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Posts Tagged ‘Norman Rush’

The Comic Voice: An Interview with Christina Nichol

August 7, 2014 | by

Christina-Nichol

Photo courtesy of the Overlook Press

Last month, Brooklyn’s powerHouse Books hosted Norman Rush, Marco Roth, and Christina Nichol to discuss Nichol’s debut novel, Waiting for the Electricity. Set in a post-Soviet Georgia, rife with power shortages, the book stars Slims Achmed Makashvili, a maritime lawyer navigating the perplexing, often hilarious vagaries of life in a corrupt republic. Slims yearns to visit America—he writes letters to Hillary Clinton and applies to a business program she sponsors—where he hopes to discover a land of stupefying efficiency. But when at last he arrives in the U.S., the vision of progress is not what he’d hoped.

Nichol has taught English in India, South Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, and, of course, Georgia; her experiences abroad inform much of Waiting for the Electricity’s observant wit. With Rush and Roth, she discussed the direction of the comic novel, fiction’s bearing on foreign policy, and a State Department official with a ukulele.

ROTH

Christina, how did you end up in Georgia? How did you join the great English-teaching enterprise that is this new American century?

NICHOL

As a kid I went to the Soviet Union with my grandfather, who braved a hundred Americans and a hundred Russians on a boat down the Volga River. This was during the eighties, and I sort of fell in love with Russia—I continued to go back to witness the transformation of communism into capitalism, which I saw as an amazing and tragic story of the twentieth century. I’d been to Kyrgyzstan, too, and as an adult I was trying to get back. I applied through this foundation, and they said, Well, we have Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia available. I’d once seen some Georgian folk dancers, and they were really amazing, so I decided on Georgia, knowing nothing about it.

ROTH

And Norman, you spent some time in the Peace Corps.

RUSH

Not technically. [Elsa and I] were co-country directors in the Peace Corps in Botswana from ’78 to ’83. But the formative effect of being outside the country for a long period of time is certainly the same—having that be a catalyst to a kind of uncheckable literary impulse, looking at a different part of the great evolution that’s taken place. But Christina, you said something intriguing—that you thought the conversion or the evolution of communism to capitalism was a great tragedy. That’s certainly not the State Department opinion. Are you a Bolshevik?

NICHOL

I suppose I’m thinking of how it was done to hold up America as an example. In communist nations, they’d heard all these terrible things about how capitalism works—someone gets money and then doesn’t provide the service he’s been paid for—and they’d say, Well, that’s the free market economy for you! Then, under capitalism, they began to live the kind of ideology of the propaganda they’d been brought up with. It was actually an even worse form of capitalism than ours.

RUSH

Yours is a glorious comic narrative, and there’s something slightly odd in talking about it in the midst of terrible political tragedy, the murder and carnage taking place around the world—a kind of carnage in which, as humans and as Americans, we’re all to some degree implicated. But it isn’t strange, actually, when you think about it. Comic narrative, especially high comic, in textual form, is very important for two reasons. One, it relaxes us and returns us. It disengages us from the essential tragedy, the base tragedy, and the unnecessary tragedy that we encounter as human beings. And it teaches a kind of distance. It has a way of recharging, of remaking our willingness to be open, to have strength in the world, and to work within it. This novel is a remarkable entry into the world of comic fiction. If you look at the history of what’s considered funny in terms of narrative fiction, it’s been pretty much a male reserve. Examining, say, English Anglophone writers—novelists, not short-story writers or nonfiction writers—there’s Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, but suddenly now there’s Lydia Davis, Rivka Galchen, and an explosion of the comic subject. Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Pragmatism, Professional Consultants, Pubic Crests

January 31, 2014 | by

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Walter Battiss, Wandering Nude 1, 1978, oil on canvas.

Pop quiz! Which American philosopher coined the following expressions: pluralism, time-line, healthy-minded, live option, stream of consciousness, and the bitch-goddess success. Hint: he counted among his most devoted students Gertrude Stein, Theodore Roosevelt, and W.E.B. DuBois. Last hint, from a letter he wrote to his little brother Henry, in 1902: “You have created a new genre littéraire which I can’t help thinking perverse, but in which you nevertheless succeed, for I read with interest to the end (many pages and innumerable sentences twice over to see what the dickens they could possibly mean).” If you guessed William James (correctly), you probably remember him as the main inventor of “pragmatism,” the can-do philosophy that professional philosophers love to hate. But as Robert D. Richardson shows in his 2006 biography William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, it is hard to imagine a livelier, more lovable mind. As a scientist, James did original work on everything from evolution to spiritualism. As a philosopher, he anticipated everyone from Bergson to Wittgenstein to Austin to Daniel Kahneman. As a person, James is the most appealing kind of genius, continually inspired by his family, by his friendships and romances, and by communion with what he called “the hidden self,” where we are most vulnerable and alive. —Lorin Stein

The latest issue of Granta includes “Nudity,” an essay by Norman Rush about his youthful encounters with the body au naturel. Rush’s parents dabbled in a kind of functional nudism, which we might today call “letting it all hang out.” “The nudity of my parents did not assuage my ripening interest, but inflamed it,” he writes. “I wanted to see other naked female humans, and I wanted my father to keep his bathrobe on.” Though the piece mostly chronicles the young Rush’s quest to see live nudes, it takes an astonishing, affecting swerve in its final paragraph, which I won’t spoil here. It also includes, of course, those quintessentially Rushian terms for the female anatomy, “escutcheon” (the pubic crest) and “introitus” (just look it up). —Dan Piepenbring

Sunday is Groundhog Day (fingers crossed!), but I’ve been heralding the arrival of spring for days now, however futile my attempts may be. Perhaps that’s why I picked up Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book this week. I’ve read Jansson’s Moomin comics and her children’s books, but I haven’t ever delved into her prose. This book—a series of interrelated vignettes about a girl and her grandmother on a quiet island in the Gulf of Finland—is a treasure. Its stories are miniatures not just in length but in perspective as well: sometimes literally, as when the grandmother lays down near the beach and studies a blade of grass, a fluff of down, and a piece of bark in the sand by her face. Through her examination, their minute details are writ large; the bark, for instance, becomes “a very ancient mountain.” And when she finally gazes past them, to the wider world, it no longer looks so big. —Nicole Rudick

The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish is a paean to that now-extinct species, the “dress doctor,” a professional consultant who helped average citizens navigate questions of style and economy in a rapidly changing landscape. How should a working girl look professional on a budget? How might a farm wife stretch a yard of fabric and still be chic? And how to incorporate principles of harmony, proportion, balance, rhythm, emphasis into every aspect of aesthetic life? The author, Linda Przybyszewski, is an academic, and the book serves as an informative cultural history. But more than this, it is a tribute to a time when style—and maybe even life—felt more straightforward, and however arbitrary, there were definitive answers. —Sadie Stein Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Self-Help, Self-Hate, Sense and Sensibility

November 1, 2013 | by

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In the last month, thanks to some timely advice from Sam Lipsyte in the Oslo airport, I’ve gone back to two books that I could never get through as a kid: Blood Meridian and Sense and Sensibility. Blood Meridian still defeats me, though I got about halfway through. Does every pueblo have to be ruinous, every puddle some shade of crimson? Will the Judge ever shut up about Darwin? The book it keeps comparing itself to is Moby-Dick, but Moby-Dick doesn’t compare itself to anything, and isn’t—or doesn’t feel—anywhere near as long. Sense and Sensibility, on the other hand, was just my speed. The last two pages are so good, I tore them out and pinned the sheet over my desk as a talisman. (The airport paperback had a painting of Spanish Gibson girls on the cover, and had to be thrown away.) —Lorin Stein

First published in 1957, the late Daniel Anselme’s On Leave chronicles one week in the lives of three soldiers, furloughed in Paris. Anselme, a resistance fighter and journalist, interviewed many conscripted men while researching the novel, and its unflinching look at the horrors of the Algerian conflict meant it was initially ignored by critics and never reprinted or translated. A new edition by Faber & Faber brings this “lost novel” to a whole new readership, and that’s a good thing. While it’s not a light or easy read (although David Bellos’s translation is spare and clear), it remains deeply affecting and, needless to say, relevant. —Sadie O. Stein Read More »

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With the Rushes

October 24, 2013 | by

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ELSA

I was naïve. I was eighteen. I’d only had one boyfriend and never got over being shy with him, so I didn’t think of myself as holding court. I just thought, Gosh, this is fun! No good dates in high school and now all of these conversations, with clever men asking my opinions about philosophy to show how sophisticated they were. At some point a mysterious stranger appeared in the doorway, wearing a black coat. He stood and listened for a minute, and when someone asked me a question—I wish I could remember what; I’ve thought of it many times—this man in the doorway said, “You don’t have to answer that.”

RUSH

I thought the question was intrusive.

ELSA

I actually wasn’t upset by the question, though I did understand what this man in the doorway meant. Then one of my couch suitors said something provocative, and the man gave a reply that infuriated them all. He said—instead of arguing, he said—

RUSH

I gave them a reading recommendation.

ELSA

And they hated it. He said, Why don’t you read such-and-such? Which is very annoying, of course. It’s a way of saying, “You’re not equipped to have this conversation with me.” I wish I could remember the book he recommended, though in a way it doesn’t matter, because Norman has done that so many times in his life.

RUSH

She means that I’ve often been aggressively, unpleasantly authoritative.

ELSA

Correct. Though at the time, I was smitten. I went back to my dormitory and told everyone that I’d met the man I want to be with forever. I was completely taken by his gestalt. And even later, after we’d married and departed Swarthmore, I remained this way, though when I disagreed with him, I certainly said so. When he wanted us to live in a commune, for instance.

—Norman Rush, the Art of Fiction No. 205

This Friday, Norman Rush reads from Subtle Bodies at Brooklyn’s BookCourt. A Q&A with Paris Review interviewer Joshua Pashman, and possibly birthday cake, will follow. Event details here.

 

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What We’re Loving: Bejeweled Ostriches, Robot Dancers

May 25, 2012 | by

I know it’s dumb to bet on which novels—which anything—will endure and which won’t. So why, reading Endless Love, Scott Spencer’s 1979 novel of romantic obsession, do I keep thinking, This will outlast us all? Maybe because it reminds me of other novels that have stayed fresh over the decades without the benefit of “classic”—or even cult classic—status: books like Victory, or Rebecca, or The Transit of Venus or The White Hotel or, in a funny way, Mating. You could make a much longer, even more random list, but there’s something they all have in common, something to do with technical sophistication, urgency, and shamelessness, as if the plot came welling up out of a nightmare. They are, you might say, too strong to be classics; they don’t need champions or explaining. People will just keep making each other read them. —Lorin Stein

After my most recent binge at Westsider Books, I found myself holding a copy of something titled The Minikins of Yam. Maybe it’s all these rainy afternoons, but lately I’ve missed the middle school era of my reading life, when “guilty pleasure” was the only category. I freely admit that I chose this paperback by Thomas Burnett Swann, an almost entirely forgotten 1970s author of “neo-romantic fantasy,” solely on account of its awesome cover art, in which a horned lady sallies forth atop a bejeweled ostrich. But Yam delivers exactly what George Barr’s cover art promises: basilisks, subterfuge, and beast-headed gods. If you, too, are an adult human still coping with the end of Harry Potter, look for one of these gorgeous DAW paperbacks to help fill the void. —Allison Bulger

Happy Memorial Day Weekend! If mysophobia (or better options) keep you from the opening of public pools this weekend, I suggest reading David Foster Wallace’s “Forever Overhead,” a story from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in which a pubescent boy celebrates his thirteenth birthday at a local public pool. You get splash fights, diving-board lines, too-tight suits, Marco Polo—the stuff of poolside dreams—and the fierce awkwardness and exposed, liquid thoughts that public pools and puberty bring forth. Wallace tells the story with manic detail and emotional exactitude, and, as always with dear DFW, it’s at once playful and meditative, unlikely and perfect. —Elizabeth Nelson

I’ve been home sick for the past two days and have found that Space Oddities: A Compilation of Rare European Library Grooves from 1977–1984 is the perfect sound track to a fever. Not a ringing endorsement? Well, you may just have to listen to this collection of carefully culled (by French DJs, naturally) clips from commercials, movies, and TV shows for yourself. I still have my ’08 CD, but good news: the whole album is on Spotify! Try “Robot Dancer.” —Sadie Stein

My experience with Egyptian art is limited mostly to the blockbuster stuff—I remember seeing traveling shows in Texas, where the heavy eye makeup and big jewelry of the statuettes and masks seemed to make a certain kind of sense—and it’s impressive, to say the least. But now I’m finding myself wowed by the smaller, less overtly extraordinary objects in the Met’s “Dawn of Egyptian Art” show (I’ve spent a lot of time with the catalogue as well). The flash of gold and scale is replaced here with the innate beauty of natural materials and form, like a frog carved from a black stone flecked with white; a basket filled with tiny fish, all incised into a single piece of powdery steatite; and the head of a bovid chiseled from clay-hued flint. I’m also unduly impressed with the various hippopotamus-shaped objects—not surprising, since I’ve long been the proud owner of a tubby blue “William.” —Nicole Rudick

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Outer Space; Dad Books

April 15, 2011 | by

I’m having trouble finding nature poems that deal with outer space (planets, galaxies, and weird phenomena like black holes, and so on). Has a true artist ever written on this theme? It would have to be someone with intellect and sensibility, not just a pop sci-fi writer. Thanks so much for any suggestions. —Alex

The book you are looking for—at least, one of them—is The Cosmos Poems, by Frederick Seidel. Weird phenomena abound.

A sample:

It is the invisible
Dark matter we are not made of
That I am afraid of.
Most of the universe consists of this.

I put a single normal ice cube
In my drink.
It weighs one hundred million tons.
It is a sample from the densest star.

I read my way across
The awe I wrote
That you are reading now.
I can’t believe that you are there

Except you are ...

Dear Mr. Stein,

Recently my dear old dad has requested a “good book” for his sixty-first birthday. In the past, as far as fiction is concerned, he’s seemed especially drawn to the classics, such as Ulysses, Moby-Dick, the poetry of William Butler Yeats, and anything else one might read as an English-lit major. Understandably, he’s now going through a bit of a literary midlife crisis and is looking for some excitement. What contemporary works would you suggest to reawaken his intellectual spirit and introduce him to the fiction of the twenty-first century? Best Wishes, Jemima M.

If we start with your father’s predilection for Ulysses and Moby-Dick, and if by “good book” we assume your father means a big, ambitious novel with what Alex calls “intellect and sensibility”—and a real story to tell—I suggest Hilary Mantel’s Booker winner Wolf Hall, a historical novel about the court of Henry VIII that makes brilliant use of old-fashioned modernist stream-of-consciousness and at the same time, in its handling of private life between the sexes, is very much of our century. I suspect your father might also like either of Jonathan Franzen’s last two novels, The Corrections or Freedom. Or Péter Nádas’s complex, tricky, very inward family saga of Hungarian intellectuals in the late twentieth century, A Book of Memories. (My mother loved this one.)

At the very top of the list I’d put Norman Rush’s Mortals, the story of a middle-aged CIA agent, undercover as a Milton scholar at a university in Botswana, facing hard changes in his career and his marriage.

Read a few pages of each; I bet one will have his name on it.

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