That New New in Lit: April

Jacob Kaplan

photo via The New Yorker

The Overview Effect is what happens to astronauts when they go up into space, turn around, and see Earth for what it is: a pale, lonely sphere, perched on the edge of nothing. The spacewalker, confronted with this profundity, is often (supposedly!) overcome with a new tenderness for humanity, or a sort of euphoric revelation about cosmic harmony. According to a 2008 article from Universe Today, Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell said spacewalking “gave him a profound sense of connectedness, with a feeling of bliss and timelessness.” I propose that staying on Earth and scrolling through the Internet elicits an opposite sensation; instead of Mitchell's “connectedness,” “bliss,” and “timelessness,” the browser-bound human is more likely to experience alienation and despair, a disorientation in the deluge of ephemera. One salve for those of us who didn't go to space school (right?) is fiction, which, if it's good, allows the reader to—bear with me, don't click away yet—go up, turn around, and see the pale lonely sphere.

Sam Lipsyte is one of the best there is at blasting us off, or at least at rubbing our noses in the shit of this world with such aggressive love that we get high off the fumes and think we've blasted off. What's the difference? None of us are actually ever getting into space anyway. Lipsyte's latest, “The Naturals,” is published in the current issue of The New Yorker, but you can read it even if your mom didn't buy you a subscription. A “free-range cultural consultant” named Caperton flies home because his father is dying, meets a pro wrestler on the flight named The Rough Beast of Bethlehem, texts a girl named Daphne, breaks down but not completely. Lipsyte's worlds are masterpieces of antagonism. His characters process cruelty and then dole it back out, or else curl up and whimper. It's all scarily relatable. But something magic (not dissimilar from, maybe, the Overview Effect?!) happens when we relate to the pain of fictional characters—we feel more of this earth, in league with the human experience. It's not all pain, either; Lipsyte is funny (yeah, painfully). And he sprinkles crumbs of hope among the ruins, but you really have to keep your eyes peeled.

If you read “The Naturals,” you should check out Lipsyte's brief discussion of the story here. He's just as funny and sharp behind the curtain, and even leaves us with a pithy sound bite: “…no emotion or insight is too small to inflict on the world. Let it all fly. Don't let it eat you from the inside.” It's an important idea; we keep so much of ourselves to ourselves, covetous or fearful, and the inner workings can easily get gummed up and start to rot. We get eaten from the inside! Maybe that's why it feels so good to see it happen to someone else.

It definitely happens—or has already happened— to someone else in Rebecca Curtis's “Summer Cleanses,” from NOON. NOON is a non-profit literary annual, a very pretty matte rectangle of a publication that features stories and pictures. Curtis writes fiction but is also a real-life nutritionist, and it shows, because in “Summer Cleanses,” written as if to potential clients, the jargon and the health-obsessed verve feel very real. But beneath the surface, Curtis's protagonist boils with all kinds of loathing, self and otherwise, contrasting hilariously with her purported agenda. Citing reasons a recipient might have found himself on the “Summer Cleanses” mailing list, Curtis writes, “…you and I flirted on eHarmony and you gave me your private email before we actually met and you realized I'm fat…” The Cleanses themselves require participants to drink blood, kill food with a bow and arrow, and eat brains, for optimal omega-3 fatty acids intake.

In this same issue of NOON are not one but two stories by James Yeh, fiction writer and editor of killer lit mag Gigantic. Both are frank, sad, funny pieces about family, and the second, “Nice House, Nice Car, Nice Children, Nice Clothes,” a dialogue between son and mother, hits particularly hard.

Highly-regarded fiction writer Christine Schutt, also incidentally the Consulting Editor at NOON, has a piece in this issue, too. In it, a delightfully mean old lady with “breasts shrunk to tear drops” rides a horse until something bad happens. Schutt's prose is rhythmically complex and in this way mesmerizing.

Rita Bullwinkel is also an editor at NOON, and she has a piece in the current issue, although what you should do, as long as I'm being prescriptive, which I am, but only in small, impersonal ways, which feels totally acceptable, is read her story “Hunker Down,” which was published this month in Fanzine. It is a short short, flash fiction, and if I gave you a synopsis you probably wouldn't believe it. Regardless, it's excitingly odd, and a little uncomfortable. Bullwinkel can write.

Whether or not “Hunker Down” is your cup (haha! did you read it?) of tea, Fanzine is a good place to linger for those curious about new fiction and poetry. Their recent interview with Juliet Escoria is very good. Escoria's collection Black Cloud was just released on Civil Coping Mechanisms, and she made a series of videos in support of the book, which I was fascinated by (the videos, I haven't read the book yet), and wrote about last month. Escoria speaks with Felicetti about her video-making process: “I took my camera and a couple flashlights to the beach one night and filmed some shit of me and the seaweed and things like that.”

This is cool. This is the debut installment of a podcast interview series called Almost Live At Mellow Pages, perpetrated by writers Eric Nelson and Sean H. Doyle. The series is featured at Volume 1 Brooklyn, and, I assume, has claimed Mellow Pages Library as its base of operations. The debut finds Nelson and Doyle speaking to Matt Nelson and Jacob Perkins, the founders of that very library. The four speak about “the ideas of community, evolving and balancing work.”

At Harriet, the blog arm of Poetry Foundation, Giancarlo DiTrapano—the guy behind the lit mag New York Tyrant and the small press Tyrant books—discusses editing, indie presses, and the next big thing (hint: it's a book).

If you don't have time to read, go to a reading, where someone will read for you! Author Rivka Galchen's first collection of short fiction (she also wrote a novel) is called American Innovations, and she will read from it on Wednesday, May 7th, at 7 p.m., at 192 Books in Chelsea. Galchen's stories are “in conversation” with other stories, some of them canonical; one “reimagines Nikolai Gogol's 'The Nose.'”

And on Thursday the 8th, go to KGB Bar to see Laura van den Berg, Leah Hager Cohen, and Akhil Sharma discuss their respective latest books. Van den Berg's story collection, The Isle Of Youth, is impressive.

Or you could see Galchen and van den Berg together, at NYU's Lilian Vernon Creative Writers House, on Friday, May 9th, at 5 p.m.!

The next day, catch Rachel Kushner, of The Flame Throwers fame, discuss her novel at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza, in the Dweck Center. Saturday, May 10th, at 4 p.m.

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