On Amanda Goldblatt’s Hard Mouth

A gal with a sick dad and a lab assistant job leaves both to live (and possibly die) alone in the sort of off-grid cabin you need to be flown to. That’s the quickest summary I can give you of this book I loved a lot. It is not really an adventure book, and not at all a testament to the human spirit like you might expect from Wild or Into the Wild or Where the Wild Things Are. (Well, maybe that last one actually.) It’s a character study of somebody who sees her life wrong and feels (or pretends to feel) mostly untroubled by that.

The book’s big selling point is its sentences. I should say Amanda’s a good friend. I saw her read from this in Brooklyn when I was there seventeen years ago on this endless trip I’ve been on for seventeen years, and since August I’ve carried the book to Vermont and to Finland, and now here in Maine, where I just finished it. I kept emailing her about sentences I loved.

Flipping through at random, here’s an exemplary couple:

While walking I did idly wonder what animals I would find in the cabin, what disarray. It would be good, I thought, to confront the entropy. To embrace the surprise, to discover, to not know till.

Denise (our protag) is lyrically hypererudite, batting language about the way a cat does a mouse. That might be inaccurate. I just flipped through and saw “My temples hurt from squint,” and it’s probably more exemplary of her voice than the above. Note: not squinting. There’s like this pruning or honing that goes on throughout the book toward the kinds of constructions we all use casually, as though everyday language were shabby and unkempt and Denise wants to better capture her life and viewpoint not by dolling or gussying that language up, but by stripping and even malforming it into a way that makes us look more queerly as what we say and why.

It’s a pose and a mask, too. Language helps Denise focus on the how of her speech when the what of it might be too difficult.

Like I said, she exits her life for the woods. Perhaps the biggest gift Amanda’s novel gave me was getting to spent a lot of time with a woman on her own. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a novel where a woman departs on her own for the woods, and when I think about Women In The Woods, I feel like they traditionally fall into madonna-whore dichotomies of like a Linda-Hamiltonian Take-No-Shit prepper type on the one hand or a hubristic, silly trespassing horrorfilm victim on the other.

Denise, instead, is just a gal who commits to a stupid but important idea. She does her research on how to survive and does her best. She is strong and weak, shrewd and dumb, compassionate and cold. In her unreal voice she appears very real.

Plus there’s like these satisfying wisdoms she can voice in ways that make the unknown ring out as eternally true. Here’s a great ¶ that comes when she’s saying goodbye to the man who flew her to the cabin:

“Do you have headlights on that thing?” I asked. He laughed and said yes, that he’d get off and back fine, long as he didn’t have to land in the water, which he didn’t. What if I undid his overalls, I thought, though I didn’t move. We exist with sets of stories or lists: the ways we must feel during loss or solitude, the ways we must present the self to others, the ways we must act. But there are other and scarier ways to be.

One of my favorite things about Denise is how she’s horny, like a person is. Not horny like a frat dude or like a nymphomaniac (whatever that is). Her horniness is neither a comical trait nor a conflictual one. She just lets herself want sex and sometimes enjoy it and sometimes regret it. Like a person.

A nonpathological erotic mind is a pet concern these days, given what I’m writing about. Sex in non-pornographic art is more often terrible than good, and by “good” I mean It Helps Us See Sex For What It Is And Not What We’ve Been Told To Make It.

So chalk that up as the other great gift of Amanda’s book.

At any rate, you should buy this novel if you want an adventure story that’s always more human than an adventure story. Oh and it finds just the perfect image to end on. Really a treasure. Find it here.

The Gay Male Sleuth

I didn’t know he existed (Poirot being just Belgian) until I came across Drewey Wayne Gunn’s The Gay Male Sleuth in Print and Film in the reference section of the Mechanics’ Institute, where I’m now spending my days writing so’s to steer clear from campus during my sabbatical (or clear enough: I pass campus every day I step outside).

Here’s something worth noting from his opening essay on the GMS, about a specific novel he marks as the first appearance of the character type:

The novel incorporates two important patterns that would become hallmarks of the gay mystery. First, Tony [the sleuth in said novel], in the process of solving the mystery of his ex-lover’s [Julian’s] suicide, begins to understand more the nature of his own sexuality. […] Second, the novel is the prototype of the gay mystery as romance. As Tony uncovers the facts about Julian’s life since the time that they were lovers, he discovers the key to unlocking his own emotions. […] Thus, from the beginning, gay mysteries have willfully violated Chandler’s belief that a “[l]ove interest nearly always weakens a mystery story because it creates a type of suspense that is antagonistic … to the detective’s struggle to solve the problem.” For the gay detective, it’s complementary.

I’ve never taught mystery fiction, knowing nothing of how they’re put together, but I can imagine using that craft text of Chandler’s (“Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story”) and in a flash alienating any gay students I’d have and overlooking an entire subgenre of the genre.

And so suddenly this is a post about representation? But also it’s a post about queering forms. So happy I stumbled across this book that showed me yet another way gay artists bestrange and bedevil the forms they work in. For more on this idea, see this great essay by playwright Jeremy O. Harris.

On Abandoning A Book

I never used to do it, owing probably to something instilled in my PhD program: there’s always something to learn from this book you might not enjoy. But in the last year I’ve abandoned 4 books:

  • How to Grow Up, by Michelle Tea
  • Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, by Andrea Lawlor
  • A Brief History of 7 Killings, by Marlon James
  • My Struggle, Book 6, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The Tea book was, it gradually dawned on me, not written for a 40yo man with a job as a tenured professor. (Michelle Tea fans are now laughing at me, which laughter I accept.) The Lawlor book, about a shapeshifting queer kid living in Iowa City, was remarkable and did some incredible things with gender performance and story structure, but it was also about 80 percent “hanging out at bars” and I couldn’t get engaged in the book as anything other than a remarkable tour de force.

Same with the James novel. It won the Booker Prize, it was a queer writer, everyone who I told I was reading it raved about the book. It is a wonder of voice and character and point of view, a marvel, jaw-dropping at times in how well done it is, and though I gave it 200 pages, waiting for the story to kick into a forward momentum, it never did, or didn’t enough for this reader, and I set it aside.

I used to worry that if I didn’t like an award-winning book, or a book that the majority of my friends liked, there was something wrong with me. I asked myself if, by not finishing these books, if I was, at worst, racist or sexist or transphobic, or, at best, just stubborn about engaging with novels about people from different backgrounds than me.

Then I picked up the Knausgaard, having read gleefully through the first 5 volumes. That’s 2500 pages of reading time I devoted. Again: gleefully. I won’t get into why I loved the books so much, because the point here is that I couldn’t bear Volume 6, which deals mostly with the publication of the book’s first volume. I gave it 200 pages again, and once Karl Ove and his friend start talking about fascism and Hitler, I flipped forward and saw this was going to go on for a while, and I put it away.

Once, this would have been anathema to me. If I got 100 pages into a novel, I couldn’t bear not to finish it, just because of all the labor I’d put in. The idea of not completing this 6-volume novel now feels like a relief. Oh. I don’t have to read this if I don’t enjoy it. As much as I love books about ideas, I realized what I couldn’t bear this time was forcing myself to listen to two middle-aged men talk about Nazis.

Am I trying to get at a feeling I have that I know myself better than I used to? Surely I now find myself saying things like “That book wasn’t for me” more than “That’s not a good book,” which I used to say a lot. I no longer have the confidence to say what is and isn’t a good book, but I have more confidence to say what I like in a book, or what I need or am looking for.

It’s a kind of growing up.

What I’m reading now is Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh, and it is perfect. It’s a perfect novel that strangely has very little forward momentum, but what holds me close is this voice of her misanthropic protagonist, full of hope but bereft of motivation. She’s strong with desire and full of hatred toward, and sickness about, her body. I don’t know why she’s exactly what I need right now, I just know that she is. I’m so glad for this book’s landing in my life.

My Year of Queer Reading: Ari Banias’s Anybody

[Full disclosure: Ari teaches with me in the MFA Program at the University of San Francisco. He signed my copy of this book.]

“Mostly a name feels like the crappy overhang I huddle under / while rain skims the front of me.”

This is how one poem late in Ari’s debut collection starts, and I loved it because it’s so unlike how I feel. My name I did the good work to grow into, and any changes I made to it—going from David to Dave around 1992—I did because it felt faster, easier.

But such is the luck of being assigned at birth the gender I feel inside. From the position of the trans body Ari maps so movingly in this book, names mean more, and come packaged with more. “I admit it keeps me visible,” the above poem continues, “the agreement to call this that.”

I’m not a strong reader of poetry. It charges a part of my brain I don’t often exercise, a darker part perhaps that makes me feel uncomfortable. Perhaps this is why I was drawn to the darker corners of Ari’s poems. “The Feeling” starts with a red cloud that comes annually up the Aegean—Ari’s people are Greek—and “covers the buildings, the cars, / in a fine red film of dust from elsewhere.” But soon the poem shifts to the moon, and then to the incarcerated, and throughout the field of war on which nations play.

It’s an unstable place, and this is a book that felt drawn to, or driven to understand, unstable places:

I can say moon and tree and fox and river,
or me and you, or love and stutter,
but I can mean corporation I can mean police.
I can mean surveillance,
or that the moon is a prison, it is daytime,
and in daytime no one sees the moon.

The poem reads like an essay with images that arrest me, which is basically everything I ask a poem to be. “This is not our poem,” it ends. “The poem has been privatized. Its flag will be a red feeling.”

I also loved “Hog”, late in the book, which is a kind of bestial/motorcycle/leather fantasy that reminded me of Samuel R. Delany’s novel Hogg. Ari’s landscape here is blurred, or maybe tilled up is the better metaphor: “What’s a hog / but gleam of handlebars, leather, that roar speeding by. / The scared parts dressed up tough, saying / ah come on let’s go chop up the wind.”

“Narrative” might be the closest the book gets to a clear portrait of the young trans body before coming out, and it’s so good I want to just quote all of it, but instead I’ll point you to its initial publication in Verse Daily and quote this part I love the most. It’s one of my favorite images I’ve read all year:

In Illinois I tried to build a kind of Midwestern
girlhood that failed and failed
into the shape of a flute
I played only high notes on.

What else? Oh, what a joy it was to read this part from “Handshake”! I felt heard, understood. I felt like I could find the friends I need if only I could open up about the honest parts of myself I feel it would be better to keep inside, lest I scare off potential friends:

I know I'd prefer to misbehave
continuously. Any squirrel gets what I mean—anarchic revelry,
refusing to ever be still, such keenness.
They own no tree so they all own all of them.
I'd like to flick my tail too whenever I want as if to say WHAT.

But at any moment I'm wherever someone puts me—
then change my mind. I'll pick a side
when I need to

You can buy Anybody here.

My Year of Queer Reading: Nick White’s Sweet & Low

Nick is a dear friend. Fellow Nebraska alum (though later), fellow Sewanee alum (we were suitemates). You’re not going to get an objective review here of a collection that is gorgeous in its compassion, and in the compassion it made me feel for its characters.

Maybe it’s not compassion I want to write about, because the OAD has it as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others,” and that’s not what I felt reading these stories. But I don’t want to write about empathy because I’m bored of talking about empathy in fiction.

Let’s try this: Nick’s writing made me feel feelings toward made-up people I have a very hard time feeling in my waking day-to-day life.

I’ll start with his final story, and I think his best: “The Last of His Kind”. It’s about a family in Mississippi, a somewhat bare-bones family of son, dad, and grandmother. The inciting event is a woodpecker hammering away at the house at early hours, which bird turns out to be the last Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (hence the title). Family lore has it they’re under the spell of a Choctaw curse, and it’s the task of the son, Henry, task to try to rid them of it.

The story comes at the end of the book’s second section, which is a story cycle centered on the life of the dad, Forney, and much of its wonderfulness comes from Nick’s skillful way of tapping into the histories of these characters we’ve been dipping into over the past 100 pages. Many of the passages felt buoyed by the culmination of lives I’d seen so much of.

The wonderfulness also comes from the wide range Nick allows himself in the POV, dipping even into the woodpecker at times. Here’s a moment, for instance, I loved:

She turns the record over, and George Jones’s duet with Tammy Wynette, called “Golden Ring,” fills up the house. MeMaw sings over the Wynette parts, her voice and achy. She imagines the little bird inside her being nudged awake. She sings and sings, her throat opening. She pictures the bird clawing up her rib cage one curved bone at a time, then, seeing light, flitting out of her mouth hole and soaring away. Oh, to be a bird! To shed this wrinkly skin and become all feather and claw. Nearly reptilian.

The boy, becoming braver, swigs the beer. Some of it fizzes down his chin, and MeMaw roars with delight. He wipes his face and comes in close, his face inches from hers, his eyes large and brown.

“I thought birds fly south for the winter. Why don’t it fly south?”

MeMaw takes the boy’s face in her hands and kisses it. “Because, baby, we are the South.”

I loved “mouth hole”, but mostly I loved the simple grace here, and how much love emanates from the scene. It’s one of Nick’s gifts. He’s got a heart bigger than anyone’s, and a vocab more colorful than a Cezanne.

You can buy Sweet & Low here.

My Year of Queer Reading: Recommenced

Welcome back. I took some time off to redesign the website, and I want up front to thank Beth Sullivan for the outstanding (and very patient) work she did on it. You should hire her.

While things were under construction, I was keeping up with my year of queer reading. To catch you up, here’s the list since Humiliation:

  • Are You My Mother? – Alison Bechdel
  • Andy Warhol – Wayne Koestenbaum
  • Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – Audre Lorde
  • Caroline, or Change – Tony Kushner
  • Less – Andrew Sean Greer
  • The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir – Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
  • How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays – Alexander Chee
  • Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl – Carrie Brownstein
  • Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl – Andrew Lawlor
  • Abandon Me: Memoirs – Melissa Febos

I’m also a slow reader. Expect a post or two about these once I’m back from the NonfictioNow conference. I’m happy and relieved to have this space back to work out ideas about books and queers and teaching and guitar tabs and whatever messes I get into.