation. Rights to all images are held by Susanna Daniel.

Nick: Sea Creatures contains so many wonderful images of places and things, I almost don’t know where to begin — the houseboat where Georgia and her family live, Miami’s canals and the suburban houses and flora, the ocean, Charlie’s art, the hurricane that finally upends everyone’s lives… Can you share any images that inspired your portrayal of any of those things?

Susanna:

imagistic_1a

imagistic_1bI took a friend’s boat down the Coral Gables canal when I was in the early stages of writing this book. So many of my shots look like they could have been taken in the 1950s. This is something about Miami — some pockets, including a lot of the canals, are frozen in time.

Nick: The quandaries and subtle paradoxes of parenthood are wonderfully portrayed in Sea Creatures. One of the things I admired is the way it conveys the obsessive, claustrophobic paranoia involved in parenting a very young child — the anxieties, but also the way that every event and every question is pressed into that peculiar, merciless filter — is this the right thing for my child? For Georgia, it makes it difficult to think at all about the future, and even the pre-child past seems faraway, foreign. Any images that you associate with Georgia’s perspective on parenthood?

Susanna:

imagistic_2a

imagistic_2b

imagistic_2c

imagistic_2dI’m struck by this photo of Stiltsville from the 1970s. Look at the upstairs porch, at the dock: there’s almost no true barrier. For a Stiltsville kid in the 1970s, the only way to stay safe was to be a strong swimmer. How would I parent at Stiltsville today? I have no idea.

Nick: In both of your novels, Stiltsville (which was a real place) features prominently. It seems magical in both books, but the magic feels a different this time. In your previous book, Stiltsville was a place of family and nostalgia. But in Sea Creatures, it’s a hermit’s place, isolate, strange, a little ominous. Do you have some pictures of Stiltsville you can share? Do any of them capture the feel of the place as you imagined it while writing Sea Creatures?

Susanna:

imagistic_3a

imagistic_3bWhen writing both books, I thought a lot about the particular loneliness one feels when one is on an island, even if one is not alone. Looking at the ocean is like looking up at the night sky — it reduces you.

See also our previous Imagistic Interviews with Antoine Wilson and Laird Hunt.

Follow Susanna on Twitter.

Follow me on Twitter.

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This book, which came out in 2008, never got the attention it deserves. I read it awhile ago, and recently I came back to it, and I found myself moved by it all over again. It is beautifully written, wise, and highly original. It draws its inspiration from Moby Dick, and so perhaps readers assume that one needs to be a scholar of Moby Dick to get into this book. I will tell you that is not so. Even if you’ve never read Moby Dick, you will find much to love in this book (although it may well make you want to go read Moby Dick).

It is a difficult book to describe, and I fear that attempting to do so will only reduce it. But, generally, it takes as its form the “cetological dictionary” that Ishmael begins in Moby Dick. A Whaler’s Dictionary is organized into sections under a variety of headings, such as “Omen,” “Line,” and “Hands.” Each section is a sort of short, lyric essay, defining its subject heading with inspiration from Moby Dick. The book actively encourages you to read it non-linearly. Each entry ends with a short list of other, tangentially related entries that you might want to read next.

But what makes the book work is the quality of the writing. The excerpt below is from the section on “Faith,” which examines and expands on the chapter in Moby Dick in which Mapple delivers a sermon about Jonah and the whale:

Before Mapple begins his sermon on Jonah, he kneels “in the pulpit’s bows” and offers “a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed to be kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.” Such is the impossible difficulty genuine faith demands. As Mapple soon says, “all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do.” That difficulty, as this “pilot-prophet” puts it before us, is to pray in two locations at once, from the prow of the ship rolling on the ocean’s surface and from the still, silent, dark depths of the ocean. Mapple’s actions, the manifestation of his faith, suggest that when we send our prayers heavenward from surface to sky, we mistake the abysmal depths our faith must first cross. When we pray we must kneel on the ocean’s bed and look upward toward that heaven that is but the limit of the water in which we’ve already drowned. Then there is the sky to cross, and then infinity. Our faith exists, if faith can be said to “exist,” as a plumb line extending from the surface to our bottommost life. Faith does not measure height but sounds down into depths. A prayer is but a vibration along faith’s taut plumb line, so that the self on the surface knows when the self in depth is kneeling down to speak upward, and so returns voice to the vibration. There is no heaven for us but the deep.

Things it is like: The works of W. G. Sebald and Geoff Dyer. A neural network.

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Things it is not like: Non-dairy creamer.

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Goodnight room

Goodnight moon

Good night rangy slatribbed cattle with horns that grew agoggle

Goodnight light

And the red waters hacking aimlessly at the dead

Goodnight bears, and lions turned loose in pits to fight wild bulls to the death

Goodnight chairs, and the tables with the fresh splinters blown out of the wood and the mud walls pocked everywhere by the big conical bullets

Goodnight kittens

And goodnight mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue

Goodnight clocks

And goodnight socks

Goodnight little house where women inside were wailing and the little hearsecart stood at the door

And goodnight mouse

Goodnight comb

And goodnight brush

Goodnight nobody to take him to raise

Goodnight mush

And goodnight to the old lady, that is what I said. Goat

whispering “hush”

Goodnight stars and quartermoons and other insignia of a provenance unknown

Goodnight air

Goodnight noise, must have caught the idiot’s attention for he turned his dead black eyes upon it

(With apologies to Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Wise Brown.)

(Special thanks to Caille Millner for suggesting it.)

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At 32nd and Sheridan, Denver.

Kind One, Laird Hunt’s most recent novel, has received gaudy reviews from many quarters (e.g., “Profoundly imaginative, strikingly original, deeply moving.” Kirkus, starred review; “Laird Hunt’s Kind One is a mesmerizing novel of sin and expiation that plumbs the depths of human depravity and despair, yet hints at the possibility of redemption . . . [O]ne that will resonate long after you turn its last page.”Minneapolis Star Tribune), and it was a Pen/Faulkner finalist and won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. I admired it greatly myself. Kind One deftly interweaves multiple time periods and points of view, but it all revolves around the story of Ginny, a white woman, who marries a cruel slave master. When he dies, the roles of master and slave become distorted, with consequences that reverberate long afterward.

Laird Hunt is the author of six books, including a short story collection and five novels. He teaches creative writing at the University of Denver.

The interview below is three questions long (+1, in this case), and each question is intended to be answerable with a photograph or other image. The photos and video (including the video of a video of a film) below are by Laird Hunt, and all rights are held by him. Laird told me, “I’ve been snapping photos with a little more attentiveness for a few years now. Some with a digital camera and some with a pinhole. I just got a holga plastic lens camera too although 120 film is expensive to buy and get developed!”

Nick: Is there an image you had in mind when you started Kind One?

Laird:

Doorway 1

Doorway 2

Doorway 3

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(Doorless doorways, windowless windows, dark beyond.)

Nick: The writing throughout the book is beautiful, but I was  particularly struck by the voice of Ginny — the poetry of her language, and also the peculiarities of what she choses to tell and what she choses to elide. Is there an image that captures something of your idea of her character and how she thinks and writes?

Laird:

Laird Reflect Footage

Stalker Footage

(She is coming closer, ever closer, then far again.)

Nick: It seems to me that one of the things Kind One is about is the way that certain events can carry forward in place and character through time. This theme brings to the book a ghostly quality and, often, an unsettling feeling. Any images that you associate with this aspect of the book?

Laird:

Tree

Barn

Cemetery

(Dead tree, wall of light, Indiana cemetery haunted by itself.)

Nick: And I’d like to add a bonus imagistic question: I love the handful of black and white photographs that are included toward the end of the book. They reminded me of W.G. Sebald, of course, but also Wright Morris’s The Home Place. Where did the photos come from?

Laird:

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(Sharan SQ-35 Pinhole on 35mm.)

See also our previous visual interview: Antoine Wilson and Panorama City.

Follow Laird Hunt on Twitter.

Follow me on Twitter.

(Cross-posted.)

checkpoint charlie berlin 1996

I took the photo above in 1996 in Berlin. The location is Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous of the guardhouses that monitored crossings between East and West Berlin. The sign in the foreground was a warning that stood in front of the checkpoint. In 1996, Checkpoint Charlie was slated for demolition so that the site could be redeveloped. Artist John Powers obtained permission to place a large, gold-painted replica of the Statue of Liberty on top of the checkpoint and leave it there for a few months before it would be scraped. He named the piece Checkpoint Liberty.

The Berlin Wall had come down seven years earlier, and now only a couple of short sections of wall remained standing. Half of Berlin had been turned into a vast, extraordinary construction project; looking east, construction cranes towered everywhere across the horizon. A friend told me, “It feels like I’ll go to sleep, and in the morning I’ll come out and find that all the streets around me have been rearranged overnight.”

Below are a couple more photos I took during that visit.

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brandenberg gate 1996

silence

Christian missionaries to 17th century Japan moved in that gray area between bravery and foolhardiness. Early efforts at conversion in Japan had been remarkably successful, leading to colleges, seminaries, hospitals, churches, and a Christian community of about 300,000 people. But by the 17th century, the rulers of Japan had turned against the new religion. The European missionaries were ordered out, many Christians were martyred, and other were tortured until they apostatized.

This is the scene that Endo explores in Silence, published in 1966.

Father Rodrigues, the protagonist of Endo’s novel, is a Portuguese Jesuit who sneaks into Japan, to service the underground Christian community, and to seek news of another Jesuit, Ferreira, who is rumored to have renounced his faith under torture. Rodrigues knew Ferriera as a mentor and cannot believe that the rumors are true.

The tools of fear and torture that the authorities deploy against the Christians are terrible and relentless, and things do not go well for Rodrigues. I read with a sunken heart and the feeling that I could see where things were going while the net closed around Rodrigues and the authorities took him into their power. I did not enjoy this dismal predictability, and I found the sketch of Rodrigues’ character to be thin. He wavers between hopefulness and despair in a believable way, and his increasing despair at God’s silence in the face of tragedy is credible enough, but beyond this there isn’t much to give the man shape.

And yet…I found all of that to be redeemed in the last quarter of the book. Things go much as I would have expected — there is no escape for Rodrigues — and yet the shape of the final dilemma and resolution surprised me. Christ finally breaks the silence to Rodrigues, and in a way that turns out to be worse than the silence. And change that is wrought in Rodrigues’ character is terrible and magnificent.

Things it is like: One of those salsas that don’t taste like much at first, and then punch you in the face. The questions that Silence examines around the nature of God’s presence or absence that are also explored in Barrabas, by Par Lagerkvist, which I wrote about here. The subject of Catholic missionaries in a hostile land is also the core of The Voyage of the Short Serpent, by Bernard du Boucheron (which I also wrote about), although Endo’s feel for and handling of the subject is much more intimate.

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Things it is not like: A lollipop. The potential apostasy of Christian children due to the occult conditioning of Pokemon.

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Antoine Wilson’s recent novel Panorama City earned terrific reviews from the New York Times (“A bracingly humane story whose narrator’s wisdom and forbearance make you see the world afresh”), Vanity FairLA Review of Books, and lots of other places. Panorama City is narrated by a young man, Oppen Porter, into a series of cassette tapes as he lies in a hospital bed, where he believes he will soon die. Into the tapes he speaks to his unborn child, and he tells of his travels in Panorama City (a neighborhood of Los Angeles) and his quest to become a “man of the world.” It’s a wonderful book.

Wilson is also a gifted photographer, with a book of photographs to his credit (The Slow Paparazzo, Ice Plant Press), which made him the perfect writer to ask to try an experiment I’m calling (until I think of a better name) the Imagistic Interviews.

The interview is three questions long, and each question is intended to be answerable with a photograph or other image, and a brief explanation. Rights to all images below belong to Antoine Wilson.

Nick: Panorama City is a book of many delights, but I felt that the most delightful delight was the voice of Oppen Porter. The voice arises partly from the peculiar nature of Oppen’s mind, his openness, his logic, and his curiosity, as well as the fact that he’s speaking to his unborn child. It’s genuinely unique and original, and I wondered if there is an image that captures your idea of that voice?

Antoine:

Image

A couple of years into writing the book, my father died. My aunt (not-Liz-like) posted this image on his memorial page. It’s c. 1930, probably Hull, Quebec. My father and his father, looking an awful lot like myself and my son. The moment I saw it, it unlocked a whole lot of emotion inside me, vis-a-vis my father. I had never truly imagined him possessing the innocence of a child. This image ended up becoming an enormous inspiration for the grandfather-father-son dynamic in the book. Never before had I felt so much like a link in the human chain.

Nick: Is there a picture that captures your vision of the curious quest that Oppen sets himself, to become “a man of the world”?

Antoine:

Image

This image encapsulates for me the sort of vision Oppen has of himself when he sets out from Madera for the wide world of Panorama City. He’s a puzzle piece in search of his puzzle.

Nick: Panorama City is an actual place. It is the place where Oppen goes to learn to be a “man of the world,” his words. You have to give us a picture of the Panorama City of Panorama City.

Antoine:

Image

I love the way the reflection of the sun off the Merc’s wheel creates an old-school nimbus you’d expect to find above Jesus’ head in a painting. I call it a rimbus. To me, this image resides at the intersection of the sacred and profane–exactly where you’ll find the Panorama City of PANORAMA CITY.

Nick: (Btw, Antoine’s Twitter feed is one of the  one of the cleverest and funniest around. If you’re over there, check it out.)

(Cross-posted.)