30 May 2007


Best American Fantasy is the first book I've been completely involved in creating, and it's a book that's been very close to my heart, because I think Ann and Jeff chose a wonderfully diverse group of stories, and the three of us worked very hard to find those stories. Even though we'd love the book no matter what anybody else thought of it, and we know there will inevitably be people who don't much care for the selection, it's thrilling to see the work appreciated -- for instance, with this Publisher's Weekly starred review:
Best American Fantasy
Edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer.
Prime (www.primebooks.net), $14.95 paper (460p) ISBN 978-0-8095-6280-0

In a genre where yearly “best of” volumes often repeat one another, the first in Prime’s new annual fantasy anthology series is a breath of eclectic and delightfully innovative fresh air. While the VanderMeers have included such fantasy veterans as Kelly Link and Elizabeth Hand, most of the 29 stories are by nongenre authors as well as gifted newcomers. Among the more memorable tales are Tyler Smith’s “A Troop [sic] of Baboons,” about a troupe of unruly baboon thespians, and Tony D’Souza’s whimsical “The Man Who Married a Tree,” about a man in love with a birch tree. This outstanding entry in the crowded “best of” stakes may not be the most commercially successful fantasy anthology of the year, but genre and mainstream fiction fans alike will be pleasantly surprised by these unconventional short fiction gems. (July)

25 May 2007

Friday Giveaways

Update: And now it's all gone! Thanks to everybody who responded -- there were more responses than I had stuff. I'm sure there will be more in the future, though.

In the first of what may become a continuing series, I've got stuff to give away!

The Stuff:
  • Acacia by David Anthony Durham (Advance Reading Copy)
  • Boomsday by Christopher Buckley
  • Breakfast with the Ones You Love by Elliot Fintushel
  • Dark Mondays by Kage Baker (ARC)
  • The Music of Razors by Cameron Rogers (ARC)
  • The New York Review of Science Fiction issue #224, which includes a glossary by Michael Swanwick for Greer Gilman's Moonwise, a memoir of editing Galaxy by John J. Pierce, etc.
How to Get the Stuff: Send an email saying which of the stuff you want, ranked in order of priority (in case you can't have your first choice). Include your name and mailing address. Each of the stuffs will go to whoever 1.) asks for it first and 2.) includes their name and address. I will alert you by email if you will be receiving any of the stuff, and will update this post once all the stuff is gone.

24 May 2007

Zanzibar by Giles Foden

I first learned of Giles Foden's novel Zanzibar (a fictional recreation of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings) from an article in In These Times, where the book's inability to find a U.S. publisher was blamed on its subject matter:
U.S. publishers, however, were less than enthusiastic to take on a novel with a graphic depiction of a terrorist bombing and criticism of U.S. security and foreign policy. To this day, American readers can only find Zanzibar overseas or online. Knopf-Vintage Books, which published Foden’s two previous novels in the United States, hasn’t touched Zanzibar yet, though it is still reportedly considering it. For more than a year, Foden has been approaching several other publishers as well. As Foden explains it, one of them told him that "they just weren’t ready for this as entertainment yet." (In terms of how publishers value novels, that comment may say it all.)

"It’s not a question of censorship," continues Foden, who also works as the deputy books editor at the Guardian in London. "An orthodoxy just takes hold across the global media, and it’s like what Chomsky calls 'manufactured consent.' Some publishers are just too nervous to go against the orthodoxy on these hot issues."
I have a soft spot for controversial books, and so I sought this one out, and quickly found a copy of the British edition at the Dartmouth library. I held onto it for a while, but all my Dartmouth books are due back in a few days, so I read it this week, all set to be scandalized in some way or another.

Except the book is really rather tame. Yes, there are some criticisms of U.S. foreign policy expressed by generally sympathetic characters, but there's nothing that hasn't appeared in numerous books about terrorism, al-Qaeda, U.S. intelligence, etc., and very little that hasn't been said in some way or another in the pages of such radical rags as the New York Times. The portrait of a young man who becomes a terrorist is far less nuanced and disturbing than many others -- indeed, many characters in the book felt like less interesting, more stock versions of characters in Paul Bowles's 1955 Spider's House.

The idea that U.S. publishers wouldn't want to capitalize on the novel's sudden relevance after September 11 seems odd to me, too, because since when have major publishers been so sensitive? That's not to say I think Foden is lying when he says nobody wanted to touch it, but that I suspect either he didn't try very many publishers, or there are other reasons for why they didn't want to publish Zanzibar.

Though not the scandalous novel I'd hoped for, Zanzibar is well worth reading if political thrillers are to your taste, though for readers interested in neither the ins and outs of international intelligence operations nor marine biology, it's likely to be an awful bore. Foden's style is expository and reportorial, though some of his descriptions of landscape reach toward the lyrical. Landscape and physical environment are what he does best, in fact -- his characters are flat and cliched, but when he describes a place, the book comes alive. He is also very good with small details, small moments and gestures that feel particularly accurate or true.

The story involves four main characters -- a marine biologist who has gone to Zanzibar to work for USAID and find meaning in life; a grizzled, cynical old wise man who was once a leader of special operations for the CIA and now is a top advisor on the Arab world; a young man from Zanzibar who becomes a member of al-Qaeda; and a young woman diplomat working at the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam. Their lives, of course, end up intertwining (in, I thought, both generally predictable and mostly unconvincing ways). But the characters are simply tools of the plot, ways to convey different ideas and points of view -- they are the sorts of characters we find in 18th century novels of ideas: not characters so much as hooks to hang stuff on. I don't mind that, so long as the author doesn't seem deluded into thinking the characters have depth and substance, and unfortunately at some points Foden does seem to think he's creating vivid, interesting characters, and it is at those points when the novel feels like a slog. (Thankfully, I found skimming through those sections quite easy to do.)

I suppose the most relevant question to ask about Zanzibar is: Why bother? There are tons of nonfictional accounts of U.S. intelligence operations, analyses of foreign policy, chronicles of al-Qaeda, biographies of bin Laden... What good is a novel when the reality is itself so strange and complex? Sometimes, Zanzibar is not good at answering this question, but at its best it does what only fiction can do -- it lets us visit the minds of characters in the midst of actions, and it juxtaposes their thoughts and actions with those of other characters. It creates imaginative intimacy and encourages empathy. The characters may be pretty flat, but they aren't useless. We explore ideas of obsession and loyalty, we watch characters try to make meaning in a world of chaos, we see people try to figure out their mistakes, we see the effects of suffering on various types of men and women. It's hardly Dostoyevsky, but it's often effective and, yes, entertaining -- both intellectually engaging and suspenseful.

22 May 2007

And Now the News

Pardon a moment of personal news, but I have mentioned here that I was looking for a new job, and so I thought I would announce that I found one. I will be teaching in Paramus, New Jersey for the '07/08 school year (and hopefully beyond). I'm going to start looking for apartments immediately, probably in Hoboken or Jersey City or somewhere around there, and then will begin moving as soon as I can.

All of this will have some implications for The Mumpsimus, both in the short and long term. In the short term, expect some book give-aways and maybe even book sales (I really don't want to move thousands of books to NJ). Also, if you're a publisher or author, please don't send me anything until I have a new address (I'll send out one of those charming mass emails once I have said address). Blogging is likely to be typically erratic.

In the long term, this change should mean a lot more varied writing here. First, because I'm moving to a job that will, once I adjust to it, probably allow me a lot more time to read and write. This past year has been very difficult in terms of all the things that took over my schedule. (I haven't completed any new fiction, aside from a 400-word story, since I wrote "The Last Elegy", recently published in Logorrhea.) But once I get through the next couple months, life should be considerably different.

Also, because I'll be living just over the river from Manhattan, I hope to be able to write about more events here, particularly plays. There are a couple of big shows I hope to see, but mostly I'm looking forward to rediscovering what's been going on beyond the glitter of Broadway -- it's been ten years since I was last able to see much New York theatre, and I've missed it. I can only begin to imagine what sorts of changes are ahead.

In other news, Jeff VanderMeer has announced some great things about Best American Fantasy, which is now only a couple months away from being released...

19 May 2007

Double Transformation

Reginald Shepherd:
The poem performs a double transformation: translating feelings (in the sense of physical sensations) into feelings (in the sense of interior phenomena), and also vice versa (thought-feelings become sense-feelings, including the words themselves as sensory experiences). It turns conceptions and emotions into analogues of sensuous experience (by turning thoughts into images) and simultaneously turns both thoughts and images into, if not the intangible, then the not-quite-tangible: that is, into words, which can function as a shared medium precisely because they are not specific to individual sensations, while at the same time they are sources of sensation.

17 May 2007

Details of Representation

The question (problem? issue?) of how Third World countries get represented in First World fiction is one that has interested me for some time, mostly because I'm hyper-aware and perhaps hyper-sensitive to my own status as a First World reader.* My ideas about such representations have run quite a gamut over the years, and continue to shift and change almost daily.

Today, my thoughts returned again and again to Will Ludwigsen's story "Faraji" in the April/May Weird Tales. I read the story mostly because Paolo Bacigalupi had some good things to say about it, and I like Paolo and respect his intelligence. Also, I like the efforts of various people at Weird Tales to bring the magazine into the 21st century. So I was all primed to enjoy the story.

But I couldn't. There are good things about it, certainly, and I could see why it had been bought and published -- the pacing is deft, there's a very clear narrative voice, and the setting is exotic.

The setting is a prison in an unspecified African country, where an American journalist has been held for nearly a year after being captured by a group of rebels who killed his two companions. In prison, he meets a boy (Faraji) who experiences time as a complete entity, and is thus able to know his own future as well as the narrator's. Eventually, the U.S. gains a gung-ho president who decides to send the military into various Third World spots to "remind the Third World of America's superior will" and our narrator is rescued along with Faraji so that the two of them can, presumably, go off to live out their predicted (predestined?) lives and learn that deaths can lead to meaningful events for the living. Or something like that.

There is an attempt at moral complexity in this story that I respect. I wish more stories aimed as high. I really wish I felt this one succeeded in its ambitions.

The central failure of the story is in its representation of Africa. The story is set in the future, it seems, or at least an alternate present, because there is a "President Russell" in the U.S. By not naming the African country where the narrator is imprisoned, the story unfortunately plays off of "Dark Continent" stereotypes that set all of Africa up as a mysterious, primitive, and brutal Other. It could be argued that the narrator is someone for whom the continent is, indeed, that, but I think such an argument utterly misses the point. The point is: Why tell this particular story in this particular way at this particular time?

A better argument against my position is that of the realist. Are you saying (the realist might ask me) that we shouldn't write negatively about Africa? There are places in Africa that have experienced almost unfathomable brutality. There are places in Africa where journalists are imprisoned, tortured, killed. Why shouldn't a writer portray such things?

Of course writers should portray life as it is lived. Of course they should not shy away from the horrors -- the human capacity for brutality is infinite. It is not that a writer should not portray such things, but that such things should be portrayed with care.

To claim that a story in which a naive white journalist from the U.S. goes to an unspecified African country, stumbles into an area where he shouldn't go, watches two of his friends get murdered, and then is kidnapped and imprisoned in a horrible jail from which he escapes only via a deus ex America -- to claim that such a story is either just being realistic or, on the other hand, shouldn't be taken very seriously because it's just entertainment, is to ignore an awful lot of things. It is to ignore that the idea of a place called Africa is an idea fraught with stereotypes for many First World readers, readers for whom "Africa" is a place they see on the TV news whenever there is a particularly bad catastrophe. An idea that holds fascination for us because it posits a place full of horrors, a place that it isn't "civilized", a place that lets us feel particularly good about our own lives, our privileges and luxuries.

Africa in such a story is not a place at all, but an idea, and that idea is the same damn one that Conrad and so many lesser writers used. There is a difference between setting a story in "Africa" and setting it in a particular place at a particular time. There is a difference between using the idea of "Africa" as a prop for your plot and actually writing about Africa. I think those differences are vital, particularly when writing about places that have suffered so much stereotyping in First World readers' minds.

Obviously, Will Ludwigsen didn't want to write about a real place in Africa. (He wrote about real places in the U.S. -- here's just one sentence: "In May 1994, I graduated from the University of Florida College of Journalism with a head full of ideas about the role of the journalist in society.") If he didn't want to write about a real place in Africa, why use the continent at all, then? To show that liberal-minded middle-class white Americans need a dose of "reality"? That seems to be the general thrust of the plot. But this isn't a story about reality at all. It's a trite fantasy based on colonialist cliches that, for First World readers, lend an air of exoticism to the setting. Playing off of those cliches and indulging First World readers' conceptions of the exotic is something I think writers should be careful to avoid.

Why do I think this story's primary effects come from its setting, a setting built from unfortunately exoticizing ideas? First, because the story doesn't need to be set in "Africa" -- there is nothing inherently African (or "African") in the story. Second, because the plot device of a character who can see the future and uses this knowledge to help another character reach some sort of enlightenment is hardly original, so if the story possesses interest that interest must lie elsewhere. Third, because "Africa" is always a convenient setting for a tale of naive white people gaining knowledge, perspective, and new philosophies through difficult experiences, with their new knowledge, perspective, and philosophies often given by wondrous natives. Blecch. (Personally, I prefer Paul Bowles's tales of whites in Third World countries -- his white characters suffer and often die and don't really learn anything except how ignorant and misguided they are.)

I'm reluctant in my criticism, and trying to be as fair in my expression here as I can be, because I do want writers to reach beyond their own realms of experience, to stretch and strive and imagine. But doing so requires a lot of skill and a lot of empathy. And for all I know, maybe Will Ludwigsen -- about whom I know nothing -- is from somewhere in Africa or has lots of experience with certain places on the continent. It doesn't matter to me. What matters is the story itself, and what that story conveys. (It's perfectly possible for any one of us to write badly -- utilizing cliches and stereotypes -- about our own experiences and societies.) What matters is that this story should have been written with more care and thought, with more consideration for the details of representation.

Details are what doom "Faraji". The vagueness of the setting allows cliches and stereotypes to blossom. Bad writing is imprecise writing, and for all the skill Ludwigsen demonstrates with pacing, with voice, with narrative, he fails to demonstrate the most important skill that his story needs: precision. Specificity. Detail. The kind of specificity we get in so many good and great books about Africa written by people who know something about the place, especially African writers themselves, people for whom Africa is not an idea, but (now) a continent of nearly a billion people and more than 50 countries, a continent with diverse and rich histories, a continent with, yes, plenty of misery, but also plenty of beauty and wonder.

We First World readers need fiction about the relationship between the First World and the Third World. We need to read stories about First Worlders in the Third World and Third Worlders in the First. We need to write openly and honestly about histories of oppression, misunderstanding, misconception, suffering. We need to acknowledge the limits of good will, the deficiencies of naive liberalism, the failures of grand plans. We need to imagine and to empathize. But we need to do so with an acknowledgement that what we write is not written from or on a blank slate, and so we must write with tremendous care. We should remember the satirical warnings offered by Binyavanga Wainaina in "How to Write About Africa". We should consider carefully the ideas of Achebe and Ngugi and so many other Africans who have written and thought about what it means to write and think about Africa. We should aim for complexity, because a complex perspective is the only one that gives us any hope of getting away from the "Darkest Africa" cliches and toward more nuanced and supple perspectives -- representations that don't neglect the more powerful details, the details that most deeply affect how we construct the worlds of our imaginations and most powerfully influence the worlds of our everyday lives.

*Yes, I know the terms "Third World" and "First World" are relics with lots of baggage. Every other term I've encountered for these concepts seems problematic as well, for various reasons, and so for now I'm using the most familiar terms, but also calling attention to their inadequacy, or at least my lack-of-total-comfort with them.

16 May 2007

Passarola Rising by Azhar Abidi

a review by Craig L. Gidney

With the recent battles surrounding evolution, and the insidious influence of the religious right on public policy, Azhar Abidi’s debut novel, Passarola Rising is a timely (and timeless) fable. It is a philosophical romance, a distant cousin of Voltaire’s and Calvino’s work with a whimsical nod to St. Exupery. Like Voltaire—who appears in the novel—Abidi critiques the forces of organized religion and anti-intellectualism through fantasy and satire. Like Calvino and St. Exupery, Abidi has created a tall tale about flight that’s porous and full of air. The philosophy (and the physics) are decidedly featherweight, but it is an immensely enjoyable read.

Abidi takes the seeds of a true story, and embellishes it with a Baron Munchausen-like glee.

In the sixteenth century, Brazilian-born priest Bartolomeu Lourenco moved to Lisbon, Portugal, where he began to work on a flying machine, called the Passarola, which means "large bird" in Portuguese. It was tested out in front of the Portuguese court, where it attracted the attention of the Inquisition. Lourenco left Portugal and spent the remainder of his life in Spain. All that remains of Lourenco’s work are drawings for a ship, which do not suggest room for human cargo.

Abidi takes this curious footnote and constructs an alternate history for the visionary priest. In this version of history, Lourenco builds a flying ship, powered by four copper vacuum bulbs, and enlists his younger brother Alexander as an assistant. The two of them flee to France, where they are hosted by Voltaire, and given various missions by Louis XV, who is enamored of the Passarola.

Bartolemeu becomes a fearless proponent of scientific reason. He has given up his devotion to God and replaced it with a devotion to exploration, one that gets him in trouble more than once. Portrayed by Alexander, the narrator of the novel, Bartolemeu is the ultimate idealist, blithely unaware of decorum or social diplomacy:
His childlike trust in destiny, a cynic might call it recklessness, won me over and I began to consider my service in a new light, where it required courage and valor, and the vanity, as I vaguely suspected then and certainly know now, of greatness lifted my courage and calmed my fears.
A particularly amusing scene has the former priest shooting down (in scientific terms) mad King George of England’s idea for a flying ship of his own. The major tension in the novel comes from Bartolemeu’s unbridled élan for discovery clashing against the more earthbound concerns of kings and military leaders. A dangerous rescue mission in Poland almost ends the flights of the Passarola.

Alexander is both perplexed and intrigued by his brother’s obsession with flight. Through his various voyages, he comes to understand his brother, and conveys the near-religious experience of flight:
The Passarola began to climb. Now I could see the entire estate, the church and the pastor’s residence below me... I then saw the fields, like a chessboard of green and golden squares draped over the hills... The land glowed at the horizon. The sky where the sun had sunk was burnt red, The seven hills were lit with its last rays... The air was cold and except for the sound of the wind in our sails, we were surrounded by silence.
The Lourenco brothers manage to convince Louis XV to fund scientific expeditions, and here the novel hits its lyrical stride. Like the early science fiction of Jules Verne, Abidi conveys a since of wonder. Passage after passage describes the beauty and strangeness of the natural world.
We were flying high above a thunderstorm. The tip of our mast was ablaze with St. Elmo’s fire—our standard, a tongue of blue flame. A scarf of bright light began to rise from the horizon, gliding swiftly up into the sky.... Soon the sky below up was also glowing with fiery orange and strange purple lights. Some of them had distinct pulsing forms, and tendrils, red and white, that extended up into the void, like the roots of some celestial garden.
The two brothers are commissioned to explore the Arctic circle. It is during this voyage that Alexander finds he doesn’t share Bartolemeu’s sense of adventure. The two of them part ways after Alexander suffers a near-fatal illness, and he hears of his brother’s exploits from afar.

As with some of Calvino's books, Passarola Rising conveys essentially abstract ideas about religion and man’s inquisitive nature with prose infused with a comic tone. This tone was the one problem I had with the novel. It was like a meringue—a little too cloying. The Cardinal that chases the Lourencos has some hackneyed, anti-climatic lines. I was waiting for the Swiftian bite of satire. Whatever satire is present is mostly vague. The influence of the Inquisition is brief, and not as strong a theme in the novel that the blurb on the back cover suggests. Bartolemeu’s soapbox rants about Truth threaten to turn him in a cipher, rather than a fully realized character. The cameos by historical personages are also a bit slight, rather than elucidating. The brief novel is at its best when it goes into full picturesque mode, both in its lyrical tone and the episodic plot structure.

Ultimately, Passarola Rising belongs in the same category as The Little Prince, because it is less an allegory about religious persecution and the search for Truth than it is a boy’s adventure story.

14 May 2007

Full Circle

Alan DeNiro:
And so it comes back to emotion, and in a weird way I feel a bit like I've come full circle since when I was 15 and writing poems and stories as a tonic to alleviate my misery. The emotional responses that I write about are part of the world, and part of my engagement with it. This isn't a move toward easy therapeutic confessionalism, but rather to be unafraid to use my self as material, halfway between the public ambulatory life and the private sphere of my own thoughts. To see my imperfections and faults as, perhaps, codes themselves that can at one point be reinterpreted on the page as hope.

Glorious Eccentrics by Mary Ann Caws

For the past couple of months, I've been dipping into Glorious Eccentrics: Modernist Women Painting and Writing, a delightful and enlightening book that offers essays on a variety of women who lived their lives according to their own senses of propriety and integrity. The essays are partly biographical, partly analytical, but the book makes no attempt to present comprehensive studies of these women -- instead, it is a celebration and reclamation of particular people in particular moments.

Some of the women here are receiving attention they have long deserved, while at least one, Dora Carrington, is likely to be familiar to many general readers, at least via the movie in which Emma Thompson portrayed her. The other women in the book may be familiar to specialists or devotees in some fields: Claude Cahun (about whom I've written here before), Paula Modersohn-Becker, Emily Carr, Dorothy Bussy, Suzanne Valadon, and Judith Gautier.

Caws's tone is often light, but her sentences are full of information and insights. At first, I thought the book lacked structure and import, but by the second chapter, I had changed my mind completely -- the wonder of the book lies less in its individual portraits of each woman than in the force that comes from comparison and accumulation. Caws is not just celebrating interesting lives, lives deserving more notice -- she is showing ways that women learned to live according to their own standards, ways that women crafted lives for themselves in societies and cultures where the sorts of lives they wanted to live were seldom rewarded and were often perilous. Some of the choices these women made took tolls, but many of them opened up possibilities and pleasures that less daring people (of any gender) might envy.

Glorious Eccentrics is a marvelous book not just because it does the good and noble work of bringing the art and lives of some wonderful women out of whatever shadows covered them, but because it tells lively stories about these women. Each chapter has a different sort of approach, because, as Caws says at the beginning,
Most appealing to me are the crucial moments of their lives or thoughts, those crisis points that mold the mind and heart and grip the imagination. I have chosen to speak of these women because their very intensity beckons my own -- not the particulars of their lives, but the odd details that challenge society's norms and beckon to us others, eccentric in our own way, often interior.
It is those moments that Caws makes fascinating and appealing by using the women's own words whenever possible, as any good scholar might, but also by stretching a bit, speculating. For instance, about one of Carrington's portraits of Lytton Strachey, she writes,
The painting conveys all the wonder and terror of Carrington's adoration. How private it is: how it should not be shown to others. Here is the surprising part, until we try to understand it a bit: even not to the person loved. His portrait, with its so clear statement of adoration, is not always to be shared, in agony of soul, with the very person adored. The dread is double: showing it to others, but also showing it to the beloved. Intimacy does not require, in all cases, the sharing of the expression of emotion. Here is Carrington's profound instinctive comprehension of something indeed too deep for words. It is the image itself that reaches the profoundest depths. She has loved Lytton the way few people have the ability to love. Even during the rages of jealousy portrayed in the descriptions of her, alone, outside the lit windows of the house where Lytton is with his male lovers, and she sees them through the windowpanes, even during the loneliness and her own incapacities for painting, about which she always blames herself, it will be this relation of her mind and heart to the one she so terribly loves that will matter.
(I'm sure it's not to everyone's taste, but I love how that last sentence whirls out of control with passion.)

Love -- its creative and destructive power -- is a theme running through many of these lives, and both Carrington and Dorothy Bussy loved gay men (in Bussy's case, André Gide). The chapter on Bussy is a masterpiece, because in it Caws quotes at length from Bussy's letters and journals, trying to show, as she later tries to show with Carrington, that her love was not something to be scoffed at, dismissed, or marginalized, as many writers (about the men) have done. About the relationships between Bussy and Gide, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and Carrington and Strachey, she writes,
In my view, neither the various household arrangements nor the various emotional involvements were unsuitable, for, despite the anguish, they worked. In each case, a strong-minded and artistically oriented woman, married to a heterosexual man, remained in her most important relation with a man oriented toward other men. In each case, it was the singular and "inappropriate", thus eccentric, relation that lasted as the crucial one, for the work and the life of both beloved and loving -- each dependent upon the other. We have only to reread these letters between Dorothy and the man she spent her life loving and translating to see the essential nature of the relation between them. These three beloved men, all extraordinary, all homosexual, were able, for all the pain caused by the inbalance [sic] of their relations, to nourish the mind and work of the imaginative and strong personalities that these women were. We too have to make a true reading as best we can.
I'm not sure it's possible to offer any sort of "true reading", but I do like Caws's attempt to offer a different one, one opposed to the often trivializing readings of most of the men's biographers. She may err toward celebration, but that, to me, is preferable to the opposite.

There's much more -- more stories, more words, more sparkling moments of insight.

My greatest regret about the book is that the paintings reprinted in it are reprinted in black and white, which makes them seem far more drab than they are. Even the cover of the book, though reprinting a marvelous Cahun photograph, is drab, is this is unfortunate, because what is contained here is anything but drab.

I wish I had boxes of this book to give away to young writers and artists of all sorts, male and female. We need more eccentrics, and we should never be afraid to glorify them.

11 May 2007

A Quotation Mark Question

I've noticed recently that many of my students use single quotation marks to indicate irony. For instance, they'll write:
He had such 'beautiful' hair I couldn't help but say, "Hey, Joe, is your barber a sadist?"
I wonder if this is a development from email or IM or something, because it's easier to put single quotes around a bit of text than to italicize it. It's an interesting differentiation, too, because traditionally (in U.S. usage) double quotes have been able to indicate either a quotation or irony (scare quotes), which can be annoying, of course, but it seems to be a generally accepted usage. I actually kind of like the newer usage; there's a certain cleanliness to it.

What do people in countries where single quotes are the norm do? Does the phenomenon I'm describing even exist outside the U.S.? Does it exist outside my classroom? (Actually, I've seen one blogger do it, so I'm pretty sure it does.) Is this is usage with a long history that I'm oblivious to?

10 May 2007

Curse of the Zombie's Prey

From the New York Times:
“28 Weeks Later” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Rabid zombies feast on living flesh, which causes their potential victims to utter an occasional obscenity.

09 May 2007


A few links:

07 May 2007

Delany: The Polymath and Dark Reflections

On Thursday night, I went to see The Polymath, or The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman at the TriBeCa Film Festival, and this weekend I finished reading Delany's new novel, Dark Reflections, and though I feel like both require more sustained viewing/reading before I want to commit to any deep and probing thoughts about them, here are some notes...

The Polymath was both exciting and disappointing, in some ways inevitably so, because I have spent the past year studying Delany's work intensely and intensively. Thus, there was excitement because various moments of the film gave me images of things I had previously only imagined -- Delany's family, his book-encrusted apartment, etc. -- and disappointment because, of course, no film can contain the depth of information one gets from reading a writer's works.

The Polymath
worked best for me when it did what only its own particular medium can do -- in this case, present a particular person in particular situations, places, and times. My favorite scene, for instance, was one where Delany walked through an empty movie theatre, pointing out where in a porn theatre in the 1970s or 1980s certain people would sit, and why, and what their choices of seats said about them and the social situation of the theatre itself. The information was perfectly familiar to me from Times Square Red, Times Square Blue and other sources, but seeing Delany discuss these ideas within an actual cinema adds an immediacy, theatricality, and personality that isn't available via words alone. It's a delightful, informative scene. Similar scenes of Delany walking through the streets of Manhattan were also revelatory, because he offered amusing or illuminating comments, and it's also fun to see how he interacts with people, such as a woman who insisted that he must be someone famous, or another who called out, "Hello, Santa Claus!" He shines in such moments, and so does the film.

Unfortunately, there weren't enough such moments for my taste (I may be greedy), and the editing of the movie felt choppy. Most scenes are separated with title frames that offer information, quotes, or the titles and dates of some of his books. These quickly became annoying, because they seemed to be thrown in to make up for gaps, and most felt extraneous because they were seldom very closely tied to what came before or after them. In many ways, The Polymath seems to suffer a bit of an identity crisis, uncertain as to whether it wants to be a linear Biography-style documentary or a more free-flowing, impressionistic portrait. It leans toward the latter, which makes the more linear material even more awkward. The film as a whole doesn't have a coherent tone or style, which may be an attempt to capture the breadth and eclecticism of Delany's interests and influences, but that does him a disservice, because one of the things that makes Delany so interesting is the way he overlaps and intersects his interests and influences -- the movie feels piecemeal, grabbing at whatever it can, but Delany's own work has never felt that way to me.

Dark Reflections is a novel unlike any other Delany novel -- it's probably closest to Atlantis: Three Tales, but it's more straightforward and fictional, and one of the most immediately accessible novels Delany has written in ages. This is not to say it lacks complexity -- it's intellectually rich and structurally impressive, with hardly any moment lacking echoes and reiterations elsewhere in the book.

The story is that of Arnold Hawley, a not-very-successful poet, a black gay man who has lived most of his life in celibacy on the Lower East Side. Delany has, of course, included many black, gay poet characters (not always in that configuration) in his work from the beginning, but this is the first time I can think of that he has devoted so much attention to a character who hardly ever has sex. There are scenes that Delany has depicted before -- scenes of hustlers, scenes of public bathrooms -- but this time they are portrayed through the consciousness of someone who is mostly frightened by them, wary of them, even disgusted by them. I have often been fascinated by Delany's writings because they are filled with characters whose experiences are vastly different from my own, and whose reactions to the world are therefore different from my own, yet now with Arnold Hawley, Delany has created a character whose reactions to these situations are ones I can most easily sympathize with, and this provided a new fascination, because I was impressed at how well Delany was able to create a convincing character whose reaction to the seedier side of life is closer to my own (admittedly Puritan) response of yuck. And though Arnold is not at all a role model, and is in many ways a pathetic man, I didn't read him as being a target of satire or contempt, the way he might be in a more determinedly "transgressive" writer's work, but rather as a complex human being. His is a sad life, but not one we as readers are put in a position to laugh at or dismiss out of hand, because he is portrayed as possessing dignity -- much as the more socially marginalized characters in Dark Reflections and many of Delany's other novels are portrayed as possessing dignity, making them worthy of empathy.

Dark Reflections is a very literary book -- a book about a life propelled by literary passions more than any others. Names of books and writers populate the pages, and we get a more vivid view of Arnold's reading than of almost anything else. There are descriptions of people and places throughout the book, but they are secondary to the parade of names and titles. At first, this bothered me, but by the end the effect is extraordinary, much like that of a David Markson novel or Caroline Maso's Ava. Here, the technique efficiently builds character, giving us a sense of what Arnold most cares about and a sense of the depth of his reading life, the most vivid life he has.

Coincidence is also important to the novel, for better and worse. The middle section relies on a coincidence that I didn't find convincing, because it is tied to the book's most dramatic and violent moment, and seemed necessary more for narrative convenience than anything else. A less startling coincidence at the end brings some different strands of the book together, and this one I found both convincing and moving. The last pages of Dark Reflections are beautifully paced and evocative, ringing thematic and contextual notes from throughout the book, so that even though Arnold's life is not given any sort of clear resolution, the novel itself is satisfyingly whole and complete.

02 May 2007

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet

Niall Harrison has posted links to reviews of the novels shortlisted for the Clarke Award this year, and I looked at it and thought, "Didn't I review Oh Pure and Radiant Heart somewhere other than in the best-of-the-year article for Locus Online?" And then I realized that, indeed, I had, but that the review was not available online, having been published in the print edition of Locus. Here, then, for the sake of completism (or something) is that review:

Lydia Millet builds her fourth novel from a simple extrapolation: What would happen if J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard, three of the designers and developers of the atomic bomb, were to find themselves transported from 1945 to the beginning of the twenty-first century?

Millet fully explores this premise while balancing humor and horror, fantasy and reality, history and imagination in a book that is compulsively readable, but also thought-provoking and even disturbing. While the central plot of Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is ragged and picaresque, it is fueled by quiet moments, telling details, longings and dreams. Caricatures seem to live in every corner of the novel's landscape, but there are characters here, too, amidst the chaos of a world that, to the timeslipped physicists, comes to feel like a slow-burning apocalypse of vulgar language and dead reason.

The most appealing character is the central one, Ann, a reference librarian who is the first to discover Oppenheimer, Fermi, and Szilard, and to invite them into her home, where her gardener husband , Ben, tolerates as much as he can, until the scientists take them to Hiroshima in search of meaning and logic in the history of all the destructions unleashed by equations that had once seemed so promising. But the twenty-first century is not a century of meaning and logic, and so a pothead millionaire scoops up the ragtag team and lets them fill the hole left when Jerry Garcia's particles were accelerated into the great concert in the sky. Before anybody knows quite how it happened, Ann and Ben and the atomic trinity have a gaggle of groupies to follow them to the Marshall Islands and the deserts of Nevada. Ann thinks she's on a highway to a meaningful life, but Ben remains skeptical of everything, and watches helplessly as his marriage is sacrificed to a circus of lost souls.

The second half of the book turns the circus into a cult, with Christian fundamentalists branding Oppenheimer as a new messiah, blithely ignoring that he claims to be a Jewish physicist who likes fine bourbon and Eastern philosophers. Meanwhile, Fermi seeks peace in a mental institution, and Szilard takes the group toward Washington, D.C., where he hopes a demonstration of logic will convince the world to get rid of its nuclear stockpiles. The fundamentalists are more interested in Rapture than peace, and by the time the scientists realize that their faith in reason is dwarfed by their followers' faith in eternal paradise, it is, once again, too late.

Throughout the novel, the ever-more-absurd events are told in counterpoint with bits of information apparently meant to remind us that while the fiction may be fun and games, the reality is not. In the first third of the book, the information is about the real scientists, the ones who were not skipped ahead half a century. The rest of the book gives us fragments of the history and consequences of nuclear proliferation, sometimes in paragraphs, and sometimes just a sentence or two, a pause to pop the balloons of our amusement: "It has been estimated that fallout from American atmospheric testing between 1945 and 1963 has caused or will cause fatal cancers in between seventy thousand and eight hundred thousand people in the U.S. and around the world. Soviet testing likely has yielded a similar number."

It is rare that such a collage of modes and tones works as well as it does in Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. While the main narrative unifies the disparate elements, every few pages we seem to switch to a different kind of book: domestic dramas metamorphose into absurdist epics, science fiction becomes fantasy, meditative nature scenes give way to moments that seem ripped from a political thriller. Remarkably, this jumping around is seldom jarring, because Millet has a firm control of tone and structure, and so the disparate pieces harmonize, and it is a pleasure to follow Ann, Ben, and the physicists through all their mishaps. Some of the pleasures lessen in the last third of the novel, because the loose ends must be tied up and resolution brought to bear on it all, so some scenes feel included simply to move everything from point X to point Y. The final chapter redeems it all, though, because where many writers would let the last pages slip toward desperate polemic, or would create a finish that was thin and tidy, Millet takes us away from the explosions and gunplay, adding complexity, emotion, and mystery in final pages that are both satisfying and unsettling.

01 May 2007

A Story

I missed International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day, alas, and so the following is not, technically part of that celebration. What it is, though, is a story I just don't know what to do with, and so I am offering it here for anybody who might be in desperate need of something to read. It is the only piece of fiction I have written deliberately aimed at what is often called the YA market -- teenagers, basically. I wrote it a couple years ago for an anthology someone I knew was putting together of "outsider" stories for teens. She ended up rejecting it because, she said, it didn't fit with the rest of what she had. That might have just been a nice way of saying she didn't like it. Nonetheless, I'm fond of much of the story, and a couple friends who have read it have told me to keep sending it out places, but I really don't know of a place where it would feel at home, and I don't have much confidence in it as anything much more than an experiment, so it seems like perfect material to post on this here blog.

This also gives me a chance to try out what promises to be a really good hack for Blogger to allow expandable and collapsible posts. So to read the story, just hit the "Read more..." link below (unless you're reading the RSS feed, in which case it probably just appears below. Update: Or some versions of Internet Explorer, which, on a Mac at least, cuts off the first few paragraphs...)

The Boyfriend from Another Planet
by Matthew Cheney

I knew we were having difficulties in our relationship, but I never expected Lu to tell me he was an alien from the planet Lirg.

Tired of me? Yes, I could take that. In love with somebody else? Sure, no big deal. A Republican? Maybe. But an alien?! How desperate and stupid do you have to be?

Before I go on a rant, let me indulge myself in a list. (I love lists.)
Things Derek Loves About Lu
1. His laugh. It's silly, high-pitched, and contagious.
2. His blonde hair. It's just this thing I have for blonde hair. Not absolutely required in an object of my affection, but definitely a plus. And Lu's hair is very blonde, very straight, always clean, and heavenly.
3. His taste in music. Exactly the same as mine: SHOW TUNES!
4. His screw-the-world attitude. He doesn't ever let anybody else's expectations get in the way. If you don't like what he says, you don't have to listen. If you don't like how he dresses, you don't have to look. If you don't like who he kisses ... well, why are you watching him kiss anybody in the first place?
5. His dislike of dogs. They're stupid and dependent. Cats are the superior species.
6. His beat-up old brown pickup truck with a gun rack in the back window.
7. His willingness to cry during sappy movies.
8. His beautiful paintings. I always wanted to date an artist.
9. His favorite book: Goodnight, Moon.
10. His kisses.
As you can see, he's nearly perfect. Not completely perfect — nobody who thinks game shows are a form of high art could ever be called completely perfect — but he's close.

As you can also see, he's not the sort of person who would continually, and apparently sincerely, insist he's an alien unless there was a good reason for it.

At first, I thought he was joking. "Ha ha, funny," I said after we'd had lunch together in the school cafeteria. "The planet Lirg," I said. "That's a good one."

"I'm not joking," Lu said. "I'm an alien from the planet Lirg."

I smiled my best oh-you're-so-lovely-and-charming-Lu smile, hoping it would at least move him on to a different subject. It didn't.

"Lirg is ten thousand light years from Earth," Lu said. "It's very much like Earth in every way, which is why I think I didn't realize I was an alien for a while. I'd forgotten. I thought I was still on Lirg."

I yawned. I didn't need to yawn, but it felt appropriate.

Perhaps, before moving any farther along, I should explain why our relationship was having some difficulties.

First, there was the simple pressure of being the only out gay couple at school. It's a liberal school, or at least most people like to think of themselves as fairly liberal and accepting, but hardly anybody seems to think having an out gay couple is a great and wonderful thing. Soon after we started dating, Lu and I both noticed that we weren't invited to very many parties together, some of our friends didn't talk to us as frequently as they had before, and a couple of teachers even insisted we not sit together in class. Typical empty liberalism for you: love the idea, hate the reality.

But nobody really got in our way. We weren't attacked and assaulted, we weren't openly insulted, we weren't told we were sinners in the hands of an angry God. But there was the pressure of always being looked at furtively, of always feeling like whatever we did was getting judged by all the chatty gossippers who populated the halls between classes, and we knew our lives were potent fuel for the all-powerful rumor mill chugging away at the background of every student's and every teacher's conversation.

More than the pressure of being who were were, the pressure (or decompressure) of knowing each other too well was what really seemed to be chipping us apart. The relationship was fun at the beginning, before we knew a lot about each other, when each day held revelation and surprise. I learned that Lu's full name was Lucite, because his parents were unreformed hippies who happened to be tripping on acid the day he was named and liked the sound of the word "lucite", which floated toward them through the purple air they inhabited. Lu learned that I'm afraid of snakes.

("Quit it with the background material already!" I hear you cry. "Get back to the aliens!")

The day after our first conversation about the planet Lirg, Lu and I went to the mall to try to find Mother's Day gifts. The mall had long been a point of contention between us: Lu hates all malls and shopping in general, while I think shopping is the highest form of human activity and the mall is the closest thing we've got to Heaven. The feelings are reversed when it comes to art museums. We learned early on to indulge each other: for every time I drag him to a mall, Lu gets to haul me off to an art museum.
What I Love about Malls
1. Anonymity. I hardly ever see anybody I know there, and if I do I can escape them.
2. The stores are always changing. Very exciting.
3. You can shop, you can eat, you can sit on a plastic bench beside an ugly fountain while inside an atmospherically-controlled environment.
4. There are far more gay boys to gawk at at the mall than anywhere else in town.
5. Bargains. Bargains everywhere. Wonderful, glorious bargains on stuff I'd never otherwise buy.
6. Tasteful window displays.
7. Soft muzak everywhere. Normally, I hate muzak, but in malls it's somehow comforting. Even (dare I admit it?) Barry Manilow.
So there we were in the mall, with me dragging Lu past the shops like a slime mold on a leash, and suddenly he stopped in front of a store window, pointed at a lovely blue dress, and said, "Think I should wear that to the prom?"

Oh gawd, the prom.

I'd forbidden him to mention it. We weren't going. No way, absolutely not, never in ten billion trillion gazillion years, no matter how much I said I loved him, would I ever ever ever go to a prom. Proms are stupid. Proms are empty. Proms are evil rituals designed to make all the square pegs realize what they were missing by not squeezing themselves into the round holes of life.

Lu, of course, said he thought we'd be making a courageous political statement by taking each other to the prom.

"Aliens don't go to proms," I said.

"They do if they wear the right clothes." He hadn't risen to take my bait. He hadn't even batted one of his beautiful eyes or done one of his usual dramatic pauses. (Lu's a master of dramatic pauses. His timing is impeccable.)

"I don't go to proms," I said.

"Even to see me in a dress?"

"Even then."

I grabbed him by the arm and pulled him to a shoe store. (I love shoes. I own something like thirty pairs of shoes. It's an obsession, an addiction, a tragic flaw which I adore in myself.)

"You should buy more shoes," I said, pulling a beautiful brown sandal onto my foot while Lu stared at the ceiling. "The shoes make the man, remember."

"I've got what I need."

"Do aliens wear shoes?"

"Usually." Pause pause pause. "You don't believe me, do you?"

"About being an alien? Uh ... let me think a minute ... no I do not believe you are an alien from the planet Lirg, Lu!"

Silence throughout the store. People were looking at us. I turned to a grizzled old lady with purplish hair and gave her a stare vicious enough to kill a venus fly trap.

Lu turned away from me. Something was wrong, I could tell. Once you know somebody well enough, there's a kind of aura to them, and when the aura changes, it's unmistakeable. Lu's aura had suddenly gone grey.

I stood up and put my arm around him. He breathed deeply, and a tear flickered down his cheek.

"What is it?" I asked quietly.

He turned and looked me in the eyes as if he didn't recognize me. He shook his head, brushed the tears away with his hand, and walked toward the door. "I'll be in the car."

I bought the sandals with my mother's credit card (couldn't wait till the statement came in and she asked me why I had yet again bought something at a shoe store with the credit card she'd given me for emergencies, though a good pair of sandals seems close enough to an emergency for me to justify the use of the credit card) and ran after Lu.

He was standing outside the mall, smoking a cigarette.

"Since when do you smoke?" I asked.

"Now and then," he said. "It's calming."

"It's carcinogenic. And you've got crappy lungs, anyway." I grabbed the cigarette out of his mouth and crushed it under the sole of one of my new sandals. Sometimes I'm a little too aggressive for my own good.

Lu slapped me.

He's never slapped me. He's a pacifist! Pacifists don't hit people! That's the whole point of pacifism!

I was too stunned to be hurt. I stared at him.

"I'm not going to apologize," he said.

"Neither am I."

"Fine." He turned away and walked toward the car.

"Oh, so we're leaving now?" I said loudly.

"I'm going home. I don't care what you do."

So as I said, our relationship was on the rocks. Or, to be more accurate, our relationship was on a cliff, about to fall a few thousand feet into a pool of razor blades.

Lu and I didn't talk for the rest of the weekend. I called him Monday morning to see if he was going to pick me up or if I needed to ride on the bus with all the refugees from the land of Dull.

"I'll pick you up if you want," he said, sounding oddly cheery given the fight we'd had.

As we were driving to school, he said, "I'm sorry I've been so weird." He lit a cigarette.

"I thought we weren't apologizing?" I said.

"I'm not going to apologize for slapping you. You were a jerk. But I also know I've been kind of weird recently."

"Yeah, I'd say insisting you're an alien would definitely fit under the definition of weird."

"It's a beautiful place, Lirg. Soft, pleasant, warm. Enchanting, really. Like a Renoir painting."

I couldn't remember what a Renoir painting looked like, though I'm sure Lu has shown me a bunch of them.

"Are you still saying, then, that you're an alien?"

"Yes, I'm definitely an alien," Lu said. "But..."

He took a long drag on his cigarette and was silent.

"But?" I said.

"But I meant it like a ... like a kind of metaphor. You know?"

"No," I said. "I don't know. I haven't the slightest #%$@ing idea what the &@!# you're talking about." (Those symbols aren't there because I'm afraid to write what my mother would call "naughty words", but because the sound I made was closer to a growled scream than anything else.)

Lu just sighed. We were in the school parking lot by then, and he clearly didn't want to continue the conversation.

Lu was never the best with words — he's extremely visual. Ask him to recite Shakespeare and he'll faint; ask him to identify 500 elements of ancient Greek architecture, and he'll lecture you for three days. I knew after our conversation that he probably wouldn't tell me what he wanted to tell me in words, and that when I finally figured it all out, it would be a lot worse than if he'd just stuttered and mumbled his way through it to me that morning.

In the afternoon, Lu was sitting in the cafeteria with a girl who had recently moved to our school from some far, exotic place like New Jersey. Her name was Helen, and all I knew about her was that I'd been impressed with some of her answers in English class discussions — she was sassy and very smart, always thrilled to be able to contradict the teacher and show he was an idiot. (The teacher, Mr. Bennett, was, indeed, an idiot. I'm certain his ancestors included a cauliflower and a manure pile.)

"Hi there," I said, sitting between them. I glanced at the green conglomeration of cafeteria mystery meat on my tray, certain it had tried to bite my finger. I leaned over to give Lu a kiss on the cheek, but he pulled away.

"Hi," Helen said.

"We were just talking about Magritte," Lu said, as if I should know who Magritte is.

"Uh huh..." I said, doing my best to sound both interested and knowledgeable.

"Do you like art?" Helen asked me.

"Of course," I said. "Anyone who doesn't is a troglodyte. But I'm more of a poet, myself."

"A poet?" she said. "I adore poetry. Who's your favorite poet?"

Okay, so maybe it was the wrong thing to say. What ever possessed me to make such a ridiculous statement? The truth is, while I like writing dirty limericks in my school notebooks, that's about the only poetry I write. And I refuse to read the stuff. I'm effeminate enough without having to give in to all the stereotypes of homosexual sensitivity.

"I'm deeply influenced by some of the, ah, Romantic poets," I said.

"I've never really been able to get into them much," Helen said. "I mean, I like Blake when he's weird, and I like some of Byron's stuff, but mostly I find his life more attractive than anything. My favorite poet is Paul Celan."

"Ah," I said, again doing my best to make a breathy interjection disguise my complete ignorance and general lack of interest in the subject of the conversation.

"He was German, wasn't he?" Lu said.

"Yes. He escaped the Nazis when he was young, though his family was killed by them, and then he went on to write just the most complex and sad and enigmatic poems you've ever read. Then he jumped off a bridge."

"I'd love to read some of his stuff," Lu said. (And then jump off a bridge, I added to myself.)

"I'll bring you a book tomorrow. He's amazing."

Suddenly I knew I needed to talk to Lu alone. I knew what we had to discuss. But the bell rang for the next class, and he seemed intent on escorting Helen to it.

After lunch, I made it through history class by gouging meaningless runes into the desk with a compass from my mechanical engineering class. The teacher, a five-thousand-year-old woman named Mrs. Vladallsplotchnick@#^$&bzckr or something similarly unpronounceable (I'd never bothered to really learn her name), didn't notice my frantic carving as she droned on about the French Revolution.

After class, I grabbed Lu and pushed him into a nearby janitor's closet. "You're in love with her, aren't you!" I said, my voice a frozen wasteland of anger and hatred.

"Well ... not really ... uh ... not in so many words ... but ... uh ... yeah?"

I stormed out of the janitor's closet and out of the building without looking back. I heard Lu call, "Derek!" once, but I was out the front door before he could say my name again.

I didn't know where I was going, didn't have any plan, only wanted to move, and so I walked until I couldn't walk anymore. I stood in the center of the flower garden at the base of the flag pole in front of the school, my new sandals sinking into the soft dirt, crushed petunias and lilies and whatevers tickling my toes.
Five Thoughts Whizzing Through My Brain at That Moment
1. Lu is the biggest freak I've ever known.
2. Falling in love with the sons of hippies is stupid.
3. I'm over-reacting.
4. I'm under-reacting.
5. I should start smoking cigarettes.
I rode the bus home that day, rode with the derelicts and mutants, the detritus of public education in America, and as I looked at them, the sad and pitiful faces all around me, I couldn't help feeling a certain kinship with them, a desire for friendship. These kids I'd spent so much time dismissing as losers and freaks and prime material for daytime talk shows all seemed mysteriously noble to me. Certainly more noble than myself, better than me in more ways than I could possibly list.

None of these people, I told myself, would ever involve themselves with a crazy person like Lu.

And then a middle-schooler with a mullet sat next to me and said in a pipsqueak voice, "Is it true you're a faggot?" He quickly moved to another seat, where his friends, who had obviously put him up to this, all giggled and slapped him five.

Then I remembered why I usually do anything possible not to ride the school bus.

Finally, mercifully, my stop came and I got off and ran into the house and up the stairs to my room, where I buried my face in my pillow and cried for at least an hour.

Lu called that night.

"I'm sorry, Derek," he said.

"What does she think? She's knows you're gay, right?"

"Yes. We've talked about it."

"Are you two going to go out?"

"I'm going out with you," he said.

I laughed. "Are you? Could've fooled me."

"Do you want to end it?"

"You sound hopeful."

Pause pause pause.

He said, "I don't think we've been doing very well recently. Do you?"

"No," I said quietly. "But ... we're ... we're us, Lu. I don't know what I'd do ... I don't remember how to be without ... us."

"I know what you mean," he said.

"Couldn't this be like some sort of phase you're going through or something? Because you're not happy with me these days, so you think that a woman will solve all your problems?"

"I wondered that. I mean, I've thought about it. And I don't think so. I've never felt the way I have about someone the way I feel about her."

Oh, that hurt. That got me right in the gut, a sucker punch from a prize fighter, an elephant kick, a great meteorite blasting down and obliterating my psyche like it was an island full of dinosaurs. After all this, all we'd been through, everything we'd had and done and been, he dared say— I couldn't even think about it.

Now it was my turn for a dramatic pause, but it didn't come from any sense of timing. No, I was silent because I couldn't speak, because words had abandoned me like a hobo kicked off a train.

"Derek? Are you there?"

"Uh," I said, the most eloquent thing I could get out of my lungs and mouth.

"I'm so sorry."

"So you're, what, you're straight now? This has all been a charade? You're like cured, like one of those stupid Republican Baptist @#$%ing turncoat idiots?" (That time, I said the word.)

"No," he said. "I think I'm still gay. Mostly. But I'm in love with a woman."

"Brilliant," I said. "You're a gay guy in love with a woman. That's one for the record books. What's she got, Lu, that you so love? Breasts? Or—"

"No," he said suddenly. "It's not about the ... physical part. I mean, I like—"

My turn to jump in: "Physical? Explain exactly what you mean."

"Yes, I'm ... attracted to her body. She's beautiful. But it's so much more than that. The physical is the least part of it."

"And so you're not attracted to me anymore?"

"I love you, Derek. I have loved you. You'll always be ... really special to me."

"Thanks," I said. "It's so comforting." And then I hung up. And threw the phone across the room.
Things I Hate about Straight People
1. They never have to come out. People just assume you're straight unless you prove otherwise.
2. Nobody stares at them when they hold hands in public.
3. They get to see themselves on t.v., in movies, in pictures, in music, in books — everywhere. And nobody thinks to comment about how wonderful and progressive it is to see representations of straight people in the media. Or how revolting.
4. When they're growing up, straight people have parents and teachers and friends who welcome them into the world of heterosexuality, because, of course, every child is straight.
5. The great heterosexual conspiracy — they help each other gain power, they support each other, and they're @#$&ing everywhere! They run the world!
6. They stole my boyfriend.
We didn't talk again for a long time. I saw Lu and Helen together at school a lot. They sat together in classes and at lunch. Nobody paid much attention to them, except for me. They held hands and exchanged soft, tentative kisses. They drove home together. They went to the prom.

I, of course, was a wreck. I crashed myself into every oncoming psychological storm I could find, and boy, when you're seeking it, the weather of the mind can be brutal. I skipped classes, I got the flu and then a cold and then the flu again, I hardly left the house. My parents forced me to go to counseling, and I had some fun lying to the shrink who tried to understand me. I convinced her my former boyfriend was insane and I was good to be rid of him, and she agreed.

I knew he wasn't insane. And I knew the heavy ache under every cell of my skin meant only one thing: I missed him.

After a while, I found a new boyfriend. His name's John, which is a lovely name, nice and simple. I won't list all the things I love about John, because I'm trying to give up making lists. Lists are fun, but they lose all the subtleties, and truth lies not in numbered sets of simple sentences, but in the ragged infinity between the lines.

Lu and I talked after a few months. It was near graduation, and Helen was going to be salutatorian and Lu would be valedictorian. I passed him in the hallway one day and congratulated him, which broke the wall between us. He gave me a big hug and a sloppy kiss.

"How's life as a straight guy?" I asked.

"I'm not very straight," he said. "But life is good."

"And Helen likes you?"

"Seems to. I mean, it's not always easy. But nothing worthwhile ever is." Pause pause pause.

"I never thought I'd start spouting clichés," he said.

"It's okay," I said. "When they're true."

Yes, it's a cliché, and yes, what Lu said was true: Nothing worthwhile is easy. I try to keep reminding myself of that, because it tames the bitterness I feel toward him, it softens some of that pain, the pain that grows older and older every day, but never goes away, never truly fades, just shuffles over to a corner and gums its food.

Lu was right about something else, too. He is an alien. I don't know what planet he's from, but it's definitely not the same one as me. I've forgiven him for that, but it doesn't mean I don't regret that he didn't have a spaceship to come back to my planet with. Meanwhile, I'll have to sit on a bench in my own little corner of the universe and try to keep John from making contact with NASA.

So farewell, Lu, you alien boy. Send me a postcard from outer space sometime, will you?