Thinking Aloud

Recap of Cab 50

Yale Cabaret’s 50th Season, Some Highlights

The 50th Anniversary season of the Yale Cabaret has been and gone. Much thanks to its artistic directors, Josh Wilder and Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, associate artistic director Rory Pelsue, and its managing director Rachel Shuey for a challenging season.

 Josh Wilder, Rachel Shuey, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Rory Pelsue

Josh Wilder, Rachel Shuey, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Rory Pelsue

Cabaret 50 offered plenty of off-beat fare, in the sense of plays in which the performers stood in a theatrical space between fiction and fact. We might think that Reality TV is having an impact, likewise we might think that the irreality of our current political climate makes fiction, no matter its intentions, seem a bit escapist. So, even the shows this season that were pre-existing plays seemed to take their tone from the tensions of our time, perhaps to an unusual degree.

Or maybe not. The way we—or each member of the audience—experiences what gets done before our eyes onstage takes its tone from our own conflicts, I expect. It seems to me that the Yale School of Drama students making theater in the basement at 217 Park Street in 2017-18 were particularly aware of the conflicts.

Here’s my own individually chosen favorite bits, in thirteen categories, with shows listed in chronological order but for my top choice, the choices in no way reflective of the views of any existing or imagined demographic.

Speaking of pre-existing plays, here are five I’m glad Cab 50 tackled:
Re:Union by Sean Devine (proposed by Wladimiro A. Woyno R.): Violent protest of the Vietnam War era and the sins of the fathers, including the bland bureaucrat Robert McNamara, is visited upon the next generation
This Sweet Affliction by Blake Hackler (proposed by Stephanie Machado): Treats comically the scary social effects of vying for attention and acting out
The Ugly One by Marius von Mayenburg (proposed by Lucie Dawkins): Plays fast and loose with our desire to be the most desired one in the room
Camille, A Tearjerker by Charles Ludlam (proposed by Michael Breslin and Molly FitzMaurice): Finesses a mix of melodrama and comedy in the name of Ridiculous Theater
and . . . Mud by María Irene Fornés (proposed by Danielle Chaves): A harrowing and uncomfortable allegory of how our bodies betray us

In the new play arena, some unusual offerings that lived up to the Cab’s brief of experiment and exploration:
Fuck Her by Genne Murphy: Call it science-fiction burlesque, a tale of a future where procreation by copulation is a status service
the feels… (kms) by Jeremy O. Harris: A script of inspired self-excoriation and abrasive ideas for ending it all
the light is… by Jake Ryan Lozano: A fascinating combination of poetic words and interpretive movements in atmospheric lighting
The Guadalupes by Noah Diaz: A funny, touching, and awkward remembrance play as real as anything onstage can be
and . . . This American Wife by Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley: The foley à deux of two gay guys who find the meaning of life in the bad behavior of televised housewives as a way of unmasking/masking themselves

Tech. Where would we be without it? These remarkably talented people do surprising work in a basement. Everyone who undertakes that task earns our gratitude. The samples here are simply those I can most readily call to mind.

Scenic Design:
Ao Li, The Apple Tree: Eden as a clean, white, well-lighted place . . . with a curtain
Sarah Nietfeld, This Sweet Affliction: Uniting the Cab space with several locales to up the intimacy
Gerardo Díaz Sánchez, Mud: Creating a simple but memorably derelict space
Emma Weinstein, Camille: Turning the entire Cab into a boudoir with a stage at the center
And . . . Stephanie Osin Cohen, Ni Mi Madre: A beach, a memory space, a museum, a shrine (and, oh, the colors)

Costumes:
Matthew Malone, The Apple Tree: From the white shorts & white first formal of innocence to the red everyday wardrobe of shame, plus one helluva snake suit
Stephanie Bahniuk, For Your Eyes Only: What the creative sex worker wears depends on the task at hand, with much showing and suggesting
April Hickman, Non-Character Player: Avatars dress for success (with props by Alexander McCargar) to add to the ambiance of the virtual world
Alicia Austin, Camille: Dress-up taken to the extremes of a fantasy-world of fashion, both comic and lovely
And … Beatrice Vena, Fuck Her: A future where clothes make the client and the client chooses the look

Lighting Design:
Krista Smith, with Emma Deane, The Apple Tree: A range of effects for this fanciful musical’s trajectory
Erin Earle Fleming, the feels… (kms): When the action is everywhere, even in the audience
Dakota Stipp, the light is… : The light, and the dark, as expressive elements with subtle cues
Emma Deane, Wolf/Alice: Gothic, moody, fascinating
And … Evan Anderson, One Big Breath: From shadow forms to indoors/outdoors spaces to in your face

Video/projections:
Wladimiro A. Woyno R., with Brittany Bland, Re:Union: Many events in the past exist for us as video; in this play, the action of the present took on the “pastness” of video
Erin Sullivan, The Guadalupes: Video here becomes a kind of self-surveillance, in an in-between theatrical space of public/private
Brittany Bland, Sea Witch: Opaque shadow-puppet foregrounds over colorful transparencies to create bewitching visuals
Christopher Evans, Jack Wesson, Non-Character Player: When theater becomes a virtual, digital space, and vice versa
And … Brittany Bland & Wladimiro A. Woyno R.; Michael Breslin; Amauto Marston-Firmino, This American Wife: The edited video from the television show provided context, the video within the performance, expressive device

Sound Design:
Megumi Katayama, One Big Breath: Total environmental theater with a varied soundstage
Frederick Kennedy, Re:Union: An interplay of video and live sound, including historical enactments and interpolations
Kathy Ruvuna, Sea Witch: Foley and musical effects, to create a textured aural backdrop in this wordless narrative
Roxy Jia, Megumi Katayama, Non-Character Player: What’s a digital video game without sound effects?
And … Liam-Bellman Sharpe, The Ugly One: Live Foley as a performance to the side of the main performance, which included onsite video

Music:
Frederick Kennedy, Liam Bellman-Sharpe, Mud: Moody background sounds that worked to focus us on the surprising events in Fornés’ world
Michael Costagliola, Hey Secret Service… A brave stand-up, proto-musical revue that considers the vexed relation between our twit(terer) of a president and the cultures of guns and of theater, and trumps its penciveness with wit and humor
Sylvia D’Eramo, Roxy Jia, Wolf/Alice: The singing by D’Eramo was stunning, the use of music atmospheric and eerie
Liam Bellman-Sharpe, Camille: Bellman-Sharpe is the great in-the-wings performer of Cab 50; here, at the piano, he added immeasurably to the play’s effectiveness
And … Jill Brunelle, music director, with Jenny Schmidt and Emily Sorenson; music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, sung by Erron Crawford, Danilo Gambini, Courtney Jamison, The Apple Tree: I often say I’m not the target audience for musicals, but when they’re directed by Rory Pelsue I change my tune, and Jill Brunelle is the maestro of musical adaptations for the Cab. Bravo!

Choreography:
Shadi Ghaheri, One Big Breath: The season opened with a memorable dance routine done by shadows with Jakeem Powell stealing the show
Ensemble, This Sweet Affliction: A topflight group of actresses as cheerleaders, strutting their stuff
Jake Ryan Lozano, the light is…: The range of emotions that movement and music inspires finds its focus in the many mute gestures of these mini-dramas of dance
Michael Breslin, Arturo Soria, Camille: An orchestration of movement—duels, dances, entrances/exits—very colorful and busy
And…Yasin (Ya-Ya) Fairley, Commissioned Choreographer, with Alex Vermilion and Chelsea Siren, For Your Eyes Only: Choreography, as dance, is only part of it; Vermilion’s show walked a fine line on the wild side, where every move is part of an elaborate fantasy trying to be reality, or vice versa

Acting takes many forms. One of its forms is a well-executed merging of a range of characters that feels as satisfying as a good band that’s got it together . . . Ensembles:
This Sweet Affliction, Stella Baker, Marié Botha, Patricia Fa’asua, Courtney Jamison, Rachel Kenney, Stephanie Machado (directed by Francesca Fernandez McKenzie): A group of girls, plus a few adults, coming apart, coping, not coping in a sharp social satire
the feels… (kms), Abubakr Ali, Michael Breslin, Patricia Fa’asua, Amandla Jahava, Jakeem Powell: A mercurial troupe acting out the different strands of a darkly comic use of theater as coping mechanism
The Ugly One, Danilo Gambini, Steven Johnson, Patrick Madden, Emily Reeder (directed by Lucie Dawkins): A frenetic collective caught up in the before-and-after benefits of radical surgery
Enter Your Sleep, JJ McGlone, Ciara McMillian (directed by Rachel Shuey): A two-hander that puts a pair of actors through their paces in a series of free-associated character turns
And . . . the light is…, Marié Botha, Shadi Ghaheri, Louisa Jacobson, James Udom, Seta Wainiqolo, Curtis Williams: I’m not sure what it was all about but I’d watch this group of actors read from the want-ads; here, they inspired a range of emotions in intricate choreography worked out by the cast and creator Jake Ryan Lozano, with a riveting Cab debut by Williams

Individual performances, because all roles aren’t created equal:

For playing his larger-than-life mother as himself or vice versa: Arturo Soria in Ni Mi Madre
For being both uncomfortably ugly and commandingly attractive, without benefit of make-up in either case: Patrick Madden in The Ugly One
For a scary yet pitiful version of toxic masculinity: Devin White in Mud
For a dream role as a dying diva in this period life: Michael Breslin in Camille
And … for letting us in and letting (some of) us have it, while working the slippery line between truth and appearance: Patrick Foley in This American Wife

For charming the first man, the serpent, and us (her children): Courtney Jamison in The Apple Tree
For hard truths and hard lessons handed down from the fathers: Louisa Jacobson in Re:Union
For a funny and chilling lesson in what happens when a theater person gets rejected (good thing she was an actress, not a dramaturg): Stephanie Machado in This Sweet Affliction
For a dream role as a mercurial and devious diva: Antoinette Crowe-Legacy in Fuck Her
And … for existential truth in its hunger, need, and abject beauty: Danielle Chaves in Mud

Directing, because someone has to be in charge:
Rory Pelsue, The Apple Tree: For a touching and amusing evocation of the pleasures of old-fashioned sexism set to music
Lucie Dawkins, The Ugly One: For finding the tone of absurdist satire for an image-conscious world
Emma Weinstein, The Guadalupes: For showing real life and real death in one life, almost as it happened
Molly FitzMaurice: Camille, A Tearjerker: For unleashing a cross-dressed extravaganza of wild indulgence
And … Patrick Madden, Mud: For rendering one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking plays of the season

And, for overall production (or, simply, the shows I liked best overall):
The Apple Tree, producer Gwyneth Muller, dramaturg Molly FitzMaurice, Stage Manager Abby Gandy: A relentlessly entertaining and tuneful version of how we went from Eden to domesticity to death
This American Wife, producers Melissa Rose & Lucy Bacqué, dramaturgs Ariel Sibert & Catherine María Rodriguez, stage manager Olivia Plath: Ever-reflective reflection on how we like to imagine ourselves through others
This Sweet Affliction, producer Caitlin Volz, dramaturg Rory Pelsue, stage manager Sarah Thompson: Great fun at the expense of our obsession with belonging to the in-group and becoming more famous than our friends
Camille, A Tearjerker, producer Sophie Siegl-Warren, dramaturg Catherine María Rodriguez, stage manager Madeline Charne: A multivalent gender study and an entertaining exercise in flamboy/girlant acting
And … Mud, producer Leandro Zaneti, dramaturg Nahuel Telleria, stage manager Olivia Plath: A rich and mysterious play, Old School but undimmed

So, fifty years. Let’s see where they go from here…

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The team for Cab 51 will be Artistic Directors Molly FitzMaurice and Latiana Gourzong and Managing Director Armando Huipe. There will be no Yale Summer Cabaret for 2018.

Much gratitude to all who took part in Cab 50 and in signature events like the 3rd Satellite Festival and the 5th “Dragaret.”

Yale Cabaret
2017-18

Yale Cab 48 Recap

“There’s no accounting for taste,” the saying goes. Here, at the end of another season at the Yale Cabaret—Season 48, but the 7th I’ve been a witness to—it’s time for my annual recap, which might be described as a way of accounting for my own tastes.

It’s not a competitive environment, the Cab. So many names recur again and again in these lists because there’s very much a “get it done as best you can with who’s available” mode at work much of the time. So, I’ll start off with paying tribute to everyone who took the time to take part in Season 48 at what remains my favorite place for theater in New Haven. Season 48—2015-16—was a tough year for many reasons and it was good to have that little life-raft down the steps at 217 Park Street, maintained by Co-Artistic Directors David Bruin, Julian Elijah Martinez, Leora Morris, and Managing Director Annie Middleton.

 David Bruin, Leora Morris, Julian Elijah Martinez, Annie Middleton

David Bruin, Leora Morris, Julian Elijah Martinez, Annie Middleton

Here are, in chronological order, my four best-remembered and, in final position, most treasured contributions to the season in the following categories: New Plays; Existing Plays; Set Design; Costume Design; Lighting Design; Sound Design; Music; Projections and Effects; Ensemble Acting; Actor (male), Actor (female) in supporting role; Actor (male), Actor (female) in main role; Directing; Production.

Here goes.

There weren’t that many New Plays in the season, which began with an adaptation of a preexisting play, and the other eligibles are here as well: We Are All Here, an adaptation of Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime by David Bruin and Jiréh Breon Holder: a large cast enacting complex relationships with a great frenetic use of the Cab space; MoonSong by Sean Patrick Higgins: a touching and gently comic look at a talented family struck by illness; Salt Pepper Ketchup by Josh Wilder: the first part of a topical tale about the tensions surrounding gentrification in food service in Philadelphia’s Point Breeze neighborhood; Lake Kelsey by Dylan Frederick: a contemporary coming of age musical in which the kids are not so alright; and . . . How We Died of Disease-Related Illness by Miranda Rose Hall:, my favorite because I grew up on Monty Python and sketch comedy and this zany, rapid-fire take on current anxieties (don’t get me started on the medical profession) scored with me all the way.

For Existing Plays, there are more to choose from, and my selection is based on the kinds of things I find most fascinating in works I haven’t seen before: Boris Yeltsin by Mickaël de Oliveira, translated by Maria Inês Marques: an update of the story of Agamemnon and Orestes, sharply scripted and sharply acted, with a definite ax to grind; Cloud Tectonics by José Rivera: a lyrical love story exploring archetypal relations in a convincing way; Dutch Masters by Greg Keller: a class-and-race clash, forcing us to delve into the vulnerabilities behind the issues; The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant by Rainer Werner Fassbinder: an intimate glimpse of a diva at home experiencing life-changing love, touched with both cynicism and romanticism; and . . . Knives in Hens by David Harrower: my favorite because of its truly striking ear for the English language, and its cast and setting perfectly captured a world both elemental and deeply suggestive.

For Set Design: The Secretaries (Jean Kim), a finely worked up space able to accommodate very different settings, from bedroom to work place to lumber camp; Trouble in Tahiti (Rae Powell), an amazing cartoon cut-out look that suited the show perfectly; Cloud Tectonics (Izmir Ickbal), a surprisingly real space for this rather unreal tale; And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens (Lucie Dawkins; Sarah Nietfeld), a room can reveal and conceal, and this space did both with more origami cranes than could be counted; and . . . The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Christopher Thompson; Claire DeLiso), you can’t put a functioning turntable in a set and not get my attention, and this set was not only worthy of Fassbinder it made me want to visit.

For Costumes, the first thing I noticed was that the same person—with different nominal designations on the programs—was responsible for much of the stuff I was most impressed with: The Secretaries (Asa Benally): matching look to type is always helpful in comedy and the various takes—and take-offs—of these ladies had work to do; Boris Yeltsin (Haydee Zelideth): costuming can include use of nudity and how that played into this tale of a bizarre family romance was casual and crafty; How We Died of Disease-Related Illness (Sarah Nietfeld): if only for the transformations of Trisha, and the other quick changes before our eyes; The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Haydee Zelideth Antunano): clothes make the lady in this tale of a fashion designer, which just wouldn’t work without the semiotics of appearances; and . . .  Trouble in Tahiti (Haydee Antunano; Asa Benally): my favorite because of the look of the vocal trio and the elegant bourgeoisity of the principals.

For Lighting: Knives in Hens (Andrew F. Griffin): the look of this show stayed with me for a long time; The Secretaries (Elizabeth Green): lighting was at times a special effect in the varied moods of this wildly funny show; Trouble in Tahiti (Carolina Oritz): a show with a visual style that fully complemented its music; Cloud Tectonics (Elizabeth Mak): lighting and other subtle effects helped in this play of stopped time; and . . . Roberto Zucco (Andrew F. Griffin): with much of the action occurring behind scrims, the play of light in the show was an expressive and striking element.

For Sound: Knives in Hens (Tom Starkey): many nice aural touches to create a surround of tension; I’m With You in Rockland (Nok Kanchanabanca): balancing jazz, spoken word, and videos into a coherent whole; The Secretaries (Kate Marvin): the range of soundscape added to the exaggerated reality of this sharp satire; Cloud Tectonics (Tye Hunt Fitzgerald): the sound of the storm felt palpable and impressive; and . . . How We Died of Disease-Related Illness (Frederick Kennedy): important use of unsettling sound effects and live and recorded voices made this the most memorable to me.

For Music: I’m With You in Rockland (Ian Gottlieb; Dylan Mattingly): percussion and piano were the stars of the show; The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Frederick Kennedy; Christopher Ross-Ewart): composed music and songs on the stereo added extra levels of emotion; Someone to Watch Over Me (Andrew Burnap): fine renditions of the voice and trumpet of the great Chet Baker; Lake Kelsey (Dylan Frederick): catchy and incisive exposition through song; and . . . Trouble in Tahiti (Leonard Bernstein; Music Director: Jill Brunelle): a beautiful arrangement of a score with classical lyricism and ethnic inflections,  somewhere between opera and musical theater.

For Projections and Artistic Effects: Roberto Zucco (Rasean Davonte Johnson, projection design): a barrage of effects for the finale of a killer’s bad end; Slouch (Brittany Bland, projection design): moody, collage-like effects added much visual interest to this tale of groping interiorities; How We Died of Disease-Related Illness (Brittany Bland, projection design): video intrusions added to the spectacle of medical chaos; Do All Daddies Have Grey Suits? (Aylin Tekiner, Conceptual Artist; Kemal Gökhan Gürses, Illustrator Artist; Brittany Bland, projection design): a wonderfully involved use of video, shadow puppets, animation to tell a child’s eye view of violence and death; and . . . Trouble in Tahiti (Rasean Davonte Johnson, projection design): the visuals brilliantly created commentary and expanded on the dramatic situations presented.

For Ensemble acting: We Are All Here (Jenelle Chu, Claire DeLiso, Edmund Donovan, Brontë England-Nelson, Christopher Ghaffari, Jonathan Higginbotham, Sean Patrick Higgins, Maria Inês Marques, Victoria Whooper, Ian Williams): a rough and tumble ensemble with everyone adding to the comic tensions; The Secretaries (Jenelle Chu, Annie Hägg, Chalia La Tour, Annelise Lawson, Shaunette Renée Wilson): a ladies only night—and it was irresistible to see five of the six actresses of the class of 2016 tearing it up together; Salt Pepper Ketchup (Mia Antoinette, Jason de Beer, Eston J. Fung, Sean Boyce Johnson, Steven Lee Johnson, Tanmay Manohar, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, James Udom, Seta Wainiqolo): a sustained sense of community with delicate detentes and violent intrusions; The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Baize Buzan, Anna Crivelli, Sydney Lemmon, Annelise Lawson, Leyla Levi, Shaunette Renée Wilson): another ladies only play that lets us into an inner circle being destroyed from within; and . . . Roberto Zucco (Juliana Canfield, Paul Cooper, Brontë England-Nelson, Dylan Frederick, Aubie Merrylees, Alyssa Miller, Jacob Osborne): though there’s clearly a central character, there were many mini-cameos of a variety of types in this darkly comic tale.

Even in the midst of great ensemble work, there were roles that lit up with memorable intensity: Actor (female), in supporting role(s): Baize Buzan as the mercurial love object in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant; Chalia La Tour as the sadistic supervisor in The Secretaries; Brontë England-Nelson as several roles, including an enthralled woman and an old man in Roberto Zucco; Marié Botha for her comic shopping spree in Slouch; and . . . for a hilarious range of commentators, amazingly lucid in each incarnation, Juliana Canfield in How We Died of Disease-Related Illness.

Actor (male), in supporting role(s): Sean Patrick Higgins as the dad with wife, male lover, and nubile daughter troubles in We Are All Here; Paul Cooper as the fascinatingly dark and introspective Miller in Knives in Hens; Julian Elijah Martinez as a boyish Orestes learning to man up in Boris Yeltsin; Eston J. Fung as the harried and scheming fast food joint owner in Salt Pepper Ketchup; and . . . for two roles, equally memorable: the unnervingly patriarchal husband in Knives in Hens, and the wacky sick scientist with a song to sing in How We Died of Disease-Related Illness, Niall Powderly.

For “main role,” I’ve chosen parts that dominate the action or share center stage together: Actor (male): Aubie Merrylees, the killing fool and homicidal lover in Roberto Zucco; Edmund Donovan, the wary white boy getting in too deep in Dutch Masters; Leland Fowler, the seductive, deceiving, amusing and sympathetic black kid in Dutch Masters; Patrick Madden, the accommodating queen of her own fantasy heading for a fall in And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens; and . . . a thoughtful lover missing the cues for a full life but achieving a poetic end, Bradley James Tejeda in Cloud Tectonics.

Actor (female): Mary Higgins, as the mom with a song in her heart and a wry sense of her own frailty in MoonSong; Kelly Hill, as a wife looking for the romantic magic she never knew in Trouble in Tahiti; Stephanie Machado, as the mysterious time-stopping archetypal pregnant madonna in Cloud Tectonics; Sydney Lemmon, as a vital, successful woman with a void in her heart in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant; and . . . as Woman, on her way to knowledge and, through stylized encounters with male figures, finding her own voice, Elizabeth Stahlmann in Knives in Hens.

For Direction, thanks to everyone who takes on this task, but to single-out productions where the grasp of complex material was very telling: Jesse Rasmussen, for the mysterious, portentous world of Knives in Hens; Christopher Ghaffari, for finding a way to stage at the Cab a truncated Bernard-Marie Koltès play with a sprawling cast of characters, Roberto Zucco; Lynda Paul, for the incorporation of music, voice, acting, visuals, comedy, romance into a Gesamtkunstwerk in Trouble in Tahiti; Leora Morris, with Jesse Rasmussen, for a pacing and tone that revitalizes Fassbinder in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant; and . . . for going over the top, to the edge of chaos and back in How We Died of Disease-Related Illness, and for a slowburn control of barbed material in Boris Yeltsin, Elizabeth Dinkova.

And for overall Production: Knives in Hens: Adam J. Frank, Producer; Davina Moss, Dramaturg; Rebekah Heusel, Stage Manager; Roberto Zucco: Tanmay Manohar, Gretchen Wright, Producers; Ariel Sibert, Dramaturg; Emely Zepeda, Stage Manager; How We Died of Disease-Related Illness: Kathy Ruoran Li, Producer; David Clauson, Stage Manager; The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant: Maria Inês Marques, Producer & Dramaturg; Avery Trunko, Stage Manager; and . . . (call me sentimental, but I was born at the end of the 1950s) Trouble in Tahiti: Steven Koernig, Producer; Taylor Barfield, Dramaturg; Jennifer Schmidt, Avery Trunko, Co-Stage Managers.

Farewell, Cab 48. Howdy, Cab 49.

Cab 47 Recap

Season 47 of the Yale Cabaret has ended its run as of April 25th, which must mean it's time for a re-cap of the season. A re-cap wherein I try to recall and celebrate my favorite contributions to the magical basement that is the Yale Cabaret. Ready? Here are a baker's dozen of categories with my five exemplars in each (in chronological order, but for my fave pick), for a total of 65 citations: New Play: This year’s top five never-before-seen, new plays were: Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time, in which Alice in Wonderland—or rather Liddy in Wonderland—meets “Little Miss” beauty pageants, written with verve for a cast of crazies by Emily Zemba; The Zero Scenario, in which every Cleveland in these United States is threatened by the Ticks of Death but for a special plucky band of heroes, written by Ryan Campbell; The Untitled Project, in which a collective of black male YSD’ers create self-portraits in the context of racial profiling, conceived and directed by Ato Blankson-Wood and created by the ensemble; Sister Sandman Please, in which three sisters put it out there for a cowboy, with varying degrees of passion, irony and intention, written by Jessica Rizzo; and ... 50:13, in which an incarcerated black man about to be freed tries to tell it like it is, with candor, wit and a variety of character sketches, to a young prison-mate, written by Jiréh Breon Holder.

Adapted Play: Impressive pre-existing plays adapted for Cab 47 included four translations and an English-language opera: Don’t Be Too Surprised, written by Geun-Hyung Park, translated and directed by Kee-Yoon Nahm, lets us know in no uncertain terms that familial dysfunction can still take surprising forms on stage; MuZeum, translated and directed by Ankur Sharma, tells stories from ancient sources and contemporary headlines, to dramatize powerfully the victimization of women; Quartet by Heinrich Müller, translated by Doug Langworthy, directed by David Bruin, revisits Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons as a wickedly entertaining pas de deux and psychologically fraught cat-and-mouse; The Medium, an opera by Gian Carlo Menotti, directed by Ahn Lê, creates a world of mystery, loss, and deep feeling and gives further credence to the notion that opera is not just for opera houses; and ... Leonce and Lena by Georg Büchner, translated by Gavin Whitehead, directed by Gavin Whitehead and Elizabeth Dinkova, presents a play of aristocratic ennui that torches the well-made play, and this time with puppets!

Set Design: After all, the Cab is a basement with a kitchen, and convincing us we’re in a new space each week takes some doing. Here are some set designs that went beyond all expectation in their achieved artistry: Kurtis Boetcher’s set for Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time made a door where there’s a window and had the coloring and style of a child’s playhouse; Joey Moro’s versatile set for Hotel Nepenthe breathed a seedy charm, like we imagine Hotel Duncan does, or should; Chika Shimuzi and Izmir Ickbal’s stunning set for MuZeum lent aura aplenty and eye-catching beauty to its revue-style presentation; Christopher Thompson’s set for The Zero Scenario seemed to defy space itself in cramming so much busy-ness into the Cab, including a motelroom and a hidden headquarters, and ... Adrian Martinez Frausto’s moody set for The Medium was so fully achieved in its seedy gentility it might be a film set inviting a camera’s scrutiny.

Costumes: Dressing actors for their parts often goes beyond the norm, creating inspired additions to the visual flair of a show. Some of the tops in costumes were: Grier Coleman’s range of captivating dress for ancient characters of India and contemporary folks in MuZeum; Fabian Aguilar and Alexae Visel’s super cool get-ups for the agents protecting us from Tick Apocalypse in The Zero Scenario; Alexae Visel’s authentic mock-ups of the cartoonish costumes of the old Batman series “fit just like my glove” in Episode 21: Catfight; Haydee Zelideth had a field day with modernist Enlightenment-era costuming in Leonce and Lena; and ... Soule Golden and Montana Blanco rendered camp versions of the White Rabbit, Hatter, White Queen, and Tweedledum/dee we won’t soon forget in Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time.

Lighting: It doesn’t just help us see, it also selects and shows and evokes, sometimes making for quite magical effects. Illuminating dancers with lights that added to both movement and music in Solo Bach: Caitlin Smith Rapoport; creating a wealth of visual effects that kept us entranced in MuZeum: Joey Moro; putting on a show and putting-on the trappings of a storybook world in Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time: Joey Moro; using light to complement stories and to add drama in 50:13: Elizabeth Mak; and ... creating an Old World atmosphere both spooky and authentic in The Medium: Andrew Griffin.

Sound: It can be used in striking or surprising ways, or to create an aural texture to accompany the action. Creating a wintery world with bursts of music and broadcasts in Rose and the Rime: Jon Roberts, Joel Abbott; maintaining a sustained eerieness and B-movie aura in Hotel Nepenthe: Sinan Zafar; incorporating music and a range of emotional tones in MuZeum: Tyler Kieffer; bringing together recorded voice, spoken voice, and background music into a collage in The Untitled Project: Tyler Kieffer; and ... merging voices, sound effects, loops and his own music to create a shifting aural space in Sister Sandman Please: Chris Ross-Ewart.

Music and Movement: We don’t always get both, but it can make for entrancing theater when we do: MuZeum featured essential music by Anita Shastri, played on stage by a crew of musicians/actors and interacted with by the actors; The Untitled Project used recorded music tellingly and featured a show-stopping dance sequence by Ato Blankson-Wood; The Medium presented a stirring reduction of Menotti’s score into a solo piano tour de force by Jill Brunelle, expressive miming from José Ramón Sabín Lestayo, and impressive vocals from the cast; Sister Sandman Please benefited from Chris Ross-Ewart’s compositions amidst the aural textures, and delighted with a raucous “O Holy Night” from Ashley Chang; and ... Solo Bach showcased Zou Yu’s amazing solo violin performances, combined with the inventive, cryptic and dramatic choreography by Shayna Keller and her actor/dancers: Paul Cooper, Chalia La Tour, Julian Elijah Martinez, Leora Morris.

Special Effects: An ad hoc category that includes whatever doesn’t fit into other categories, such as: the combination of lights and star chart backdrop to create a sense of wonder in Touch: Joey Moro; the evocative projections-as-scenery in Solo Bach: Rasean Davonte Johnson; the B-movie monster ticks and blood and projections and other effects in The Zero Scenario: Rasean Davonte Johnson, Mike Paddock; the varied creepy puppets, hand-held and string-operated, in Leonce and Lena: Emily Baldasarra; and ... the use of projections and clips to tell stories and create context with images in The Untitled Project: Rasean Davonte Johnson.

Acting (ensemble): Ideally, the acting in a play is a group affair, in which everyone plays a part, of course. Still, it’s worth remarking on when a cast is more than the sum of its parts, as in these shows: Look Up, Speak Nicely and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time, the big kick-off extravaganza of the season featured a gallery of colorful characters by Sarah Williams, Celeste Arias, Aubie Merrylees, Shaunette Renée Wilson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Melanie Field, Andrej Visky, Libby Peterson; The Zero Scenario, the crowd-pleasing first semester closer, pulled out all the stops with Ariana Venturi, Tom Pecinka, Sara Holdren, Ankur Sharma, Aaron Profumo, Emily Zemba, Ryan Campbell; The Untitled Project, an ensemble-derived show that focused on the subtle distinctions and broad stereotypes of race, was created and enacted by Taylor Barfield, Ato Blankson-Wood, Cornelius Davidson, Leland Fowler, Jiréh Breon Holder, Phillip Howze, Galen Kane; Leonce and Lena, in which actors and puppet-handler/actors interacted to create a zany theatrical world of kingdoms and encounters, with Sebastian Arboleda, Juliana Canfield, David Clauson, Anna Crivelli, Ricardo Dávila, Edmund Donovan, Josh Goulding, Steven C. Koernig, Lynda A.H. Paul, Nahuel Telleria; and ... Hotel Nepenthe, a comic tour de force of changing roles, repeating characters, and linked situations that ran from the creepy to the farcical, all created with manic intensity by Bradley James Tejeda, Annelise Lawson, Emily Reeder, Galen Kane.

Acting (individual): For individual performances, I’m going with some standouts, whether in accomplished ensemble work, or showcased in two-handers, or in the unrelenting spotlight of the solo show. Ladies first: Celeste Arias, hilarious as an unhinged mommie dearest in Look Up, Speak Nicely and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time; Sydney Lemmon, riveting as Mme Merteuil but even more so as Mme Merteuil/Valmont in Quartet; Maura Hooper, chameleonic as a series of characters, including a disaffected nun and a happy hooker, in Shiny Objects; Zenzi Williams, demonstrating a range of attitudes in four characters, from spiritual to demur to quietly confident in Shiny Objects, and ... Tiffany Mack, unforgettable as a heart-wrenching victim of an acid attack in MuZeum.

Acting (individual): And from the men: Jonathan Majors, finding himself in an unbearable situation and quietly going to pieces in Touch; Tom Pecinka as a highly verbal passenger monologuing his anxiety in The Zero Scenario; Edmund Donovan, riveting as Valmont but even more so as Valmont/Mme de Tourvel in Quartet; Ricardo Dávila as the slippery, caustic and fascinating Valerio in Leonce and Lena; and ... Leland Fowler as a stand-up guy feeling the longings of the jailed and acting out a quick lesson in family history and racism in 50:13.

Directing: For the vision behind the whole shebang that makes it all hang together, we celebrate directors: for the all-out campy and creepy charm of Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time: Ato Blankson-Wood; for keeping the hopscotch logic and many shifts in tone of Hotel Nepenthe on point: Rachel Carpman; for creating the interplay of stories, including humor, confrontation, and violence in MuZeum: Ankur Sharma; for showing a dramatic and thoughtful grasp of the resilience of a human spirit trapped in a cage in 50:13: Jonathan Majors; and ... for providing the comic highpoint of the season with wild charm, horror surprises and relentless verve in The Zero Scenario: Sara Holdren.

Production: From the above, it’s obvious which shows seemed tops to me, but to bring them all together for a final nod: Hotel Nepenthe, Sarah Williams, producer, Taylor Barfield, dramaturg, Avery Trunko, stage manager, the kind of shifting and surprising show that keeps me coming back to theater; MuZeum, Anita Shastri, producer, Maria Ines Marques, dramaturg, Emily DeNardo, stage manager, a strong and cathartic import to our shores; The Zero Scenario, Ahn Lê, producer, Helen Jaksch and Nahuel Telleria, dramaturgs, Anita Shastri, stage manager, a crazy sci-fi ride that screams “sequel!”; 50:13, Jason Najjoum, producer, Taylor Barfield, dramaturg, Lauren E. Banks, stage manager, an important and meaningful addition to the one-person play and the "black lives matter" movement; and ... Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time, Kelly Kerwin, producer, Nahuel Telleria, dramaturg, Avery Trunko stage manager, “the gang’s all here” type of theater, presenting a lively riff on the rigors of growing up female in our media-ized Wonderland.

Thanks again to our hosts for 18 weekends—plus a Drag Show: Molly Hennighausen, Will Rucker, Tyler Kieffer, and Hugh Farrell. And ... see you next season, at the Cab!

The Yale Cabaret Season 47 September 18, 2014-April 25, 2015

Recap: Yale Cab 46

Yale Cabaret Season 46 is now just a memory. So let’s test our memories. Surveying the season, I’ve come up with five top picks in thirteen categories, as I have done for Seasons 45 (’12-’13) and 44 (’11-’12). Picks are listed in order of the show’s appearance, except the last named is my top choice. First up, the category of pre-existing play adapted to the unique opportunities afforded by the ever-intimate Cab space: All of these had something to do with power dynamics and each was a gripping experience: Dutchman, the challenging provocation about erotics and racial profiling by LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka; erotomania as a work ethic between sisters in Jean Genet’s The Maids; He Left Quietly, Yaël Farber’s dramatization of the incarceration of an innocent man sentenced to death in apartheid South Africa; YSD alum Tarell Alvin McCraney’s exploration of the bonds and frictions between brothers as archetypes in The Brothers Size; and . . . Edward Bond’s daunting look at a world bereft of goods and memories, Have I None.

New plays inaugurated at the Cab this season, as usual, were a mixed bag, trying out eclectic forms: We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun, by Helen Jaksch (*15), Kelly Kerwin (*15), Emily Zemba (*15) is a drag-show drama with music, comedy, and pathos; The Most Beautiful Thing in the World, conceived by Gabriel Levey (*14) and devised with Kate Tarker (*14), is a performance piece that invites the kinds of pitfalls theater is prone to, and brought the audience into the performance; The Defendant, by Elia Monte-Brown (*14), commands the attitudes and language of its teen characters, while walking a difficult line between comedy and unsettling social reality; The Mystery Boy, adapted by Chris Bannow (*14), is a frenetic theatrical romp as weird and vivid as the mind of a pre-teen; and . . . A New Saint for a New World by Ryan Campbell (*15) is a funny dialogue-driven exploration of faith and defiance through the figure of Joan of Arc.

For Sets, the created space wherein everything happens: the runway by way of Warhol for the camp and glam denizens of We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun, by Christopher Ash (*14); the gritty prison space open to our view to make theater of incarceration for He Left Quietly, by Christopher Thompson (*16); the posters and atmosphere of a bygone theatrical era that lent much visual interest to The Crazy Shepherds of Rebellion, by Reid Thompson (*14); the striking combination of modern and ancient ruin that served as backdrop to graffiti art in We Fight We Die, by Jean Kim (*16); and . . . the improbable rooms within a room, meticulously outfitted and wrought for The Maids, by Kate Noll (*14).

For Lighting, that magical aspect of theater that adds so much atmosphere and affect to our viewing experience: Elizabeth Mak (*16) for the highly effective illuminations of the will-of-the-wisp figures in Crave; Oliver Wason (*14) for the use of light and dark to evoke the uncertain occurrences in The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs; Oliver Wason (*14) for the intricate lighting of actual interior space in The Maids; Oliver Wason (*14) for the different lighting for the different worlds—from domestic earth to prison to another planet—in A New Saint for a New World; and . . . Andrew F. Griffin (*16) for playing with light and dark in an almost musical way in The Brothers Size.

For Costumes, that aspect of the experience that helps us suspend our disbelief, and helps actors convince us of their characters’ reality: Hunter Kaczorowski (*14) for the stylish retro outfits of Radio Hour; Elivia Bovenzi (*14) for a cast of regular people and inspired clowns in Derivatives; Asa Benally (*16) for costuming a cavalcade of different plays in a short compass in The Crazy Shepherds of Rebellion; Fabian Aguilar (*16) for the varied habiliments of Joan of Arc’s ordeals in A New Saint for a New World—including space-age angels; and . . . Grier Coleman (*15) for the pastiche and aplomb, charm and chutzpa of We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun.

More ethereal even than Lighting is Sound, but a telling aspect of any production in augmenting the action and creating a mental space to support the visual: Joel Abbott (*14) for tying together all the moods and styles of We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun; Tyler Kieffer (*15) for the use of scored moments in the presentation of The Most Beautiful Thing in the World; Brian Hickey (*15) and Steve Brush (*14) for the razzle-dazzle TV-esque documentary and comedy productions of Derivatives; Tyler Kieffer for letting us eavesdrop so effectively in The Maids; and . . . Tyler Kieffer (*15) and Steve Brush (*14) for the radio soundscape and Foley art of Radio Hour.

For some productions, the visual element doesn’t end with Lighting, Sets, and Costumes, but acquires more presence through the use of projections and other special Visual Effects: Christopher Ash (*14) for the enhancement of the performance space of We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun; Nick Hussong (*14) for the various charts and logos and floating backdrops in Derivatives; Kristin Ferguson (*15) for the striking and lyrical use of photographic projections in Bound to Burn; Joey Moro (*15) for the creation of different visual moods so important to Joan of Arc’s odyssey in A New Saint for a New World; and . . . Rasean Devonte Johnson (*16) for the graffitied visuals of We Fight We Die, and for adding to the fluid visual experience of The Brothers Size.

Use of Music is another element that, for some productions, is almost like adding another character or a special effect to color the action or complete it: Steve Brush (*14) for the songs and jingles and accompaniment so crucial to the aural world of Radio Hour; Jenny Schmidt (*14) for adding to the tensions and suggestiveness of The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs; Pornchanok Kanchanabanca (*16) for the enlivening musical asides that fleshed out the variety of The Crazy Shepherds of Rebellion; Mike Mills for the percussion that acts as Greek chorus to comment musically on—and even control—the action of The Brothers Size; and . . . Joel Abbott (*14) for the sensitive accompaniment that helped render the range of possible motives and actions in We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun.

Another aspect of the experience of the play’s physical presence is how it moves—sometimes that means actual choreography and the creation of dance, other times it has to do with how much activity and physical interaction takes place in the show; choice examples of how intricate Movement greatly enhances a play are: the choreography of the drag queen sleuths by Kelly Kerwin (*15) for We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun; the fluid use of the entire space and the highly expressive interactions directed by Hansol Jung (*14) in Crave; the dance numbers that told stories with movement and mime, choreographed by Rob Chikar (*14) and Alyssa Simmons (*14), in Bound to Burn; the incredibly active interludes bursting out of The Brothers Size, directed by Luke Harlan (*16); and . . . the prop-happy cast, creating sound effects and a variety of characters in different costumes while constantly on stage, of The Mystery Boy, directed by Chris Bannow (*14) and Helen Jaksch (*15).

In terms of Performance, some roles and actors move beyond the traditional “actor”/”actress” dualism, but as such is still the norm of awards shows, I’ll follow suit; for the xy chromosomes: as the one, the only, the much maligned and deeply mourned Edie La Minx: Seth Bodie (*14) in We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun (*14); as Claire, “the pretty one” that Mistress should have designs on: Mickey Theis (*14) in The Maids; for his show-stopping turn as a Lena Horne impersonator in We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun, and for acting out the gripping ordeal of Duma Kumalo in He Left Quietly, Ato Blankson-Wood (*15); as Ogun, the god of iron in the form of a paternalistic and truly fraternal car-shop owner in The Brothers Size, Jonathan Majors (*16); and . . . as the alleged brother who brings death to his sister in Have I None, and as the manipulative “sister” in The Maids, Chris Bannow (*14).

And in Performance, those actors with xx chromosomes: as Lula, the mercurial provocation on a subway car in Dutchman, Carly Zien (*14); as the introducer forced to provide the presentation, with improvised patter and invited responses, Kate Tarker (*14) in The Most Beautiful Thing in the World; as the curious, distraught and distrustful wife in The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs, Chasten Harmon (*15); as a Joan of Arc forced to be normal and then again extraordinary, Maura Hooper (*15) in A New Saint for a New World; and . . . as a woman at her wits’ end in a world of deprivations, Ceci Fernandez (*14) in Have I None.

For the task of somehow orchestrating all this diverse input and making decisions that create a coherent theatrical experience—for Directing, in other words: Jessica Holt (*15) for the harrowing world, driven by complex language and meaningful actions and silences, of Have I None; Cole Lewis (*14) for the mounting tensions and effective contrapuntal presentation of The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs; Sara Holdren (*15) for keeping a handle on comedy with cosmic dimensions, and drama with unsettling implications in A New Saint for a New World; Luke Harlan (*16) for the combination of movement, music, intense dialogue and strong characterizations in The Brothers Size; and . . . Dustin Wills (*14) for the challenging presentation and darkly comic tone of drama queens seduced by death behind closed doors but bare windows in The Maids.

Finally, for overall Production, which means having the wherewithal to make this thing happen, as enablers and aider-abetters, the producers and dramaturgs of the shows that impressed me most: We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun: Emika Abe (*15), producer, and Helen Jaksch (*15), dramaturg; Have I None: Molly Hennighausen (*15), producer, and Hugh Farrell (*15), dramaturg; A New Saint for A New World: Sally Shen, producer, and Helen Jaksch (*15), dramaturg; The Brothers Size: Alyssa Simmons (*14) and Melissa Zimmerman (*14), producers, and Taylor Barfield (*16), dramaturg; and . . . The Maids: Lauren Wainwright (*14), producer, and Tanya Dean (*14), dramaturg.

Some of those mentioned have completed their time at YSD—best of luck in all you do!—and others have a year or two to go. Thanks to all for their dedication, talent, and spirited engagement with the special performance space that is the Yale Cabaret. And to this year's departing team, Whitney Dibo, Lauren Dubowski, Kelly Kerwin, and Shane Hudson, many thanks for a lively season.

Coming soon: a preview of the Yale Summer Cabaret, with Artistic Directors Jessica Holt and Luke Harlan, and Managing Director Gretchen Wright.

See you next year, at the Cab!--with Artistic Directors Hugh Farrell, Tyler Kieffer, Will Rucker, and Managing Director Molly Hennighausen.

Right Author, Wrong Book

Doris Lessing died last year. It got me thinking again about another one of my ongoing small problems as a reader, which I can explain very nicely with two writers as examples. The problem is: You love a writer, but for the wrong book. Another way to put it: The weird situation where you love a writer, but exclusively for the "lesser" works. When a writer gets famous, or develops a reputation for being particularly good at some thing or other, you’re supposed to gush over That Thing. Let me take as examples Doris Lessing (famous for her novel The Golden Notebook, embraced by feminists around the world; her political novel The Good Terrorist, and her sci-fi/fantasy novels) and Shirley Jackson, about whom I’ve written elsewhere for the New Haven Review. Shirley Jackson is known today mostly for her creepy fiction, novels such as We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Hangsaman, among many others.

Here is my problem: I have spent most of my life really admiring both of these writers, and regarding them with awe and wonder, and counting myself, really, truly, as an ardent fan, without having read any of these landmark titles.

Instead, I base my adoration of these writers on books that I think most critics would view as fluffy side projects. In the case of Doris Lessing, my love is based entirely -- entirely -- on a really skinny, scary-as-hell novel called The Fifth Child, which came out in 1988. (It’s actually a very Shirley Jacksonesque work, about a happy family that has four children, and then a fifth baby arrives, and Everything Changes and Not For the Better.) In the case of Shirley Jackson, my love is based on Life Among the Savages, which is just a collection of fictionalized essays about domestic life. (The connections here are fun to think about, aren’t they?)

And I have no plans to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, or Hangsaman, or whatever else.

Now, in the case of Doris Lessing, I’ve long felt bad that this book, The Fifth Child, was the one that made such a big impression on me. I suppose it was bound to; I was never someone who liked small children, and always found them scary. The idea of ever being a mother was completely abhorrent to me: Never! Never! (Never mind that I am, in fact, a mother now.) It was a short novel (my favorite kind) that was taut and made me feel that my sense about children was not unfounded. And it was, you know, well-written, had a literary pedigree, was published by a fancy house, etc. etc. I think I read that book once a year for ages. I remember that it was one of the books I took with me when I went away to college. I wasn’t at all ashamed of my love for The Fifth Child, but I definitely felt guilty that none of Lessing’s other books held any interest for me. I thought it didn’t speak well of me that The Fifth Child was the Lessing book I knew and loved so well, and more to the point, I always felt like I was the only person who felt this way, who’d had this experience. (I acknowledge this, though: Perhaps I just wasn’t the right age for most of her books. There are definitely some writers where if you don’t read them at just the right phase of your life, there’s no point. My mother gave me copies of numerous Lessing books when I was a teenager, which I glanced at and then set aside, because I thought, “oh, who cares.” At the same time, though, I’ve never gotten rid of them. Maybe the time is now, and in 2014 I should put them on my list. I’ve actually begun to read Anna Karenina, recently, for the first time; this, if nothing else, proves that anything is possible, because I’ve been avoiding reading that for decades, now, in spite of the fact that I own two copies of it.)

I thought that The Fifth Child as the only Lessing book I knew and loved so well showed me to be a weak reader, somehow. More to the point, I always felt like I was the only person who felt this way, who’d had this experience. And then a couple days ago I finally got around to reading the issue of the New York Times Magazine that they do every December, the Lives They Lived issue, where writers and photographers do little pieces about the noteworthy and interesting people who died during the year. Of all people, of all books, Steve Almond wrote about Doris Lessing, and god bless him for making me see so clearly that I am not alone. His essay, which is a pleasure to read by the way, begins with this:

“My interest in Doris Lessing -- Nobel Prize winner and one of the most celebrated writers on earth -- derives from a single book, the 1988 novel The Fifth Child, which has haunted me for more than 20 years.”

I always knew I liked that Steve Almond. I don’t care about his fiction at all, by the way, but boy do I love that book Candy Freak.

Oppenheimer on the Advocate

Mark Oppenheimer, founder of the New Haven Review, former editor of the New Haven Advocate, and columnist at the New York Times, comments on the end of the New Haven Advocate: Here's the sad thing: the Advocate was an alt-weekly that could have made it. New Haven is a loyal town, the brand was great, and it was for a couple decades an absolute must-read — not only among the heads, freaks, geeks and other counter-culturalists who loitered on the Green (smoking the green), but in the political and business communities, too. The combination of arts coverage plus progressive politics worked for this publication.

And I Iike to think it was still working in the years I edited the paper, from 2004 to 2006. But we were already owned by the Hartford Courant, which was already owned by the Tribune, and that big, massive, stupidly run conglomerate, now in well-deserved bankruptcy, somehow managed to stymie every possible innovation that could have kept us relevant. It wasn't just starving us for funds, or even mainly starving us for funds. Worse, it was insisting that we be part of a "synergy" strategy that folded our web presence (and ad sales) into that of other publications, including dailies that we were ostensibly supposed to fearlessly cover, and even a local Fox TV affiliate.

The synergy never materialized, of course, and what the suits had to show for it was not higher ad revenue or more eyeballs but just a shitty website for an alt weekly that, a decade earlier, had been early to, and smart on, the web, as well as a generally demoralized staff. And with all that, we still did good work. Our alumni — including people I hired who are now at The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, and (as a free lance) New York magazine and elsewhere, and who are writing novels and recording music and generally making trouble — continue to bear (I hope) the mark of the beast that I branded on their forehead, using a branding iron that had been passed on to me by other alumni, including Paul Bass and Gail Collins and a forgotten cast of awesomes. Good night, New Haven Advocate, and may plights of angels ping you in your dreams.

—Mark Oppenheimer, December 1, 2013

End of an Era

In case you missed it: the once proud New Haven Advocate is no more.  Granted, it hasn't been itself in a while, but as of last week, it's gone.  Former NHA staff member Brian LaRue posted his take on the untimely demise on November 27.  Here's what he had to say about it.  You can see his original post at ItsBrianLaRue, and you can email him with comments at: brianglarue@gmail.com.  At NHR we welcome comments to Brian's post as well as more detailed reflections from those who wrote for, worked at, or read avidly The New Haven Advocate at any time in its former existence.  Submit the latter to editor@newhavenreview.com  

Three Alt-Weeklies, My Own Salad Days and One Long Goodbye to Them All

 

This morning, the final editions of the three alt-weekly newspapers that serve Connecticut — the New Haven Advocate, Hartford Advocate and Fairfield County Weekly — all hit newsstands. The Hartford Advocate, which I discovered on the floor of my high school’s chorus room, was the first alt-weekly I ever read and inspired me to pursue journalism seriously. The New Haven Advocate, which I read religiously through college, opened my eyes to the premise that whatever I wanted to get out of doing journalism, I wasn’t getting it from being a journalism major. (I switched to English pretty quickly.) At some point in my 20s, I wrote for each of those three papers.

It’s often sad to acknowledge a significant part of your past is gone (and almost always a bum-out to realize you’ve reached an age when you can look back and notice how entities that at one point defined your life are totally gone), but my own sense of loss is a mere detail. The tragedy is that every region deserves an alt-weekly, and to imagine every Connecticut college campus and artists’ colony and band rehearsal complex not having one that serves its own denizens… well, the image just doesn’t feel like Connecticut to me. The Connecticut I know is home to a culture where mild crankiness and dry wit ride high, where homegrown music and art are championed by very vocal local boosters, where the landscape is dotted with a few of the more prestigious colleges and universities in the U.S., where the political conversation tends to pan leftward, and where an extremely diverse (economically and ethnically) group of people try to understand each other and get along. Connecticut is alt-weekly country, man.

Now, just to clarify things: There are some people who will probably say the Advocate, the NHAdvocate and the Weekly aren’t going anywhere. Those three papers — collectively, the New Mass. Media Group — are owned by the Hartford Courant,  Hartford’s daily and paper of record (which in turn is owned by the long-flagging media giant the Tribune Corp.). The Courant has, for many years, published a weekly pull-out arts and lifestyle supplement called Cal. The New Mass. Media papers and Cal will henceforth be combined into one publication, to be called CTNow. This name reflects the longstanding domain CTNow.com, which had previously existed as a Courant­-owned, web-only entertainment publication. New Mass. Media editorial staffers will hold onto their jobs — they’ll just be folded in under the CTNow umbrella. There will be some kind of paper in the old Advocate/Weekly boxes. It’ll just have a different name.

It’ll also have a different mission. Former colleagues of mine at New Mass. Media have told me the higher-ups at the Courant have instructed them to refrain from cursing in print and from writing about “edgy” topics. Furthermore, the Courant’s description of this whole re-branding project, in a recent memo to advertisers, as a “strategic realignment of our suite of entertainment products” misses the point of alt-weeklies entirely: They are supposed to be news publications, not merely “entertainment products.”

Look, even before everyone with an internet connection had the opportunity to publish anything at any hour of the day or night, alt-weeklies faced a particular challenge of timing. Dailies had the lock on breaking news. In order to be worth reading consistently, because they can expect to be scooped more often than not, alt-weeklies have to go in-depth and provide valuable context, to illuminate the characters involved, to explain the back story and point to potential outcomes. Most local dailies can only really go into a similar amount of depth in their weekend editions, because their reporters each have to polish off a handful of quick news stories every day and can’t sprawl out and devote 1,200 words to one topic. And alt-weeklies are supposed to be loud, opinionated, profane, funny, comforting, irksome, turgid, terse — because that’s how we are as human beings. Daily papers are expected to behave more decorously, “on the record,” so an alternative is needed to pick up the slack and join the conversation in the same tone as the people on the street. If you don’t have that, you don’t have an alt­-weekly. And if the Advocate/Weekly papers lose their “alt-” functionality and become mere “entertainment products,” then they are effectively done.

There’s a tragedy for readers in losing the Advocate/Weekly papers, as I hope I at least partly explained, but there’s another tragedy, one that’s repeating throughout the world of alt-weeklies, and that’s the loss of opportunity for journalists, particularly young journalists. Oh, sure, it’s 2013, and there’s no shortage of outlets for a young, loud, opinionated writer to be loud and opinionated in media. But oftentimes — and I’ve written about this before, talking about the shift in media from the all-hands-on-deck newsroom to these networks of isolated bloggers — you lose the wisdom of the tribe that comes from being part of an editorial staff at a decades-old publication. And beyond that, working at an alt-weekly teaches a journalist so many important lessons. For reasons I’ve already laid out, when you report for an alt-weekly, you have to go deep. You have to figure out the not-obvious story. You have to become an engaging storyteller, not just a sharp transcriber. The editorial staff is small. (When I worked at the New Haven Advocate, the most full-time editorial staffers we ever had was seven, and that didn’t last long.) Your beat is broad. You need to learn your history, fast, so you know what to ask about and who to talk to. In general, you need to get really good. Really. Goddamned. Good.

I first came to the New Haven Advocate in the summer of 2004, in a manner that seems impossible now and was fairly improbable even for that time. I was sitting around in my apartment, unemployed, in a prolonged post-collegiate daze. “I should write CD reviews professionally,” I thought, and so I emailed Chris Arnott, the paper’s arts editor, to ask for his advice to a young aspiring music critic. He wrote back explaining, well, he started out in the early ’80s, and back then you cut your teeth in ’zines and then worked your way up to weeklies, and he just wasn’t sure how to navigate the blogosphere because he’d never had to, but he liked my band’s most recent CD-R and particularly liked my lyrics, so might I be able to come by the office the following afternoon?

When I did visit the Advocate’s office — located then in a sleek office tower 11 floors above the New Haven Green, which, for the low-slung Elm City, offered panoramic views in all directions — Chris explained the paper needed someone to take a crack at re-imagining and completely updating its upcoming annual guide to everything in the New Haven area. That was the assignment he had for me, and, well, once I was done, we could take it from there. He was excited to make progress — this issue, he said, would be an ideal showcase for this hot-shot young designer they’d just hired, this kid with a portfolio full of pieces inspired by pulp novel covers. Seconds later, I discovered that kid was my college friend Jeff Glagowski, and after a downright giddy reunion, Jeff, Chris and I started talking about the cover for this issue. We had this pulp theme, right? So let’s have a 50-foot-tall something laying waste to the Green. A giant Yale bulldog? …No, too needlessly antagonistic. A giant angry squirrel? …No, too in-jokey; you’d need to explain the Green is full of squirrels with attitude and… no. Finally, thinking of the man who’d held the highest elected office in the city for 10 years (and who would continue to hold it for 10 more), I said, “…How about a giant Mayor DeStefano?”

That was the one. It had just the right balance of “ridiculous” and “appropriate” to work. (And here it is as a lunchbox.):

That afternoon commenced about five years of having completely ridiculous ideas and, a week or two later, publishing 50,000 copies of them. I’ve explained — I hope — why alt-weeklies are important. But they’re also fun. They kind of have to be. The salaries are typically atrocious, the hours are long and the benefits are slim. There are reasons why so many young reporters in the alt-weekly world bounce around from one city and one paper to another, looking for the gig through which they can gain a foothold and advance. In his excellent appreciation of Boston Phoenix upon that esteemed alt-weekly’s shuttering, former Phoenix editor S.I. Rosenbaum pointed out how “the job itself had to be the reward.” You work for an alt-weekly because, every week, it feels like some combination of a public service and a tremendous prank you can’t believe you’re getting away with. You spend countless days in which you work from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed again because you know you’re helping to create an ongoing community institution, something thousands of people rely on for an experience they can’t get anywhere else, and you have to bring your A-game for them.

And then there are all the weeks when you and your colleagues end up putting something in the paper simply because it’s funny and you can and no one’s stopping you. One former editor of mine, Tom Gogola, had an ongoing campaign, several weeks long, of making sure there was at least one image of a goat in each issue of the paper. When the New Haven Coliseum was demolished, Chris Arnott had an idea to include a “Demolish Your Own Coliseum” kit in the paper — the staff created a design that was printed in the centerfold of the paper, and by snipping it out, folding along the dotted lines and affixing some tape, readers could set up their own tiny Coliseum and smash it however they  wanted. Another time, before Christmas, we sent illustrator/writer Hugh Elton, who was then about 20 years old, out to sit in mall Santas’ laps and review their performances. During one editorial meeting, while joking about the tendency of the local daily, the New Haven Register, to publish cuddly human-interest stories, we decided to beat the Reg at its own game and devised the “kittencopia,” a horn of plenty from which protruded the pasted-together heads of about a dozen kittens, which we printed in several issues. One year on Valentine’s Day, I published a bitter ode to being broken up with that culminated with me proclaiming my adoration of my ever-trustworthy cassette four-track recorder. We sent contributing writer/illustrator Craig Gilbert out on the town wearing a Bigfoot suit, and photographer Kathleen Cei assembled a huge photo spread of Craig-as-Bigfoot riding a skateboard, browsing local shops and interacting with kids on the street.

We also published a lot of work that was cool and meaningful. We covered the work of housing advocates exposing the city’s worst slumlords. We covered the work of immigrants’ rights groups and told the very human stories of the perils faced by many of the city’s immigrants, before and after New Haven’s controversial move to issue IDs to undocumented residents. Reporter and editor Betsy Yagla brilliantly covered a high-profile local trial of a Navy sailor turned suspected Al Qaeda informant in 2008. Contributor Doron Monk Flake decided to throw a block party and logged the entire process of securing all the necessary permits and permissions. Tom Gogola, in 2005, insisted we use a tour stop by The Black Keys as an opportunity to put them on the cover, and assigned reporter Ryan Kearney to write the first comprehensive, long-form feature about them in any newspaper or magazine. I had the chance to interview Tommy Ramone, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Lou Barlow, Ian MacKaye, Juliana Hatfield, Ted Leo, Doug Martsch, Ian Svenonius, Zach Hill, Honus Honus, Mary Timony and countless others — an absolute dream for me as a 20-something rock musician. And our pages saw an endless stream of reviews, reports and columns by local musicians, artists, actors, filmmakers and so on, writing from the perspective that only active artists can bring to coverage of their own world. (This was a particular point of pride for Chris, that so many working artists of all disciplines would pitch in to write for the Advocate when we simply asked. “Other papers write about the scene,” he would often say, “but at the Advocate, the scene writes for us!”)

I have to acknowledge that I’m mainly remembering the Advocate for what it was at one time. I moved to Brooklyn in 2010 and missed out on the last three years of its existence, but it had been hobbled for at least a couple years by that point and the last three seem to have not been pretty. While New Mass. Media had been performing in the black for a long time, we were told, it reached a point when it couldn’t escape the effects of Tribune Corp.’s financial woes and eventual entry into bankruptcy proceedings. Many of the perks — like the vouchers advertisers would give to the paper in lieu of paying a balance in cash — dried up long before I left New Haven. There was a series of perhaps ill-thought-out hires at the management level, and content started to suffer. Long-time staffers gradually left all three New Mass. Media papers, and a hiring freeze prevented them from being replaced. The Weekly shuttered its Bridgeport office and moved operations to the New Haven Advocate’s office. Both papers eventually moved into a small storefront several blocks from that glorious 11th-floor perch. New Mass. Media didn’t have an easy time finding a digital foothold. Sales departments had some difficulty selling into the websites, and the sites were plagued by poor navigation and the disappearance of huge chunks of its web archives.

Eventually the Advocate/Weekly’s web properties were shunted into one tab on the CT.com domain — a tab labeled “The Advocates,” a designation no one in the editorial department of any NMM paper ever used, and which was probably as nonsensical to readers. I don’t think the consolidation of the Advocate/Weekly papers was a natural function of how print (and certainly not digital) media has performed in the 21st century. I think it goes to show the Courant’s management didn’t have a clue about what the brand of each of these papers was worth, or about the value audiences derived from the publications. The management has rolled these media properties up into something they can understand, which does not reflect the value audiences recognized in them during the days when they were performing in a functional fashion.

In any case, I’m in a position I never thought I’d be in: I’ve seen my former colleagues put the paper to bed for one more week, except this is the last time it’ll wake up on Wednesday morning. New Haven Advocate, Hartford Advocate, Fairfield County Weekly — you all did right by me. You shocked, amused and, most importantly, educated who knows how many people, and you turned me into a grownup along the way. Goodnight, old friends.

 Brian LaRue, November 27, 2013

 

 

From an Editor’s Desk: It’s Not Who You Know…Really It Isn’t

As music editor for Rowman and Littlefield, I receive any number of proposals for memoirs from musicians that tell not so much their story as that of the musical luminaries with whom they worked. Unfortunately, the aura of fame often extends only as far as the actual celebrity. As I wrote one agent regarding a possible book by a temporary drummer for a once famous act:

I know the uphill battle you will be facing when pitching a book of this sort, which I commonly refer to as the “memoir of the greatest sideman you've never heard of.” It’s tough to place books about the near famous rather than the famous. As Mel Brooks once quipped: “There are two types of people in this world: the famous and the near famous. The famous are just what you’d expect—president, popes, Hollywood stars. The near famous are those who want to be near the famous.”

 

Not long before this proposal, I had received another from a prospective author that was to be brazenly titled Confessions of a Shameless Name-dropper. Unlike other memoirists who try to sneak this stuff by, this author was refreshingly open about the matter, and even though I had to credit him with his bravado, I had to school him in the realities of the market (which he took with remarkable grace). Here’s what I wrote:

Since I handle lots of music titles—and of all sorts, including memoirs of the type you’re proposing—I wanted to follow up. I tend toward the brutally honest, so, as I warn some of my authors, put on your elephant skin. Here we go…

You are not the first and not by any means the last author who has proposed a book about his adventures in the music business and the many great names with whom he may have worked. The problem is a simple one: names of note in a book do not translate into sales when the book itself is not written by one of those noted names. Even forewords and endorsements by “big” names are no substitute for the real deal. A book about one’s working relationship with Renee Fleming or Mick Jagger is simply not the same as a book by either one of them.

The net result is that these titles don’t ever do nearly as well as their authors predict. Sometimes they don’t even do as well as we predict—and we at least have access to good sales data about this kind of thing.

The bad news is that star-power-by-association is a bit of a myth, and unless you are one of those rare behind-the-scenes individuals who made those stars into stars rather than just someone who worked alongside them—think Russell Simmons of Def Jam Records or Motown producer Berry Gordy—a book documenting one’s musical career through the great artists whose paths crossed yours is a tough sell.

I should note that this isn’t to say there aren’t exceptions. But those exceptions are few and far between. If the story told is so compelling or uniquely wrought that the work shines almost in spite of the name-dropping, a book editor might sign on. But in that case the sign-on is not to the dropped names but the literary quality of the work itself.

Of course, another possible approach is if the book editor not only thinks the story compelling enough to publish but also believes that real marketing muscle (and real editorial attention) will overcome possible lack of interest. In this scenario the book is, you might say, forced upon the public by being oversold or sensationalized. A case in point is Chicago Review Press’s publication in 2005 of I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie. Following in the wake of this sexual tell-all, which CRP managed to get behind well enough, author Pamela des Barres was able to write a follow-up and even publish an anthology of confessions from other groupies.

But, my, my, how quickly this kind of self-pumping confessional—groupies as muses…really?—ages when you look at how autobiographies of this ilk now clutter the world of the self-published. After Warren Zevon’s wife, Crystal, published her tell-all—since we now swim in a sea of spousal memoirs that are hardly better than shoulder-rubbing memoirs (or more than shoulders, if you opt to work from des Barres’ playbook)—it is not surprising that there should follow a self-published confessional, too, about Zevon’s illegitimate child with Rae Murphy or Anita Gevinson’s self-published expose of rock stars she bedded (most prominently…Warren Zevon).

A great deal more could be written about the sociocultural pressures to take advantage of celebrity. After all, there are any number of so-called celebrities whose only real talent is their ability to celebritize (yeah, I made that word up), from Paris Hilton to the Kardashians to the reality TV personalities who will then reappear on Dancing with the Stars. Because celebrity is now so cheaply bought on cable and online, it had created the illusion that there is, in fact, an audience of readers who want to know about the people who knew famous people. And there might be: for free. But a paying audience?  That’s a different matter, and it’s where I, as a book editor, often draw the line.

I Read Poetry to My Daughter

My daughter is a very talented poet.  She is also a first-year college student struggling--as, I think, many students must--to articulate a fully formed criticism of a poem that she had taken on for a term paper.  In her last year of high school, she and I sometimes sat together to iron out our thoughts on poems about which she had to write.   Recently she asked for my thoughts on a poem she had selected to explore.  "Fire Is Not a Nice Guest," written by the prose poet Russell Edson, was not an easy work.   (You can read it here for yourself.)  Since she is in college over 1,000 miles away, and I'm here in New Haven and her request came between classes, I decided to write my response.   After writing it, I realized it might, in turn, be worth sharing with those who wonder: "So how does one read a poem?"  Of course, there is no one way.  But what I offer here is one of the more common approaches--particularly if you are trying to gather ideas for writing about a poem.  So here it goes...  

Hey, kid,

Let me write for you something not only about the poem “Fire Is Not a Nice Thing,” but also about the toolbox needed in order to write poetry criticism.

A poem is a carefully shaped textual object. It emphasizes two things, in particular: form and economy. By form, I mean everything from the sound of the words to their order and rhythm to the line breaks; by economy I mean a certain dependence on concision—the saying of a lot in fewer words than might be said in a story or an essay.

When reading a poem, the first step in the process is to read it several times through and just let it soak in. As you read, and re-read, again and again, you should begin to pay attention not so much to the poem itself (that is, the poem on its own) as to the kinds of associations that light up in your head and the dark spots that show up by contrast and require more attention—with more re-reading or thinking about or even background research.

In analyzing a poem, you can first split it apart by its form and its content. This is never a neat split. For good poems, it’s not supposed to be. But it is a good starting point. By “content,” we refer to what the poem is “about”—most commonly the topic(s) discussed or suggested, the story being told (the narrative), and the images that are being used. By form, we refer to the literary devices employed that give the poem its distinctive shape.

The formal elements come in several major categories…

  • Phonemic: This refers to the sounds of the words, either alone or in relation to one another. The devices commonly associated with this category are things like assonance, alliteration, sibilance, rhyme, onomatopoeia, etc.
  • Rhythmic: In poetry this typically refers to the pattern of word stresses and line meter(s), the use of punctuation and line breaks (for creating longer and shorter pauses).
  • Syntactic: This refers to word order and thus to devices like chiasmus, ellipsis, palindrome, and numerous others.
  • Semantic: This refers to the meanings of words or phrases expressed or more often stretched or distorted through such devices as metaphors, similes, slang, and idioms, as well as portmanteau words and unusual word choices.

There are other types of formal aspects to poems—dramatic (apostrophe), poetic (couplets, Petrarchan sonnets, villanelles, haiku, free verse), and so on. But you get the idea about separating form from content.  With respect to form, it doesn’t hurt to think of devices through these categories. I should also note that many of these devices are not exclusive to any one category.  Ononmatopoeia—words that sound like the sound to which they refer, such “pow” or “woof”—is both a phonemic and semantic device.

But let’s move on. The point here is not to learn how to use these devices. That’s for the writing of poetry. What we want to learn here is how to recognize these devices when they’re being used, figure out why they are being used, and, even when we can’t figure out the why, then at least explain their effect on the reader--which brings us back to those associations that I mentioned earlier.

You know all of this already to a certain extent as a poet. But what we need now is to figure out how to use this knowledge as a reader and critic.

This is the view from 20,000 feet in the air. So let’s get down to earth.

A good way to write any analysis of a poem for a term paper is to first free associate and then record in bullet points your impressions.  This is essentially data gathering.  You may not be ready to make an argument until you’ve written a whole set of notes on the things you noticed first—your responses, your guesses, the links you see or think are being made.

Let’s take the title: “Fire Is Not a Nice Guest.”  Here are some of my associational bullet points.

  • The sentence is very simple.  It uses the simple equational verb “is.” The construction is basic: subject (“fire”) verb (“is”) object (“guest”).
  • This is a negative sentence.  That suggests to me negativity could become an element of the poem.
  • Guest is used as a metaphor.  Guest suggests an invitation, friendliness.  Fire could be friendly, a “guest,” if it warms one.  But generally guest suggests a house visitor, and fires and houses don’t mix well at all.
  • Nice is the adjective used to describe fire.  It’s a very simple word—too simple—almost  as if a child had named the poem, and that points to the dramatic aspect of the poem of who the poem’s speaker is supposed to be.  (As you and I have discussed, every poem has an implied speaker who is sometimes the same as the poet herself--but just as often not.)
  • This title is also, in a funny way, kind of stupid—that is, it reveals the stupidity of who named it because it states the obvious.  Fire is, metaphorically speaking, no guest!  (If the poem were called “Fire Is a Nice Guest,” that would really have me wondering what the poem would have been about: I imagine it then in a hearth warming my feet and thus a rather mawkish poem to follow suit.)

Important note here: I haven’t made an argument yet.  I’m just recording impressions—ideas suggested by the arrangement of the words, the implied tone (and perhaps intelligence or lack thereof) of the persona, the image I thus draw of the persona (is this a child? Someone mentally challenged? A not-too-bright adult?  An arsonist telling a story from prison?).  Actually, the type of notes that I’m recording here are examples of "reader response criticism" in action: I’m making a series of assumptions about the poem without having read the poem all the way through—many of which may be right or wrong, but whose validity as impressions are personally valid, even if mistaken.  Eventually, after one reads a poem (preferably many times), these impressions may come together as an argument or undergo heavy revision or more than likely both!

Again, I’m giving you a process—a way of reading poems—that hopefully can help in your getting to the point of writing about them in the form we call “criticism.”

OK, now into the poem a little.  I won’t do a line-by-line analysis.  I’ll just pick out parts that got my attention.

“I had charge of an insane asylum, as I was insane.”

  • For a first line, this is pretty bold.  Is it to be believed?  Is it just a metaphor? Is the speaker  really insane, or is he or she just exaggerating?    For now let’s take the assertion at face value.
  • The line begins with a clear contradiction. Inmates generally don’t run the asylums in which they are placed.  However, this sentence implies that because he(?) is insane, he’s in charge.  That assertion is, in itself, insane because it is a paradox (semantic device alert!).  He runs the asylum because he’s insane?  That’s just nuts!  It makes no sense—and thus perhaps serves the poem’s purpose.
  • Also the order of the phrases is interesting.  The first half is a reasonable assertion, until one gets to the second half. Suggestion: someone seemingly normal who, upon a second look, is clearly not?
  • Why “as I was insane” instead of “because I was insane”?  Since this is a prose poem, it doesn’t appear to be a question of meter.  The comma is suggestive—a pause, an afterthought, a bit of information being added to the main clause.  The narrator holding back on us (and maybe a little on himself, too).  The “as I was” would support that comma.  “Because I was” would not have.

I could go on then, line after line, noting, for example, the use of personification (a subset of metaphor): the fire eats logs, curtains, beds, etc.  It is hungry and has no restraint. It has a family. It really isn’t a very nice guest.

Now the poem begins to assume shape at the level of a poem (rather than line by line). It could be read as the tale told by a madman (woman?) of the fire that consumes his (her?) house.   The mad narrator reconstructs the event (assuming there even was one) with fire as a guest who has overstepped polite bounds, taking over altogether the home.

But let’s say the poem’s not about an actual fire. Instead let’s treat the fire itself as a metaphor.  But of what then?  Perhaps of the house that is his mind.  Notice that there’s implied safety upstairs.  If we work from the idea that what’s being housed is the narrator’s mind, then upstairs would suggest physically the brain, the seat of the mind or soul or whatever that lives in the upstairs of our bodies.  This kind of reading is certainly viable.

Of course not everything in the poem fits neatly into this reading of it.  But then again, that, too, makes its own kind of sense: the narrator is not altogether coherent anyway. He’s crazy! Still, we would want to be careful with this idea: it can sound like an excuse for not explaining the difficult sections of the poem (I consider the line “Hey, that’s where the dusts have built their cities” one of those more challenging parts.)

There are strong suggestions that the narrator is the subject of his own discourse—he is insane, he is one of the lunatics, he is the maniac.  My attention was especially caught by the line the 2nd line’s end: “…but do not go upstairs and eat a dementia praecox” Dementia praecox was an old psychiatric diagnosis for what we call today schizophrenia (easy enough to read up on in Wikipedia.)  What’s particularly strange about this line is that dementia praecox fell out of use as a formal term by the 1920s and Edson’s poem was written in the 1960s.  (Edson himself was born in 1935—thanks Wikipedia!).

Is the narrator an older individual?  Or did Edson use this older term mistakenly?  This is unclear.  But it is a most interesting word choice—medical and yet also, technically speaking, out of date, even for the time period of the poem (semantic device alert!).

Where does this leave us?  I won’t spell out what your reading/interpretation of the poem should be. I’m offering a series of ideas to rev the engine so you can construct your own reading of the poem, bringing together here what Edson is doing: mixing “crazy talk” with a broad array of poetic devices.  In fact, this type of poem—crazy man talks and it sounds like poetry!—resonates with some standard ideas about poetry:

  • It taps into the traditional link between madness and poetry (poetry as an inspired kind of madness).  The idea itself originates with the Greek philosopher Plato and the dialog he wrote called Ion.
  • Who says madness can’t create art?  Artists mad and great at the same time abound.  Could Edson be illustrating that in madness can be found art or that madness can be reshaped as art?
  • It’s probably here worth discussing the fact that this is a prose poem, which was Edson’s métier, his specialty.  In some ways, the prose poem makes the most sense for a mad persona’s speechifying.  A more traditional poem—with rhyme schemes and well-defined meters—would come off as, well, pretty weak.  We know that people who are mad aren’t that coherent.  Such a poem—the words of a madman cast in iambic pentameter—might work for Shakespeare, but for a modern poet it would look highly contrived (artificial) and probably fall flat.

I’ll stop here.  I wrote a lot, but I wanted to give you something to work with, to absorb and most important of all, a way of reading.

Dad

Story Playlist 32: Signs and Symbols

Vladimir Nabokov: “Signs and Symbols” (1948) It’s a little depressing when arguably the best modern prose writer in the English language is a Russian. Perhaps there’s something to be said for writing in a foreign language, for the language feels fresh and new to the writer, a series of signs and symbols to be deployed without the weight of over-familiarity dragging the words down or making them feel recycled? Whatever you think about Nabokov, the dude can write.

“Signs and Symbols” is as good an example of his mastery as any, not only of prose, turning ordinary words into inky butterflies, but also of his ability to sketch character with a few strokes of his typewriter/brush, and his injection of dread into normal-seeming situations. I’ve already written of how much I enjoy the feeling of dread—the way it propels stories, no matter their genre. A tale needn’t be a thriller to use a sense of foreboding to the writer’s advantage. Nabokov does not write thrillers, but his literary character studies thrill with a certain general menace.

This story, first published in The New Yorker in 1948, follows an elderly immigrant couple in New York who plan to visit their son on his birthday. The son has been confined in a sanitarium for years, as he suffers from a mental disorder in which he thinks that all of the natural world is speaking to him, and about him, in a coded language that he must decipher. It’s a lot like paranoid schizophrenia, as described, but it also seems a great literary disease because it immediately prompts the reader to understand that everything happening in the story, the grace notes of details that we might easily pass over, may have a hidden symbolic meaning for us to discover: that everything in the story might be “signs and symbols.”

Nabokov stories regularly feature ex-pat characters, exiles much as Nabokov was himself. An elderly Belarussian couple, who were important back home, must now rely on the largesse of a more-established uncle. Without extensive details, Nabokov is able to paint the back story of his characters, the little rituals of their life together, a life that has passed through astonishing changes. We feel just how worn down the couple is, not sure how to deal with their beloved son, whose condition was indulged as artistic up to a point it passed long ago. When they arrive at the sanitarium, carrying a basket of fruit jams as a gift, they learn that the son has, again, tried to kill himself, and that it might be better if they did not visit him that day.

The couple returns home, but the father cannot sleep. That night he bursts into the living room in his bathrobe and announces to the mother that their son must not remain at the sanitarium, that they should bring him home. The mother acquiesces, and they make plans to bring him home the next morning. But then the phone rings, though the hour is late. When the mother picks up, though her English is not strong, she understands that the caller is asking for Charlie, and must therefore have the wrong number. There is a kick of dread in the late-night phone call, for such calls are rarely the bearers of good news. We are relieved when it was a wrong number. But then the phone rings again. It is the same woman, asking for Charlie. Again, she is told that it is the wrong number. Then the phone rings a third time…

By that time we fear that it is the right number, that perhaps the mother has misunderstood, and that news has come that their son has killed himself—just before he would have come home. But none of this is made explicit, and it is the stronger for it. If an author can plant just what he wants to plant in the minds of his reader, essentially trick them into thinking what he wants them to think, without having to write it out explicitly, then he wields a powerful tool. Like the best teachers, who do not tell students the answer and expect them to memorize it, but help lead students to the answer themselves, the best writers likewise set up the situation and allow the reader to complete it for them. Of course, with an author as slippery as Nabokov, the actual intention might be quite different, for if he wanted us to understand only one possible interpretation, he would have written it that way. We are told what the caller says, seemingly without distortion.  Do we assume the unanswered third call is the same caller? Why?

The point of the story could be said to be the recreation in the reader of something like the “referential mania” the unnamed son suffers from. Then again, knowing Nabokov, there is likely a story behind the story that only someone who knows the code can read. Nabokov told New Yorker editor Katharine White, in a letter: “a second (main) story is woven into, or placed behind, the superficial semitransparent one.” In that second story, the phone call might simply be the random wrong number it seems to be, and some other detail in the story, easily overlooked, is more essential to the story's meaning.

When reading Nabokov, one feels in the hands of a great master, much like listening to a virtuoso violinist in concert. Knowing that we are in skillful hands, all we need do is remain attentive. All the “signs and symbols” are there in the beautiful riddle Nabokov has painted for us are there. It’s up to us to finish the puzzle.

Story Playlist 31: Sredni Vashtar

Saki (H. H. Munro): “Sredni Vashtar” (1914) There is no more badass short story in this project, or perhaps in existence, than Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar.” Badass may not sound like the proper terminology, but the English language wants for a more formal term to replace it. With glee, I could write a short book on the genius of “Sredni Vashtar,” so rich is it in its plot and precepts.

Conradin, a ten-year-old orphan not expected to live more than five more years, is under the care of his unpleasant cousin and guardian, Mrs. De Ropp, and the two dislike each other. Mrs. De Ropp takes a certain pleasure in thwarting Conradin’s happiness, while Conradin, whose perspective we share, nurtures fantasies of escape from, and revenge on, the person who controls him and denies him the few joys in his life.

These joys include two creatures who Conradin keeps in his hide-out, a shed in the back garden: a hen who he adores like a pet, and a darker creature kept in an iron cage in the shadows of the shed, a creature that Conradin both admires and fears. Saki calls this creature a “polecat-ferret,” a hybrid. The boy had it brought to him by an older child in exchange for coins, and he keeps it (how and what he feeds it is not clear) as a sort of totemic demi-god, one who he almost worships, to the extent that a 10-year-old can develop a spiritual admiration for a creature. Even the name he gives the creature, Sredni Vashtar, is not explicated by the narrator or the child. It was likely chosen by onomatopoeia, with Sredni implying “shred,” and Vashtar sounding like some Indian god. It is always tempting to read more into such exotic names than may be present (“sredni,” in Slavic languages, means “middle” but I’m not sure that adds anything), but suffice it to say that we have a dangerous bestial god on our hands.

The antagonistic cousin abruptly sells off the pet hen, seemingly just to do something mean to Conradin, but the child refuses to give her the pleasure of appearing upset. He simply does not indulge his love of toast, his favorite snack, when his cousin offers it, surprised that he does not tuck in. From that point on he makes a nightly wish for Sredni Vashtar to do something for him, careful never to articulate what he would like, perhaps for fear of crossing a line that thinking does not cross.

Wondering why Conradin continues to spend time in the shed, despite having disposed of his pet hen, Mrs. De Ropp sets out to investigate. She suspects that he might be keeping a kitten in there, which she would quickly make off with. Conradin watches the shed from his bedroom window as Mrs. De Ropp goes inside and doesn’t come out—for a very long time. With cinematic poise, the narrator lets us see the images of defeat that fill Conradin’s mind as he stares out the window, eyes fixed on the shed in the distance. Eventually Sredni Vashtar emerges from the shed, his maw bloody, and disappears into the forest. Conradin accepts a tray from the maid and coolly toasts a slice of bread for himself as the discovery is made and the house is filled with screams and commotion.

The idea of a ten-year-old developing a cultic worship of a creature, framed as an exotic beast-god, resonates with the rich fantasy world that adolescent boys can develop, and which can get out of hand, if left unchecked. A “polecat-ferret,” which we can sort of imagine, is a clever choice of creature. A ferret would hardly be able to do away with a grown Mrs. De Ropp (nor, one imagines, would a polecat), but perhaps this is some larger, more fierce variety. The dynamic between an unwilling guardian and her charge, neither of whom like each other but who are stuck together, is familiar. Anyone who has ever wished that a sibling would suffer a minor injury will know a mild version of the fantasy that Conradin develops. It is a question whether we are meant to think that Conradin willed the attack into being, or simply got lucky, a rare child whose prayers are answered. There is no moral here, no “beware what you wish for,” because Conradin is free from the clutches of his nemesis. We do not need to know what happened next, if he will be sent to some even less pleasant guardian, because our camera cuts away just as he prepares himself another slice of buttered toast.

From an Editor's Desk: The Crooked Path from Academia to Publishing

Here is a presentation I recently made to my alma mater, which—nearly two decades after my graduation—finally decided to take an active step forward in engaging speakers to help graduate students actually explore paths to employment beyond academia instead of letting them shift for themselves as I had to do upon my long-ago graduation, doctorate in hand. In 1988, I enrolled in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ph.D. program in English one year after my graduation from the University of Chicago, where I had earned a BA in English.  Seven years later, in 1995, I received my doctorate.  My area of concentration was in 19th-century American literature; my goal was to land a full-time, preferably tenure-track position.  During my time at the Graduate Center, I had spent three years as an adjunct instructor of courses in composition, introduction to literature, and even world literature at Baruch College. The year after that, I did the same in Connecticut at both a community college and at the University of Hartford.  My last year and half was spent completing my dissertation while I worked at Yale University, where I served as an assistant editor on the papers of the great 18th-century Scottish biographer and diarist James Boswell.

Then, like now, the job market in academia was plagued by the presence of more qualified doctoral and post-doctoral applicants than there were job vacancies.  Then, like now, it was a buyer’s market.  Then, like now, budgetary constraints on schools and individual departments; shifts in monetary priorities at the federal, state, and institutional levels; changing trends in scholarship; and the contortions of academic politics affected the give and take of presenting papers, publishing your work, applying for jobs, landing interviews, and either getting offers or moving on.  What I saw then continues to be what I see now.  Pursuing an academic career to the exclusion of all else is not for the faint of heart.

During my undergraduate years at the University of Chicago, I worked as “reader” for its literary journal, The Chicago Review. When I started my graduate studies, in addition to the classes I took and the classes I taught, I also worked as an editor at various small publications on a part-time basis, sometimes for free, sometimes for pay.  My duties then included work as a copy editor on a few poorly funded progressive Jewish magazines, as a part-time publisher of a struggling literary journal, and as a “page trafficker” at a textbook packager.   Editing was apparently in the blood and it was emerging as a career plan B to academic career plan A.

Two questions arise at this point.  When did plan B become plan A?  And why?  The answer to both is a combination of circumstance with self-realization.  Plan B, in brief, became plan A when three things happened.

First, in my last year as a doctoral student, my wife and I had a daughter, at which point I decided that if I were to take any academic position, it would not be as “visiting” faculty, which necessitated moving—and in all likelihood moving more than once.   On my own or childless, not so great a burden.  But with a child, a line had to be drawn.  This decision dramatically reduced the number of jobs to which I applied.

Second, when I moved from New York to Connecticut, I switched my adjunct duties accordingly.  What seemed no problem at first—insurance coverage extended by my wife’s employer –suddenly became one when that job ended and I learned that the state of Connecticut provided no insurance support for its adjunct instructors.  Of necessity, I did the only thing I could do.  I became a full-time editor at Yale University while I struggled to complete my dissertation.

Third and last, there was no evading the grim reality that if and when my alternative career had reached or surpassed the salary range of a starting assistant professor, I’d have to give serious thought to cutting the cord of academia altogether.  That happened three years later when, after jumping from one job to another, I landed a position as a new media editor at a large reference publisher.

Those three factors comprise the circumstances.

Self-realization entered the picture when it became clear to me that not only did I enjoy working in publishing as an acquisitions editor, a job where I conceptualized, evaluated, reshaped, and brought into being all sorts of projects—from individual books and book series to large databases—but I was good at it, too.  In short, I had found my métier—my calling.  Moreover, while my graduate education had not directly contributed to this eventual career direction, it had not proven as grave a misstep as I had first thought.  The skills I honed as a researcher (particularly in archival work), as a critical thinker, as a teacher, and as a writer were certainly transferable. Even the knowledge base I had amassed as an Americanist, literary theorist, and expert in composition offered an unforeseen return on the investment whenever I worked on projects that asked me to draw on that background.

But did any of this give me an edge in landing a job in publishing?  Not really.  A fair amount of my formal training as a proofreader and copy editor had occurred outside of the classroom.  My education in typesetting and printing came from my part-time editing work. For example, does anyone here know the intricacies of the printing process?  Or the formal mark-up protocols for copy editing manuscripts or proofreading galleys?  Or the order of the front matter parts in a book manuscript?  How to index a book? Know anything about electronic publishing? To learn much of this, I remember during the last years of graduate school sitting down with the 14th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style and actually reading large swaths of it—where much of this information was covered in gory but necessary detail as Plan B started becoming a more critical part of my life.

In the end, circumstance and self-realization caught up with one another.  Putting food on the table and enjoying my work as an editor had become one and the same and, yes, there was a point when I realized that walking away from academia was no longer to be treated as a regret, but as something I would not go back to if I could help it.  For some of you this may seem unthinkable.   I once thought that, too.  But the dictum know thyself was never more real for me than the day I looked at the education classifieds in The New York Times’ Week in Review section and realized: Now why would I apply for that?

There is life after graduate school—and it need not be lived as a professor on a campus.  The challenge during graduate school is recognizing, accepting, and—without regret—acting on that realization.

 

—Bennett Graff, Publisher, New Haven Review

Story Playlist 30: Free Fruit for Young Widows

Nathan Englander: “Free Fruit for Young Widows” (2010) Wow. While I can’t necessarily say that this is the “best” of the thirty stories I’ve read in this project, it certainly feels like it. This could be because I read it last, with the weight of all the others behind it, or it could be that this is one hell of an amazing short story.

In “Free Fruit for Young Widows” the narrative voice has some character of its own, with turns of phrase that suggest an elderly Israeli (like the characters in the story) speaking English, and with a nice sense of humor. There are smile-inducing, if not quite laugh aloud, moments in this story about the brutal and the grim which make the tale easier to read. So we have Millhauser’s narration as historical account, and perhaps some of lightness of James Thurber in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

The story is told as nested stories, like Russian dolls. We begin with a description of our two protagonists, Professor Tendler and Shimmy Gezer, when both were soldiers fighting for Israel against the Egyptians at a time, the narrator tells us casually, when, due to France’s changing sides, both Israeli and Egyptian soldiers wore identical, French-issued uniforms. Shimmy sits at a mess hall, along with four other soldiers. When Tendler arrives, he sets down his tea (“careful not to spill”) and shoots the four other soldiers in the head. Shimmy, thinking he’s gone mad, tackles his friend Tendler. Tendler explains that these soldiers were Egyptians, that he’s just saved Shimmy’s life. Shimmy pauses, then tackles him again, angry that he killed them instead of taking them prisoner. Something snaps in Tendler, and, instead of warding off Shimmy, he beats his friend within an inch of his life.

This is a story Shimmy tells, with increasing amounts of detailed information as the boy grows, to his son Etgar (named, incidentally, after an Israeli writer friend of Englander’s, whose anecdote inspired this short story). Knowing this story, Etgar never understands why his father is so kind to Tendler, now a professor living in neighborhood, giving him free vegetables from the family’s fruit and veg stand—an act of respect usually reserved for war widows—when this same man beat Shimmy so mercilessly long ago. Once Etgar reaches the age of thirteen, Shimmy sits Etgar down and tells him the story of Tendler during the Second World War, the war about which his father has not spoken, and which no one speaks of, the war in which Shimmy lost his entire family. The story about Tendler that Etgar has not yet heard.

Englander gives us three stories in one: the backstory of the Israeli-Egyptian conflict, the framing story of Shimmy and his son Etgar, and the central story told by Shimmy about Professor Tendler during the Second World War. This final story is the most powerful and memorable. In Shimmy’s story, the story-telling voice, which is great for fables and tales of magic, but is not as good at producing tension and thrills, largely due to the subtle filter system of the implied narrator (here, Shimmy) as story-teller interfering (someone telling you about a scary film is less scary than watching the film), miraculously produces the sense of creeping dread, horror, and power that surprised me as a reader, after the light and delicately-handled opening.

At age thirteen, Tendler survived a death camp by hiding beneath the pile of corpses waiting to be incinerated. When the camp was liberated, he emerged from the pile, causing two G.I.s to faint at the sight of a living corpse crawling out of the pile of “balsa wood.” He wound his way back home and found his nanny and her family—husband, two grown sons, infant daughter—there, occupying his family’s home. He is given a royal welcome—a goat is slaughtered rather than a fatted calf—as the returned master of the household. Nature calls and Tendler, while urinating outside the window rather than withdrawing to the outhouse, overhears the nanny and her family plotting to murder him in his sleep, for fear that he will take away the property they now consider their own. Tendler returns to the house, enjoys the feast, and heads up to bed. But he stays awake into the night, until the house is asleep, and then he shoots the entire family, including the infant daughter, so that no one is left to take revenge upon him.

This last section is a brutal rollercoaster of emotions for the reader. It is told coolly, with the distance of Shimmy’s narration, including several pauses that pull us out of the scene, when Shimmy and Etgar discuss something in the story. But the material is so vivid, with images like the skeletal Tendler emerging from the pile of corpses, and the emotions so raw, that we practically beg the nanny’s family to take change their minds, then beg Tendler to escape into the night rather than murder the family, especially the infant who truly cannot be blamed. These voices in our heads are echoed in the discussion between Shimmy and Etgar about the story being told. Shimmy plays devil’s advocate and seems to excuse Tendler for killing the entire family, convincing Etgar of its reasonableness, and then shaming him for ever thinking that any human should feel permitted to take a life. Shimmy never would, and wishes to teach this lesson to his son. But Tendler’s experience as a survivor of the death camp system, which was meant to allow none to survive, cracked him just enough that he has lost the humanized capability of showing mercy, of knowing when to stop, of recognizing that, in the choice between escaping, subduing, or murdering it is better to choose the first two rather than the third.

The story is written with such a deft hand that not a word is out of place, nor a word used too few or too many. It brings up, and chews over, philosophical ideas, which is a hard thing to do in works of fiction. Fiction might prompt philosophical discussion (as does Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”), and non-fiction about philosophy might draw examples from fiction, but for one text to be a work of fiction that includes philosophical discussion (without sounding pretentious or stepping out of the narrative) is a pretty rare feat. The characters are brightly drawn with few adjectives. There is very little “Writing” here, all of Englander’s skills are massaged into place, without anyone hitting you over the head with the fact that a Writer has Written this story (as is the case with the wonderful but Baroque style of Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain”). The story is as good a psychological profile of those fractured by war and returned to society, having to turn off their emotions or melt down because of them, as I’ve ever read.

The only parallel on this Playlist is Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” interesting to read alongside Englander’s story. The writing styles are similar, employing a light hand to deal with serious issues and creating a surprising amount of tension. In Salinger’s story, our former soldier kills himself, whereas Tendler kills his enemies—but Etgar recognizes how easy it could have been for Tendler to have turned the gun on himself instead. Such material could be heavy and gooey in the wrong hands. Englander makes the tale feel light, airy, sky-etched.

Story Playlist 29: One for the Road

Stephen King: “One for the Road” (1977) Stephen King is my favorite author. I know you’re not supposed to say that, but there is no other author who I have so consistently enjoyed and admired. I like Michael Crichton novels, but I don’t admire them the way I do King. I enjoy Nabokov, but I don’t compulsively devour his work, checking the clock to see when I can return to his novel, my heart beating faster as I read it. There is no other author whose work I was so eager to read my way through, nor so grateful that the catalogue is so long—the hyper-prolific King publishes a book a year, at least.

King’s stories are character-driven, beautifully-written, highly intelligent. They happen to feature monsters of all sorts, from natural to preternatural, but that is secondary to their core as great stories, well-told. As an author King is wonderfully approachable and open, writing about his writing process and what he likes about horror, letting his readers into his head to snoop around, to check behind the drapery. He tips his hat to some of the authors featured in this project: Hawthorne, Poe, and Lovecraft above all.

Among his short stories, there were several favorites from which I might choose. It came down to a choice between the two scariest, both of which appeared in his 1978 collection, Night Shift. “Children of the Corn” is the scarier of the two, but “One for the Road” is easier to write about, as it deals in archetypes that are the heart of good horror fiction.

On a snowy night in southern Maine, two septuagenarians are drinking at Tookey’s Bar, about to close up the joint. Herb “Tookey” Tooklander, the proprietor, and our narrator, Booth, have one more drink before calling it a night, when someone bursts into the bar, half-frozen. A tourist in Maine, Jerry Lumley was en route to visit his sister-in-law when his car broke down several miles away. He left his wife and seven-year-old daughter in the car, and trudged through the snow to get help. When he stumbles into the bar, he’s frost-bitten and about to pass out. The two old men agree to help him, but are concerned about more than just the cold weather when they learn where Lumley’s car broke down—en route to Jerusalem’s Lot.

Tookey and Booth take an SUV into the snow, through barely-passable roads in the blizzard. Before we arrive at the car, King wonderfully winds us up, when Tookey warns that, if the wife and daughter are not in the car, then the group will turn straight back around, and that if they see anyone out on the road, even if they are spoken to, they will not speak back. This is before anyone drops the “v-word” and mentions vampires. In fact, the moment that vampires are invoked, a bit of the mystique is lost. Just a bit, because King is so deft.

But consider: the creepiest parts of really creepy books and films are in the first half, when inexplicable things start to happen (footfalls on the stairs, blood on a doorjamb, rooms filled with flies). The fact of their being inexplicable is what makes them effective. As soon as we have an explanation, it sort of “explains away” the mystery and is less effective. From that point on, scares come down to jump-out frights, chases, mortal peril, that sort of thing. Creepy turns to thrilling. Thrilling is good, but I’m an unabashed fan of creepy. Most authors feel the need to explain things by the end of their stories, even if the explanation is not really an explanation at all (“aliens are behind this”). Vampires, or any other known-entity monsters, are a way of explaining things with something we feel we understand. Your average Joe knows enough about vampires, from Dracula, from films, (dare I say it, from Twilight) and so on, that they’ve lost their mystique. They are a cool, archetypal villain, and much ink has been spilled on the subject of just why we are so fascinated with vampires, but they are also a known commodity. I’d venture to say that Average Joe knows more about fictitious vampires, their characteristics, behaviors, and so on, than they do about real goldfish.

So when the creepiness preceding the action in “One for the Road” is chalked up to vampires, I almost winced—but not quite. Because after the reveal of what is doing the creepy doings, the action part is so well done that I wanted to slather butter on the pages of the story and eat them right then and there.

What makes “One for the Road” particularly effective is the sympathy we feel for Lumley, lost and cold and desperate to get to his family, whereas the locals know that it is already too late. Anyone would react as Lumley did. Shocked to see the car empty, and his daughter’s parka inside, he set off to follow the footprints in the snow, fast-disappearing beneath the blizzard. About to give up, he hears his name being called and, emerging from a “copse” (a wonderful choice of word by King, one letter away from “corpse”), his wife. He rushes to her, as would we. Tookey and Booth know that she is no longer human, however, and try to stop Lumley, but of course he ignores them. He realizes too late that he’s about to become lunch. When Tookey and Booth retreat to their truck, to drive away, there’s a heart-stop moment when the daughter (whom we almost forgot about) suddenly appears beside the truck, asking in the sweet, helpless child’s voice for help. Booth immediately sees that something is wrong—the child is standing upon the snow, her feet not sinking into it—but cannot resist, hypnotized by the vampire child (and if vampires are scary, child vampires are scarier). Only a well-thrown Bible from Tookey saves Booth, and they drive away.

King uses sympathy to his advantage. We side with Lumley—if we were to fear for the lives of our family, dismissing vampires as hooey, and suddenly see our wife or daughter alone in the snow, we would rush to them. It’s an irresistible urge for non-sociopathic humans. And yet that very urge is used by vampires to hunt their prey.

Vampires will always hold an endless fascination for us, because they tap into some powerful Jungian archetypes. They appear human, with slight differences. They are hybrids between carnivore creatures and people. They hunt humans, which we humans find fascinating because, grumpy sharks and a few ornery mammals aside, humans are hunters, not the hunted. They live forever, which sounds good to us, but do so in a way that doesn’t sound so appealing. There is a sexual component to how they prey on us, essentially doling out elaborate hickeys. They drink blood. Unlike humans with refined palates, they are not partial to garlic. There is much to wonder at, but most of all, we are fascinated by how they inhabit the liminal zone between dead and living. Add real character depth and development to a story featuring vampires, and you’ve got yourself one heck of a cocktail. Here’s to you, Mr. King.

Story Playlist 28: Brokeback Mountain

Annie Proulx: “Brokeback Mountain” (1997) This wonderful miniature novel of a story by Annie Proulx will perhaps forever be known as “the one about the gay cowboys,” largely due to the fine film made of it. No doubt the distinction of being the first major story to feature a homosexual relationship within a social group that is considered virile and straight, almost violently so, and showing an openness about homosexuality far from the worlds in which homosexuality is open, won the story, and The New Yorker, where it was first published, the National Magazine Award for Fiction. While the story was much-discussed, even before the 2005 Ang Lee film version of it, it is much more discussed than read. This should certainly be remedied.

In 1963, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar are thrown together as ranch hands in Wyoming, obliged to graze sheep on the mountain of the title. For weeks they tend the sheep, alone in the wilderness, with only each other for company. Eventually sex takes place between them and for a time they have an erotic idyll. Then the job ends and they go their separate ways.

Ennis is married to perhaps the most interesting character in the story, Alma, who begins to recognize Ennis’ sexual dynamic only when, years after the romance on the mountain, Jack visits her husband and she sees the two kiss in a passionate embrace on the Del Mars’ front porch. The two men had been unable to stop thinking of one another, but the way they speak and think is painted by Proulx as uneducated, laconic, even crass. These are not thinkers, but workers—hired men in ranching and rodeo-riding—which adds complexity to the narrative. Proulx’s narrator finds the words for what they feel; the characters don’t. They don’t think things through too much, or communicate with each other particularly well. They don’t have a grasp on their feelings. Their thoughts, words, and sex are blunt, elemental. As characters, Jack and Ennis feel unidealized, not cleaned up or romanticized, but almost painfully authentic. The disintegration of Ennis and Alma’s marriage, and Jack and Ennis’ belief that they cannot be together openly (they know of examples of murderous, homophobic bigotry), produce a tension that drives the story, propelling the reader through beautiful prose at times a bit mannered.

There is also a bit of a mystery in the tale; it opens twenty years after the idyll on Brokeback Mountain, with Ennis dreaming of Jack, who has died. As their backstory unfolds, with the two finding occasional times to be together, we see that Jack longs for a life together with Ennis, but that Ennis is too afraid. When he hears of Jack’s death, Ennis imagines that Jack met his end through a violent attack, although Jack’s wife tells him Jack’s death was accidental. Ennis embarks on something of an investigation of his late lover’s fate, paying a visit to Jack’s parents, ostensibly to take part of Jack’s ashes back to Brokeback Mountain. He learns that, while Jack was the only man he ever loved physically and sexually, Jack had at least one other male lover with whom he made plans, never fulfilled, similar to those he fantasized about with Ennis; Ennis had already assumed Jack had other casual lovers during the long months when he and Ennis could not see one another. Proulx lets the idea of two men living together as lovers seem a utopian fantasy that neither of Ennis nor Jack can bring about. Ennis remains convinced that Jack was killed for his homosexual relations.

Proulx’s story doesn’t try to label the characters or their longings. The two men are fathers and have lived with women, but what they have together, they both realize, is rare and powerful. By making her characters so basic, Proulx lets us see that labels such as homosexual and bisexual are modern and artificial. Love is love and sex is sex, whomever you are with and wherever you may be. Provided all involved are copis mentis and consenting.

What makes the story so great is that it is a hyper-realistic love story. That the couple in love are two male cowboys, neither of whom considers himself homosexual, is of secondary importance. The story is not sensationalist, though its theme might be so considered by those uncomfortable with male-to-male intimacy. Proulx has added to the popular genre of “impossible love stories,” such as Romeo and Juliet, or stories of racial or class divides that made love difficult and dangerous in other times. That the lovers are otherwise straight, rough-cut men adds a unique spice to the story, which is mainly a powerful tale about loneliness and longing.

Story Playlist 27: The Whore of Mensa

Woody Allen: “The Whore of Mensa” (1974) Woody Allen is probably the funniest man on the planet. He has been consistently funny, smartly funny, from the 1960s to today (although his best material is from the fertile first 25 years). “The Whore of Mensa” is not his funniest story, but it is perhaps the best-known of his short works of fiction, and it offers a good launch pad to examine what makes for funny writing.

There is essentially one joke in “The Whore of Mensa.” A prostitution ring traffics in women who engage their johns in intellectual conversation, rather than sexual activity. The style of the story is mock-noir, a take-off on hard-boiled detective fiction, aping the tone and format of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Our hero is the wonderfully-named Kaiser Lupowitz, one of Allen’s many characters whose names are part WASP, part Jewish (my favorite is Fielding Melish, from Bananas). He is a detective hired to look into this prostitution ring, wherein johns order up blondes or brunettes to discuss Wallace Stevens, Melville or, for extra cash, a comparative study of Melville and Hawthorne. All of the tropes of prostitution are used, with intellectual discussion in the place of sexual favors. One prostitute is one credit away from her Master’s in Comparative Literature, trying to earn money to cover tuition.

A desperate client (the also-wonderfully-named Word Babcock) is being blackmailed, and walks into Kaiser’s detective agency for help. This launches Kaiser’s investigation, and the story. The story is lacking in jokes per se, but jokes are just one type of humor. There is hardly a line that makes you laugh out loud (although the idea that the Hunter College Bookstore is a front for this prostitution ring is pretty good), but the humor is, instead, situational.

There is, believe it or not, a field of study known as “humor research.” Just knowing that may well suck the fun out of anything you find funny, because to explain why something is funny is to destroy what was funny about it. But from a writer’s perspective, peeling away the façade of a story to look at how it stands up is a useful exercise, even if a few temples to hilarity are torn down in the process.

Experts break down the funny into three categories of humor: situational, physical, and satirical. Physical humor is just what it sounds like—something physically happens to a character that is awkward, surprising, or incongruous. It often involves someone being injured, but there is a fine line between funny injury and serious injury. Slipping on a banana peel is funny. Getting hit by a train? Not so funny. Situational humor employs an absurd situation—one that we might even recognize as having comic potential before we read any further. Mistaken identity is a popular tool of situational humor, as is cross-dressing. Mrs. Doubtfire, in which Robin Williams pretends to be an old woman in order to win back his love, focuses on situational humor—a man pretending to be an old woman is a funny, absurd circumstance. Misunderstandings, mistaken identity, improbable situations are all part and parcel of situational humor. Satire, and its cousin parody, are about mocking specific things, people, events, and trends. Parody is more direct, for instance a Saturday Night Live sketch making fun of the film Titanic by mimicking certain aspects of the film. But parody is only really funny if the audience is familiar with at least the basic outlines of the target of the parody. If you know nothing of Titanic, then you probably won’t enjoy a parody of it. Satire is the broader umbrella category, describing humor that mocks human actions and shortcomings in general, without aping a specific source, but rather making jokes out of a situation that the audience will recognize as contemporary. The Daily Show or The Colbert Report are good examples of today’s best satirists.

None of these categories are about jokes. Sigmund Freud wrote a book about humor, and considered that we find funny what the unconscious lets slip out, an expression of what society normally forbids or encourages us to suppress. This might define a joke, which lets out thoughts or feelings that we usually think we must keep shut away. Jokes either surprise us by their endings, and therefore we smile from surprise, or they make fun of other people in ways that we would not permit ourselves to do in regular conversation, where there can be hurtful consequences. Jokes are the bricks and mortar of satire and parody, and they also may be used in situational humor, to point out the oddities of the situation. Jokes are not normally involved in physical humor, unless they comment on the humorous physical action after it has taken place. A program like Blackadder employs all three types of humor. The situations are funny (in one episode Blackadder must impersonate a prisoner he has never seen, and he learns as he goes that the prisoner has weird traits, including a very high voice and only one leg). Physical humor plays a role (Blackadder jumping on one leg to try to impersonate the prisoner, and often whomping his sidekick, Baldrick, with various implements). And there are jokes, often made by Blackadder at Baldrick’s expense, making fun of how he smells, how dumb he is, and how inept.

I was recently hired to write the script for a new Croatian comedy series. I’ve never before written a sitcom or written for television. My stock in trade is art history books and dark thriller novels. I also know next to nothing about Croatia, but I’m certainly game for the challenge. This new commission has prompted me to examine how humor works, from a writer’s perspective, and I’ve found some interesting things. Woody Allen’s work is as good a place as any to begin our study.

If we turn back to “The Whore of Mensa,” we can say almost all the humor is situational. The key is replacing sexual favors with intellectual conversation in this story of cerebral prostitution. There is a parody element, as well, that is amusing as Allen’s narrator approximates the persona of the hard-boiled detective—letting him delight in the loaded similes of the genre: “he was shaking like the lead singer in a rhumba band.” There is no physical humor (it is harder to use successful physical humor in a written story, because the reader has to imagine the action after reading it, as opposed to reacting immediately to seeing it), and there are few jokes; mostly, the laughs come from Allen knowing his audience (readers of the New Yorker) who will smirk at his name-dropping: a prostitute offers a photograph of Dwight MacDonald reading; the “big cheese,” Flossie, has had surgery to look like Lionel Trilling. The whole is clever and humorous, but unlike other pieces by Allen, it is not particularly funny. Not as funny as other stories of his, not as funny as his early films, and not as funny as his stand-up comedy, which is utterly brilliant.

Perhaps it’s simply that the targets—crime fiction and pseudo-intellectuals—are too easy, and yet one wonders: would it be possible to write something this clever with one of the stories on the playlist as the basic situation to parody?

Story Playlist 26: Eisenheim the Illusionist

Stephen Millhauser: “Eisenheim the Illusionist” (1998) In creative writing courses, you’re inevitably told a golden rule of good fiction-writing: show, don’t tell. Don’t tell us that a character is greedy. Instead, show him acting in a greedy way, and allow the audience to understand this characteristic. But rules are meant to be broken, and a whole subsection of stories are written in the oral, story-telling tradition. We’ve already encountered a few of them over the course of this short story playlist: Mark Twain’s “Jumping Frog” story comes to mind, in which Twain employs a first-person narrator to retell the story told to him by a character in the story—a layer cake of narration. Other authors employ a manner that is meant to be read as an historical account. Stephen Millhauser’s “Eisenheim” story is one of the latter: a fantastic tale told with a sense of both objective reporting and the hearsay of legend. Where the staid creative writing professor might urge Millhauser to involve us in Eisenheim’s life and thoughts and actions, the story as told gives an external, reportorial view of the events.

In contemporary times, we have grown accustomed, perhaps, to stories that aim for the immediacy of film: a little scene-setting, then tell what happens, with as much neutrality as possible. Millhauser adopts a more antiquated style to mimic the time—late nineteenth-century Vienna, mostly—where the story takes place. The best contemporary stories carry their audience away to another world, with the reader forgetting the teller as they follow the action. Older stories tended to be more narrated, creating an implied author that stands for the veracity of the tale. Millhauser exploits this device to recreate as much as possible the outlook of the times his characters live in.

Eisenheim is ostensibly the greatest stage magician of his time. His tricks are so amazing and inexplicable that he is thought to have real magical powers. The narrator tells us that he has pieced together as much as he could of the life and strange end of Eisenheim, based on newspaper reports, interviews with witnesses, and whatever tidbits he could find. Because of this hybrid story-teller/pseudo-journalistic style, nothing in Eisenheim’s story is directly dramatized. There is no dialogue, direct or indirect, and no effort to inhabit the minds of the characters. There is enough detail to carry us away to a foreign place and time, as Millhauser effectively suggests a parallel between the disintegration of the Hapsburg Empire and the rising interest in stage magic, séances, and the paranormal within it.

Millhauser made a choice. He could have dramatized the story of the rise of Eisenheim, the leading illusionist of fin-de-siècle Vienna and beyond. Instead he uses the report format, which takes some of the dramatic kick out of what he tells. We are given a play-by-play explanation of some of Eisenheim’s magic tricks, including the mechanism of how some (but not all) of them worked. This sucks the magic right out of the magic tricks. It is more clinical, and less wizardly, to be told that Eisenheim did this, that, and the other thing, and that the crowd was amazed. Would it not have been better to show the trick, in detail, as if we were viewing it, and then we could share the crowd’s awe?

Perhaps, but since the theoretical backdrop to the story explores the fascination with the supernatural within the hyper-bureaucratic, pragmatic, and crumbling Hapsburg Empire, the intention is to separate us from Eisenheim’s contemporaries, not to make us a part of their world. While this trick may “work”—like one of Eisenheim’s illusions—to create an engaging story, the narration seems a bit dryer than I might have liked, a bit too detached and clinical. It wasn’t quite a tale told by a bard before a blazing fire, nor a piece of twentieth-century sharpened prose, but rather a somewhat dated, if interesting, report on a pseudo-historical personage. I guess I liked the story, the character of Eisenheim, and the striking way he engineered his end, foiling Walter Uhl, the intriguing policeman and amateur magician who tries to arrest him when his mix of reality and illusion is deemed too subversive, better than the way the story was told. I actually found myself wishing that the Pulitzer-prize-winning Millhauser had written a novel about Eisenheim, to fully inhabit the world he only suggests here, especially with regard to the possibly fascinating figure of Uhl, about whom we learn too little.

There is a wonderful core to Millhauser’s story, but more could be done with it. Neil Berger must have felt the same way. His film The Illusionist (2006) is based on Millhauser’s story but adds much more plot. The film is not better, but the character of Uhl (a great performance by Paul Giamatti) is satisfyingly fleshed-out, and a love interest for Eisenheim takes a passing detail in Millhauser’s story and makes it into an exciting subplot involving the Crown Prince. It is worth reading the story first, and then seeing the film on the same evening, to consider whether what the film-maker did to expand the story was a) beneficial, b) matched what you might choose to do, if you were tasked with expanding the story, c) even necessary, for I’m sure many will find the story quite sufficient. I liked it very much, but, like a creative writing teacher, I wanted more showing, less telling.

Story Playlist 25: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Joyce Carol Oates: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966) Joyce Carol Oates begins her most famous story with the self-absorbed personality of Connie, a 15-year-old girl in a small town in 1960s America. Over the last two decades, authors (encouraged by publishers) have felt the need to start stories and novels and even history books in medias res, right at the center of the action, to hook the reader, before stepping back to fill out the back story and develop character. Gone are the days of Balzac’s Pere Goriot, which opens with some thirty pages that simply describe the exterior of a country inn. Balzac would never find a publisher these days. Perhaps today’s attention-deficit readers are too impatient to wait through a slow burn? If they aren’t engrossed by page two—paragraph two?—they are unlikely to buy the book.

But to understand Connie, it’s crucial to see Connie’s discontentment with her family, her teenaged sullenness, and the kind of life she leads, where the highlight of her week is a burger and Coke at a drive-thru where the older kids hang out. While there with another boy, she is spotted by an odd-looking loner with wild dark hair in a gold-painted convertible, who leers at her and says, “I’m gonna get you.”

Sometime later, Connie’s parents and sister head out to a barbeque, and Connie insists on staying home. Oates prepares the scene in such a way that, although it is a bright, sunny Sunday and nothing bad has happened yet, we will Connie to go with her parents, not to remain home alone. This is due to tone and non-explicit foreshadowing, with Oates’ prose underscoring Connie’s vulnerability. And so that sound of a car coming up the gravel drive is chilling to us though only a curiosity to Connie. Until she sees it’s the gold convertible. Inside sits the boy from the drive-thru acting as if she should be expecting him. He introduces himself as Arnold Friend, and he’s politely aggressive; he knows her, and knew she’d be alone and knows where her family are. At first, perhaps, Connie finds this intriguing, but Oates lets us feel her unease as well. She’s clearly been accosted by strange men before and is not a wide-eyed innocent; she knows what Friend wants.

Still playing the friendly small-town boy—though Connie insists he’s “not from around here”—Friend introduces Ellie, his silent partner in the car who sits with his transistor tuned to the same hip radio station Connie has on in the house. Friend, outside his car and moving around it, points out the inscriptions on it: his name, and some cryptic numbers—33, 19, and 17—and a few slangy phrases. He doesn’t explain the numbers, but the curious reader can decipher their meaning, with a little work: they refer to a Biblical passage, Judges 19:17, in which a stranger is asked the questions that provide the story’s title.

As they converse, Friend is clearly not taking no for an answer, and we see how trapped Connie is. Our fears for her increase when she realizes that Friend is not a boy at all but nearer thirty and his friend is even older, perhaps forty. Friend moves oddly and tends to lean on things and Connie notices that his boots seem not to be filled by his feet, which creates a sense of freakishness that Oates doesn’t overplay. We imagine his feet are perched, satyr-like, in stuffed cowboy boots that lend him an illusion of height.

When Friend flatly refuses to leave, Connie retreats, threatening to call the police. Friend warns her that he will not enter the house unless she picks up the phone, and insists that she will come out to him voluntarily. We might find an element of the supernatural in this—by some accounts, vampires cannot cross a threshold unless they are invited, so Friend’s comment echoes the kind of hypnotic power vampires commonly exercise in legend and horror films. Friend finally threatens to wait outside and kill Connie’s family if she does not come out. After a freak-out moment in which she picks up the phone and simply screams without dialing, Connie becomes numb to what is happening. She continues to hear Friend’s efforts to be reassuringly seductive—telling her he understands her better than her family does and that the purpose of a sweet girl like her is “to give in,” but in a disembodied way, as though it were happening to someone else. She crosses the threshold into a fate left to our imagination.

The tension in the dialogue between Connie and Friend is huge and masterful, provoking that wonderful internal “Don’t do it!” reaction on the part of the reader. My grandmother literally shouts “Don’t go in there!” at the TV screen during moments of tension in films, and to feel that sensation in a short story is to struggle not to skip ahead, to remain in the sickening state of fear Oates creates. As Friend plays cat-and-mouse with Connie, we can also see Oates toying with the reader: “Arnold Friend” sounds suspiciously like “are no friend”; the stuffed boots and the hypnotic patter turn Friend into some sort of hybrid monster, part vampire, part satyr, part incubus (a sort of vampirical demon who hunts for sex rather than blood); the cryptic use of the Biblical quotation might suggest an allegorical dimension, or at least a twisted sense of the Bible’s commonality, as when the Misfit discusses Jesus with the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” And, for those who like to look beyond a story to its sources, there is a true crime element as well, since some of the story’s details come from the case of Charles Schmid.

In 1961, Schmid (Smitty to his friends, lovers, and victims) murdered a number of young women in Tucson, Arizona. Schmid was socially adept, murdering women who he knew, in some cases girlfriends, rather than prostitutes or abducted strangers, as is often the case with serial killers. By all accounts he was charming and knew how to appeal to the natural insecurities of girls to draw them out, making them feel appreciated, before his sociopathic streak kicked in and he killed them. Oates read about Schmid, including his custom-made cowboy boots that he stuffed with paper to make himself taller, in a Life magazine article about the Tucson killings. What intrigued her was the victim’s point of view, which is what she recreates brilliantly in her story, giving us a wondrous layer cake: part horror, part true crime, part allegory, part character study—and all ingenious.

Story Playlist 24: A Perfect Day for Bananafish

J. D. Salinger: “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (1948) “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is just about perfect. It is a story that is easy to misread, because the treasures are in the details, a Christmas tree hung with baubles that are barely visible among the pine needles and tinsel. In fact, I had to read it three times to feel that I “got it,” and I’m still not sure if I got all there is to get.

At first glance, the story seems to begin in a banal manner, then becomes awkward, cute, creepy, before an explosive last paragraph that makes you flip quickly back to the beginning, to see if you might find foreshadowing that would have clued you in to the conclusion. It is there, of course, as it must be in all good stories—none of your deus ex machina business, but an honest surprise ending.

The story is divided into two sections, plus that whammy of a coda. The first section features Muriel Glass on a long-distance call with her mother. Muriel is on holiday in Florida with her husband, Seymour, who was a soldier in the recently-ended Second World War. Muriel is a dismissive, unconcerned, and rather oblivious socialite who stuck with Seymour throughout the war, and doesn’t seem to realize that he returned a changed man, damaged goods, as so many poor, shell-shocked soldiers did (Salinger himself was one, and it is easy to project his biography onto Seymour Glass).

It took me a few reads of this opening sequence to catch what was actually going on, because Salinger ingeniously presents it to us as a straight dialogue, with almost no authorial interference, and a lot of interrupted sentences, as when two people are talking over each other or cutting each other off. Muriel’s mother is quite frantic with concern for her daughter, and refers to a number of incidents involving Seymour’s instability, and in each case we can only infer what happened. “The trees. That business with the window. Those horrible things he said to Granny about her plans for passing away.” After a second read, I conjectured that Seymour had been involved in an accident with his father-in-law’s car, perhaps involving trees, that may have been intentional. He may be suicidal (“business with the window” and “plans for passing away”).

We also learn, obliquely, that he was recently released from a psychiatric hospital—too soon, according to one doctor. In the hotel, Seymour’s appearance prompts a psychiatrist on holiday to approach Muriel about him, but she treats the conversation dismissively. Salinger creates tension through the mannered dialogue between a concerned mother and her strong-willed daughter, who seems to want to ignore her husband’s issues since his return from combat. She also accepts that he mocks her, thinking it’s cute that he called her “Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948,” and seems most concerned that she knows nothing about the book by “the only great poet of the century” that he sent her from Germany, and which was in German. From the mother’s insistent questions, despite casual comments on fashion and gossip, we sense Muriel’s husband is a ticking time-bomb.

The second section is where it gets odder—more playful but also creepier. A little child, Sybil Carpenter, is sent off to play while her mother goes for a martini (promising to bring Sybil the olive). Sybil heads straight over to Seymour, who is lying on the beach in his bathrobe. Seymour is charming with the young girl, but we may think it odd that a grown man is playing with a little girl unrelated to him, with no other adults around. Their interaction is friendly but their relationship clear. Seymour speaks familiarly to the child, but in a bantering way. When the girl mentions her father’s imminent arrival, Seymour says he has been waiting for him, but we can’t tell he is teasing her or if he actually knows her father. Sybil seems comfortable with Seymour—who she refers to as “see more”—and that’s reassuring. But when he kisses her foot while she’s on a raft in the ocean with him, she is startled. It’s then that he says they must go. There seems to be a sexual undertone that is disturbing, highlighted by the weird idea of “bananafish,” an imaginary fish that Seymour suggests he and Sybil look for in the water. It’s when she says she saw one that he kisser her foot, suggesting a spontaneous gesture of tenderness toward her. If we like we can consider the sexual overtones of the bananafish, certainly a phallic image as described by Seymour: “I’ve known bananafish to swim into a banana hole and eat as many as seventy-eight bananas…after they eat so many bananas they can’t get out of the banana hole…they die.”

Why is Seymour on the beach in his bathrobe? His reticence to disrobe is dismissed by Muriel as shyness at being pale, but we sense that’s just an excuse for her mother, who thinks there must be something more to it. Muriel offers another explanation: “[Seymour] says he doesn’t want a lot of fools looking at his tattoo,” to which her mother replies, “He doesn’t have any tattoo! Did he get one in the Army?” Now, that detail seemed to be often ignored by other readers of the story—at least I could find no mention of the tattoo in a Google search—but, after several reads, it occurred to me that the sort of tattoo one would get during World War Two that one wouldn’t want “a lot of fools” staring at, is a numerical tattoo from a concentration camp. An identification with Nazi prisoners—according to his daughter, Salinger was among U.S. soldiers who entered a liberated concentration cam—would further underscore the sort of post-traumatic stress disorder that Seymour suffers from. And yet the reference is subtle, and seems to elude most readers.

In the final part of the story Seymour returns to his hotel-room, where Muriel sleeps on a twin bed. In a master-class showing how to build tension and shock in one sentence, Salinger first leads us to believe that, as per the fears of Muriel’s mother, Muriel is going to be the victim of Seymour’s violence.

He glanced at the girl lying asleep on one of the twin beds. Then he went over to one of the pieces of luggage, opened it, and from under a pile of shorts and undershirts he took out an Ortgies caliber 7.65 automatic. He released the magazine, looked at it, then reinserted it. He cocked the piece. Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple.

That last sentence is a demonstration of skillful misdirection. By telling us Seymour looks at the girl, we assume that Muriel is the one “aimed” at, an assumption that Salinger cultivates until the final three words.

In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Salinger’s readers must work, like detectives, to first recognize clues that might not seem to be clues, then use them to decode the enigmatic story, piecing together what the clues mean. A writing professor of mine once said that about 2/3 of your readers should “get” a great story the first or second time through. That means that 1/3 will need assistance in order to “get it” all, or they might not get it all—and that’s okay. “Getting it” is not requisite to enjoying the story as a whole, but each hidden attribute that you “get” feels like a miniature conquest, and enriches the overall experience.

Salinger is notoriously hard to “get,” in the sense that he lets quizzical actions and statements remain so, prodding the reader to get on his wavelength but explaining very little. My favorite novels and, particularly, short stories are those that offer up riddles that close reading will solve, opening like flowers to reveal the beauty of the story and the author’s ingenuity. And yet some writers are so good you admire their work even when you can’t determine exactly what they’re getting at with every detail.

Story Playlist 23: The Man from the South

Roald Dahl: “The Man from the South” (1948) Most folks know Roald Dahl for his wonderful children’s books, like The BFG (Big Friendly Giant), James and the Giant Peach, or Matilda (now a Broadway musical), but Dahl led a number of lives. He was a spy during World War Two, and an older generation knows him for his razor-sharp, creepy short stories for adults, the most famous of which is “The Man from the South.”

The story is simple. Our narrator, an Englishman on holiday in Jamaica, is joined poolside by a man dressed in a white suit and cream-colored hat, who speaks with a Spanish accent (“the” is both written and pronounced “de”). This Man from the South (i.e., South America) engages in a bet with a young American sailor, who is trying to show off to an English girl he has just met. The sailor offers to bet a dollar that he can light the Man’s cigar outdoors on the first try with his Zippo-style lighter. The Man makes a counter-bet, offering his new Cadillac if the boy can successfully light his lighter ten times in a row. The sailor is intrigued and asks what he would have to forfeit, if he fails. The Man replies that it is something small that he would not miss—the pinky finger of his left hand.

As soon as the counter-prize is stated, the general tension brewed by Dahl in the slightly-awkward back-and-forth of the Man and the sailor leaps up to a higher level of dread that prompts the reader’s heart to leap with it. What seemed playful becomes sinister.

Our nervousness at the situation is contrasted by the bright and playful environment in which it takes place—poolside at a sunny Jamaican resort. The narrator expresses his dismay at this bet, as does the English girl, who thinks it is foolish. But the young sailor takes the bet anyway. Why is not clear, though he rationalizes that he’s never needed his pinky and would certainly like a Cadillac. Why the Man would want a pinky finger is not asked.

The narrator is roped into refereeing, and they adjourn to the Man’s hotel room. There the Man asks a maid to bring him nails, a hammer, and a meat cleaver. He hammers the nails into the hotel desk so that he can tie the sailor’s hand down to it. The sailor offers his hand, clenched but with the pinky extended, so the Man can lop it off before the sailor has second thoughts, should he lose the bet. The Man hands the car keys to the narrator, and the sailor begins flicking his lighter.

Dahl produces a wonderfully-tense countdown of successful lightings of the lighter, until we reach the ninth. Just then a woman bursts into the room, sees what is happening, and berates the Man in a flurry of Spanish. The bet is cancelled. The woman explains that this Man is her husband, and he is mentally unstable. He has taken 47 fingers and lost 11 Cadillacs—and all the Cadillacs were hers, and not his to bet. She then adds that everything that was once his is now hers, that she won it after hard work. Dahl then provides a marvelous kicker of a last line, when we see that the woman has only two fingers on one of her hands.

The story works beautifully, providing natural tension, and it is no surprise that it has been made into short films on several occasions, including by Alfred Hitchcock (starring Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre). What we are to make of the bizarre scene and the dynamic between the woman and her mad husband is another question, one which, happily, Dahl does not answer for us. To answer it would be to remove the mystery, and the sustenance of an enduring mystery based on a haunting situation is far more powerful than a mystery that is “explained away.”

Magritte is my favorite painter, because his paintings, with evocative titles, draw the viewer into a sense of a mystery to be solved—but then he does not solve it. David Lynch is the nearest approximation on-screen, with Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive two famous examples of engrossing mysteries that Lynch, arguably, never bothered to conceive solutions to. The goal is to draw us into the mystery, encourage us to seek its solution, but never to give us the satisfaction of feeling that we have solved it. To solve it would be to dismiss it, to move on. By never offering a solution, we remain haunted by the mystery. And after all, all great artists hope to haunt us.