José Revueltas, The Hole

The HoleThe Hole by José Revueltas

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Hole was written in Mexico City’s Lecumberri Penitentiary in 1969 and published the same year; a classic of Latin American literature, one that Valeria Luiselli claims on the back cover has informed the works of Bolaño and Aira, the novella appears for the first time in English in this 2018 translation by Amanda Hopkinson and Sophie Hughes.

Revueltas’s short novel is not only remarkable for its prison provenance. It is also an experimental formal contrivance—a solid block of prose from end to end with no breaks. Revueltas narrates his characters’ experience in real time, a viscous flow of consciousness that mimics the hallucinatory desperation of its criminal anti-heroes in the depths of the prison.

Our main characters are Albino and Polonio; they have convinced their cell-mate, a pathetic, disheveled man they call The Prick, to have his mother smuggle drugs into the prison  by carrying them in her vagina. She is accompanied by their young girlfriends, La Chata and Mecha, who themselves fall prey to the violations of the female guards who search them on their way into the prison. The smuggling plan goes as well as you’d expect, and the novella climaxes in an orgiastic and defeated rebellion.

Revueltas was in the prison, but not the titular hole; he was not a common criminal but a political prisoner, a lifelong Communist on trial for inciting the student rebellion in 1968. Accordingly, his novella makes a number of philosophical points in the course of its brief nightmare narrative.

First is that society at large is a prison. The novella opens with our anti-heroes watching their watchers, observing the guards, whom they think of as apes:

They were captive. […] They were born to keep watch and they knew as much, to spy, to constantly look around, making sure no one escaped their clutches in that city with its iron grid of streets, barred corridors, corners multiplying on all sides…

The prison is the city is the world, and the guards are as imprisoned as those they keep. In his comprehensive introduction to The Hole, novelist Álvaro Enrigue points out that Lecumberri Penitentiary was an exemplary modern institution, a model of “‘progressive’ rationalism” founded in 1900 on principles derived from Bentham’s panopticon.

Modernity, rationalism, progress: everybody watching everybody else along the sightlines formed by an authoritarian grid laid over us all by the powers that be. Revueltas makes the point even more explicit at his novel’s climax when the anti-heroes are defeated by guards who pin them in their cage by barring the space with metal rods:

…all in a diabolical mutilation of the space, triangles, trapezoids, parallels, oblique or perpendicular divisions, lines and more lines, bars and more bars, until every possible move those gladiators could make was blocked and they were left crucified on the monstrous blueprint of this gargantuan defeat of liberty, all the fault of geometry.

If “geometry” is at fault, if reality’s propensity to be rationalized defeated even the endless love of history’s most famous crucified convict, then resistance is whatever exceeds the rational. This is a filthy, nihilistic book, but it offers glimpses of redemption. Consider Albino’s tattoo, which drives observers to erotic frenzy:

Lower down his stomach was a tattoo of a Hindu figure—etched in the brothel of some Hindustani port, or so his story went, by the in-house eunuch, a member of an unpronounceable esoteric sect, while Albino dreamed a deep and almost lethal opium sleep beyond all possible recollection—the tattoo depicted an amusing couple, a young man and a woman in the throes of passion, their bodies entwined, enlaced in an incredible foliage of thighs, arms, legs, breasts, and marvelous organs—the Brahmanic tree of Good and Evil—positioned in such a way and with such kinetic wisdom that Albino only had to set it in motion with the right contractions and muscle spasms, its rhythmic oscillations rising at intervals on the surface of his skin, and a subtle, in apprehensible rocking of the hips, for those flailing and capricious-looking body parts—torso and armpits, feet and pubis and hands and wings and stomachs and hair—to assume a mystical unity in which the miracle of the Creation was repeated and human copulation was portrayed in all its magnificent and marvelous splendor.

Entwined foliage rather than straight lines, mystical unity rather than bars of division, miracles rather than reasons: if these can be found even in the eponymous hole, then perhaps geometry need not win the war, though it wins the battle Revueltas stages in the novella.

Geometry does tend to win out in Álvaro Enrigue’s long introduction, though, which frames the text for the Anglophone reader. While Revueltas was, as I said, a Communist, “all the fault of geometry” is not a Marxist position. Marxism does not perceive a fault in the structure of the universe as the source of social problems, but rather contingent and therefore alterable historical conditions. According to Enrigue, this tendency toward ontological pessimism rather than historical optimism caused Revueltas’s comrades to react with suspicion:

When Revueltas published his first novel, Walls of Water, Pablo Neruda denounced it for its pessimism: such existentialist themes were disrespectful of Stalinist orthodoxy. Neruda failed to understand the literary potential of young José Revueltas, who in turn held the Chilean poet—the loftiest of all lofty Communists—in such high esteem that he took Walls of Water off the market. Nevertheless, Neruda was correct in pointing out the link between Revueltas and post-war French literature. His tragic characters belong to the race of Albert Camus’s existential heroes: “indifferent to the future.”

Revueltas’s self-criticism anticipates the auto-#cancellation of authors scorned by social media activists today, and should tell us all we need to know about the Stalinist sources of the ideology taking root in American cultural institutions. Unfortunately, it takes further root at the end of Enrigue’s introduction, when he insists that this quasi-pornographic and wholly oneiric novella is “a timely fable about our complicity—all writers and readers—in the triumph of mass incarceration as the only solution to problems that could be resolved in more rational ways.”

But The Hole identifies rationalism itself as the enemy and names no solution whatever to the problems it describes, as it portrays prisoner and guard as alike caught in the cage of the universe and refuses to moralize over its anti-heroes’s murderous viciousness and visionary appetites. “Fable” is the last word I would use for this violent spasm of language.

I might have preferred a more emotionally complete fiction than The Hole myself, and I too hope our society can move on from mass incarceration; but the need to find in imaginative literature a timely and rational political fable is another “gargantuan defeat of liberty.”


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Published: “White Girl”

My short story, “White Girl,” which I had thought too controversial to be published even before it took on a new and ghastly relevance this summer, appears in the first issue of the brand-new (and especially beautiful) Amaranth Review. You can read the inaugural issue in its entirety here; my story starts on page 70. Its first sentence:

My father was a cop. That’s why I had to shoot him.

“White Girl” is a short story in the form of a confession about the political assassination of a police officer by his own daughter. While I wrote it about two years ago out of a sense of looming civil strife, I did not imagine that it would be published in a summer when something like the violence it describes is actually occuring. Just to be on the safe side, let me be clear that I am in no way endorsing such violence (my own belief is that so-called revolutionary or radical violence usually either reinforces whatever authority it presumes to oppose or turns its perpetrators into just the kind of people they set out to resist).

My purpose was to investigate through fiction what it might look like if some of the merely verbal radicalism that circulates today were to be taken with absolute seriousness; and to portray with fictional vividness (and a certain defamiliarization) a new social type, so far inadequately labelled as “the social justice warrior,” a fascinating Internet-age amalgam of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s or Charles Dickens’s sentimental, domestic, middle-class woman and the Dostoevskean-Conradian-DeLilloesque male gnostic terrorist.

So please read it if you like, and share it if you enjoy it!

Short Story: “The Embrace”


The person who made the statement quoted (not quite verbatim, so please don’t go googling) in the eighth numbered section of my post on Jimmy Corrigan is the editor of a journal that published a short story of mine last year. At $10 a copy, this journal is probably not reaching very many people, and yet the story is perhaps my own favorite of my short fictions. So, without quarreling with the editor’s political thought and without even mentioning my misspelled surname (misspelled even after I requested a correction) on the page that advertises the volume of the journal in which my piece was published, let me symbolically absent my undesired voice from the editor’s chorus and post the story here, for free, for anyone who would like to read it. The place of original publication is credited elsewhere (in at least three places) on this website; I am trying not to start a controversy, so I will forego naming it here (the contract I signed with the journal does not in any case require me to do so).  As far as the story itself goes, it is about class and sex and gender, and the kinds of alienness that are vaster than the differences between humans, even as they may symbolize those differences. It is about culture and money, sex and loneliness, eating and being eaten. It is about being underwater; it is about going on vacation as a child. Its characters, let me warn you, do not speak in the polite technocratic argot of “race-gender-class,” because they do not belong to the class that does so. Enough explanation; without further ado:

The Embrace

by John Pistelli

They met in church. I have an old photograph of the church from that time in front of me: I scanned it and now use it as the background on my work computer. The picture doesn’t contain much information. The church looks faded, orange and tawdry, sandy and bare-walled, an old little mission chapel in the empty square of a town at the water’s edge. But when I was younger, I didn’t have anything to compare it to or any terms to apply to it, so its smallness and isolation held a glamour. For many years after, I would go to that church in my mind during any unpleasant occurrence: in traffic, at a staff meeting, in the dentist’s chair, on insomniac nights or long plane rides. Inwardly I would sit alone in the quiet and the dark and would read a book or write a poem, protected by a stone wall from the restless sun or the wind from the ocean. But on that day, I wasn’t alone; I was with my mother, whose idea it had been to go into the church in the first place. Being at the time a kind of ranting boy atheist—even though I was a girl—I was against it. My mother, everything else having failed to come through for her, was rediscovering her faith in the Lord; she believed that his purposes, so mysterious and painful for their human objects, were nevertheless good and necessary. She lit a candle, and then she knelt in the nearly empty chapel. I wandered around the dim peripheries with the camera slung around my neck, studying the stone-relief Stations of the Cross, but afraid to snap a picture because of how loud the shutter would sound in the consecrated silence. A black-clad nun, her pert pink face floating in the darkness, glared with pity at me. This made me leave the image I was studying—the descent from the Cross, Mary’s face isolated like the nun’s within her shawl—and scamper back to my mother’s pew, where I found her in conversation with Mr. Stanley. He looked to be about fifty years old, and he had waves of metallic black and silver hair. The tanned arms protruding from his rolled-up sleeves were thick with muscle and white-furred. “We’re meeting Mr. Stanley for dinner tonight,” my mother said.

* * *

My mother dyed her hair in the hotel room. Happily, she’d been wearing a scarf when she met Mr. Stanley, so he hadn’t seen her gray-wisped blonde roots showing under the false auburn. While her head was foil-wrapped and her forehead seemingly blood-spotted, she pushed my own head down under the tub faucet and raked her fingernails through the knots and tangles of my hair. I squirmed and shivered as she violently brushed it out, whipping long, cold, wet strands across my back. “Jesus, you’re a wild child,” she said. “Whose kid are you?” We looked at ourselves in the foggy mirror, my mother already shorter than I was, her features plain where mine were sharp, an inheritance from my long-vanished father (whom I would meet one day in a diner and drink a sad black coffee with, a long time from then and a long way from there, after my mother’s slow suicide by alcohol and smoke). In the mirror, I was all twisted hair and knobby knee and elbow—she sometimes said I looked like a hairy insect. “But you’ll grow out of it,” she assured me as she pushed me out of the bathroom so she could finish the dye job and put on her face. By the time we got out of the hotel, she’d made me change three times. I wore my hair in a severe braid and was made to put on closed shoes even though we were at the beach—“I don’t want him to look at those prehensile toes of yours and think I’ve spawned an evolutionary throwback”—and a modest wraparound skirt that came to my ankles—“I don’t want him to think he’s getting into something unmanageable with you.” In the cab ride to Mr. Stanley’s hotel, she pulled me close and kissed my clavicle. “I know I’m a bitch, baby, but I’m doing it for both of us. You’ll understand one day.” The cabbie smiled at my mother with cynical commiseration in the smudged rear view mirror. He must have understood, but I did not—I jerked away and nearly hugged the car door as I ferreted a little paperback collection of Christina Rosetti from the folds of my skirt. I understand now. Maybe that’s why I have no children of my own.

* * *

“Ladies,” said Mr. Stanley, “I have a surprise.”

Unconcerned that I would think he was an evolutionary throwback, he wore his shirt with the top buttons undone, his whitish pelt looking like an ascot tucked below his chin. I didn’t know what an ascot was then; we were lower-middle-class, lower and lower every year, a truth my mother dancingly evaded on our long confusing walk—longer than the cab ride—through the sandy back streets of the town toward the surprise. “I’m a hostess,” said my mother. You’re a fucking bartender, I thought. “I studied journalism,” said my mother. For two years, until I was born. (My mother was thirty-five then.)

“Journalism, that’s wonderful,” said Mr. Stanley. “I majored in communications myself. I use it a lot in my job now. Except that journalists tell the truth and advertisers lie.” He chuckled conspiratorially: if we were all in on his lies, he seemed to be saying, then we were both no better than he was and better than the people he lied to. I glared at his paltry ruse behind my sunglasses, which I wore even though the sky, several hours before sunset, was getting dark with rain-bellied clouds (“Sunny every day!” said our vacation brochure, another advertiser’s lie, meant to deflect the buyer’s shame at being forced by relative poverty to take a summer trip to such a desolate, no-account beach). As we strolled through the maze of streets—the town was like a mirror somebody had punched: all its lines were jagged fractures—I dreamed about the people who lived behind the grimy pink walls of the buildings. A little store, now closed for the evening, sold every type of shell, some so richly infolded and intricate with patterns of color that I suspected them to be the work of human hands. I wondered about the creatures that had lived in the shells as I did about the creatures who lived in the buildings, all vulnerable soft tremulous slops when prised out of our chambers.

My mother, bathetically, had lost herself to her enthusiasms while conversing with Mr. Stanley. She always got carried away. Bar patrons were forever complaining that she cajoled them to give up their orders and drink instead whatever outlandish strange-colored cocktail she was perfecting at the moment; she would hand them bizarre tumblers full of striated orange and blue when they had asked for simple vodka tonics or Jack-and-Cokes. That she tried to treat my body with the same creative energy and command ensured that some part of me would always hate her, but I found it impossible, even at the time, not to admire her imaginative force. “I read all those gonzo books as a kid,” she was saying to Mr. Stanley, “while all the other smart girls were reading Jane Austen. They made me want to be a journalist. I wanted to ride with the Hell’s Angels, take drugs in Las Vegas—I wanted to experience everything.” That much was true enough and unembellished for Mr. Stanley. She had given me all those books too, but I didn’t care for them. When I wasn’t reading my science textbooks, I favored the genteel classics instead, hence the poetry in my pocket: the verses of an unmarried near-nun. (When your mother is a rebel, your rebellion is necessarily to become a conservative.) “But life happened,” she said to Mr. Stanley, jerking her red-nailed thumb in my direction. I looked all around, pretending not to listen. On a rusty balcony that I half-worried, half-hoped would come loose just as we were walking under it, a young couple huddled over a small table sharing a meal in silence, bare knees touching. The man, shirtless and built up with blocks of muscle, was burned dark by outdoor labor; the woman rocked a baby on one brown shoulder, its pinkish downy little head shrouded by her sun-bleached hair. Further down toward the ocean, on another, sturdier balcony of thick pink-painted iron, a long, lean older woman reclined in a chaise-longue, sternly dreamy, a notebook in her lap, a book propped open next to a flute of white wine on a side table, her sandaled feet propped up, crossed neatly at the ankles—some vacationing novelist or poet, some philosopher or scientist on retreat, I imagined.

My mother had just finished explaining that this was a last-minute trip—“To clear my head,” she said, as if she were some kind of poet or philosopher—a quick car ride to the cheapest, closest beach. I could see she was trying to get him to say why he, who seemed to have so much more money and so many more choices, ended up in this half-abandoned town perched at the end of the earth.

“I’m not on vacation, myself,” said Mr. Stanley. “This is a business trip. In fact, and I hope you don’t mind, I’m working for the business we’re about to visit.”

By this time, we had come to the sea-road, crossed it, and were now walking onto a shiny silver marina that extended out over the swirling water. We arrived, just before the platform ran out, at a circular hole. I peered over and saw that it didn’t just drop into the water but instead opened onto a spiral staircase in a white-lighted tunnel. Mr. Stanley started down, and then extended a hand up to my mother. I trailed down after eventually; it was either that or walk into the ocean.

* * *

“It’s part of a revitalizing project,” Mr. Stanley explained as he showed us around the restaurant. The bar in the center of the blue room was shaped like the thick, scalloped lip of a clam shell, and the bar stools were fashioned as jellyfish heads supported by thin metal mimickings of radial canals (being fifteen years old and in high school and an unusually avid reader of my science textbooks, I had such precise terminology at the ready). The tables in the main room sat next to windows that looked out into the glowing blue darkness and lazy detritus of the ocean. But the most prizeworthy tables were stationed in eight transparent tunnels that extended out like arms from the hub of the main room. In the tunnels, you could look above you to the high-drifting rays and the schools of fish darting and flicking like a single organism; if you could stand their judgment, you could be watched by the wary, resentful co-lifeforms of the dinner on your plate, inwardly furious citizens of an occupied city. Sitting perfectly still, eating your swordfish or lobster, you rode in a triumphal car through the ocean. Mr. Stanley invited us into one of the tunnels.

“Robinsonade, Incorporated, which built this restaurant, will be buying most of the beach—most of the town, in fact—to put more money into the region. This will be the first dining establishment of its kind in the world when it opens next year. They’re doing a series of dry runs on the q.t., though, cooking meals for V.I.P.s, movie moguls, senators, those kinds of people, and my firm is a partner in the advertising. They brought me out here to do a walk-through, see the sights, get inspired by the whole site, the town, I mean—to see if I couldn’t meet my muse out here.”

He smiled upon my mother. She was the type of woman who understood that his flattering comments were cynical at bottom. I turned away in disgust, not yet old enough to know that very often cynicism is all that offers itself as a reprieve from being alone. A flat white ray glided around the glass next to me, the tips of its wings curling, giving shape to the current, its mouth a little semicircle, as if it felt wonder. But I didn’t know what it felt. Mr. Stanley called out something in Spanish to the man behind the clam shell bar. “, ,” the man said and came over to set our table. Mr. Stanley pulled out my mother’s chair. A school of bullet-shaped fish passed in shadow across the floor, where I kept my eyes.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said. I didn’t, but I did want to be on my own for a few minutes, to shelter my precious adolescent soul from lying talk and desperate talk, all the cant of the old and sad. Mr. Stanley vaguely pointed me in the direction of the bathroom, and I wandered vaguely toward it.

“Octopus is on special tonight, just for us,” I heard him say.

* * *

My mother’s marriage to Mr. Stanley proved a lengthy struggle. He traveled incessantly, he buried his head in advertising, he buried his dick in waitresses and secretaries and junior copywriters and vice-chairpersons and kitchen staff. As a stepfather, he offered me needful distance. (A bad husband perhaps makes for a good stepfather.) My mother consoled herself with her bar and her bar patrons until he left, and then she got old and unfuckable, and then she was sick, and then she was dead, is dead, will always be dead. At their wedding reception, when they danced their first dance to their song, when they swayed laughing to good old “Leather and Lace,” I sobbed uncontrollably, my whole body wracked, as if something shook me hard by the shoulders.

The restaurant never opened. It never even received a name. Later that year it imploded—at night, luckily, with no one aboard—and a fell in a heap of plastics to the silt and coral seabed, a leaching toxic reef. Eco-terrorists were suspected, but nothing was ever known for sure. Robinsonade, Inc., never bought the town. It remains dusty and nearly empty, the old church still in its center, as in my memories and in my photograph.

I grew up to be a successful museum curator—natural history, not art. I don’t even believe in art, for why should anyone at all have the nerve or the right to create forms when so many scarcely explicable forms exist already? I still wear my hair long, and I also wear a black shell on a pendant along with (everything else having failed to come through, as it does) a crucifix; and I let my hair get unkempt and tangled, and I dress how I like, and I live alone. These facts, in theory, bring an end to my story.

* * *

In fact, I got lost on the way to the bathroom, and I found myself following a broad trail of slimy water that slipped out from under the blue plastic swing-door leading to the back of the kitchen. I very slowly nudged the door open with my foot. I saw the thing. When I saw the thing—I had never seen such a thing in the flesh before—I was so stunned by the very presence of its thingness that the name for it, which I had of course known since toddlerhood, did not even occur to me. A dark purple shining mass, sleekly bulbous near its middle, with two black spheres set into it, it slopped out in studded tendrils like something somebody had spilled, a half-hardened puddle, alive. It writhed across the floor in my direction. It seemed to move by pouring itself out of itself, over and over. A gland, a polyp, pulp on the move—escaping. Some kind of inspirited flora, fungus, bacterium, some kind of slime that rose and walked and shouldn’t have. An emotion more potent than just fear, a stupefying shock, momentarily spiked me, sweating, to the floor. I forced out a few breaths, shook my head, and remembered the word for the thing. I said it over and over; knowing the word made me feel much better. The word led others and still others into my head, and I resumed the ongoing conversation with myself that the nearing appearance of the thing had suspended. Escaping! Of course it was escaping! They were going to put it in a pot and boil it. Wouldn’t you, in the circumstances, try to escape? So there was a point of comparison between me and this rolling tumor, this snot charged with vitality. Surely there would be other likenesses, if I only stopped and thought about it. But it turned over and over itself toward me. It wouldn’t give me time to think. Any minute now a person with an apron and a knife would come cursing after it, calling it by the name it had en Español (but what was its name for itself?), and that would be the end unless it hurried, as much as it could hurry in the drowning currents of the air. In the circumstances, I thought this: What would it frighten you the most to do right now? And shouldn’t that be just the thing that you do?

* * *

I walked very quickly, my head bowed, my arms folded low across my belly, back to my seat at the table in the tunnel. Neither my mother nor Mr. Stanley looked at me too intently. They had drunk half a bottle of white wine in the time that I was gone and were now spearing firmly elusive rings of fried calamari with sharp, tiny forks. In the blue glow outside the tunnel, fish with wide, startled-seeming eyes turned one way and the other. Instead of my body warming the thing, cold overlapped itself in a braid around my vertebrae as it climbed up from the small of my back. A blue darkness slowly saturated my mind. I leaned over and poured myself a glass of wine with what felt like a very crooked, desperate smile on my face. I drank it down very quickly, trying to wash out the bluish cold in a warm yellow flood. Neither of them said anything to me. They were sparring with each other, their be-ringed forks flying in front of them.

“The problem,” Mr. Stanley was saying, “starts in bed. You women have no idea what it’s like for a man, because, fundamentally, you don’t have to do anything. You can just lay there, like the goddamn sun, and you know everything will go around you in a circle. And if it doesn’t, well, it’s not your fault. You always have us to blame. So when you get out of bed, it means you don’t understand responsibility. You don’t understand endurance. You don’t know what it means to suspend your immediate little wants and needs for a larger purpose. If you get discouraged, you shrivel right up. If you don’t understand something, you pretend it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to do anything, which is why you do so little. And then you blame us for it! For not hiring you in larger numbers, which, I believe, is how this conversation started. You say, ‘You men with all your dick-swinging, you think you’re the cock of the walk,’ but let me tell you something, lady, if we didn’t act that way, you’d laugh in our faces. And that, whether you like it or not, doesn’t end well.”

My mother made some flirtatiously outraged, faux-incredulous guffaws: “No, no, let me tell you something, Mr. Dick, Mr. Cock, whatever you prefer. Get back to me about endurance and responsibility when you’ve had a fucking animal basically fused to your spine for nine months. If you guys had to shit out a human being, then we’d see some changes in the world.”

“Fused to your spine? I think you need an anatomy lesson…”

“Keep dreaming, baby. Listen, did it ever occur to you that this experience of being built to grow human beings gives us some bigger perspective on all your pathetic schemes and responsibilities? You ever see a garden build a cathedral? I feel bad for you guys, honestly. No wonder you swagger around killing everything in sight, putting labels on everything. You’re cut off from everything, hardly alive, and all you have for consolation is your little dicks. No wonder you’re so proud of them. Honestly, if I was a man, I’d shoot somebody in the fucking head.”

She made a gun out of her thumb and forefinger and put it to his temple. He grabbed her wrist gently and lowered her hand level with his mouth. I poured another drink, trying to keep up with them. Something sucked at my skin. A rope of slime around my lower back seemed to be whispering about loneliness and dying.

“What do you think, sweetheart?” my mother said to me.

I leaned forward, hearing a sound like a mouth breaking contact with another mouth as my stomach became concave. I said something, but I don’t remember what I said. They looked at me strangely. Mr. Stanley leaned back and surreptiously sent his eyes from side to side, as if he were searching for an exit.

“Excuse me one more time,” I said, and veered out of my chair back toward the kitchen.

“Honey,” my mother called after me, “you’re dripping.”

In the kitchen, I lifted up my shirt in a panic, and the thing slopped out. It splattered against the tiles of the floor like vomit. It seemed to whirl; it seemed to want to create a vortex to suck the world down. I wrung out my salt-smelling shirt and went back to the table. I told them I felt unwell. I slumped with my cheek flattened on the thin skin of plastic separating me from the ocean.

* * *

On the cab ride back to the hotel, my mother pulled me close and asked me what I meant.

“What I meant?”

“You know, when I asked you what you thought about my conversation with Mr. Stanley. Don’t you remember what you said?”

I kept quiet.

“You said, ‘It’s lonely to be alive, it’s lonely to die.’ You said, ‘Man or woman—it doesn’t matter.’ You told us, ‘You’re killing me.’”

I separated myself from her, my stomach cold, burning, and I sank against the door. The back of the taxi stank of saltwater. “You’re killing me,” I repeated. “You’re killing me.”

My mother rolled down the window and lit a cigarette. She blew smoke thoughtfully into the wind-stream.

“Yeah, well,” she concluded, “join the club, baby.”

Published: “Sweet Angry God”

Please click here for a free pdf of my latest short story, published in the December issue of Writing Raw (and check out the rest of the issue!). Writing Raw prefaces each story with a brief description; here is their teaser for mine:

When her sister announces that is absconding with a dubious man attracted to violence and fanaticism, an intellectual reflects on all else she has lost in her brief existence: her leg, her first love, her trust in life. The sisters enjoy a final dinner against the backdrop of a decadently desiccated Los Angeles in this joyous, bitter story of beauty and pain.

And here, for your pleasure, is the first paragraph:

Apparently it began with a hate fuck. There was a dirtball café, no doubt collectively owned, a few blocks from the art school. He worked there, and she had been watching him for some months, maybe even her entire sophomore year. The first time she went into the place she noticed him, how hateful and stupid he was. Some kind of percussion-heavy music rumbled over the speakers, hissing with analogue static. She thought she felt the tuba thrum in her throat. Above the music she heard him talk to his co-worker as his face glistened in the espresso machine steam. He didn’t look at her, not even when his dirty fingernails grazed her palm with the change.

Published: “They Are in the Truth”

“They Are in the Truth” by John Pistelli.

Please click to read my short story, “They Are in the Truth,” published in The Stockholm Review of Literature. I think it is the best story I’ve written. It is a slightly surreal and comic-menacing narrative about the timeless problem of art vs. everyday life and the timely problem of the economic and cultural degradation of artists and intellectuals today. I don’t think anyone but the fine editors of The Stockholm Review has read it yet, but a friend to whom I summarized it over the phone said, “It sounds like Hawthorne!” If you do read it, feel free to respond. An excerpt:

LeBon stood at my mismatched shelves, scavenged mostly from garbage bins, and carelessly rifled through the curled and damp pages of my books. He would take one down, flip its leaves harshly, and then throw it to the floor. “Really,” he said, “what the fuck do you do?”

“I’m a writer, I’m an adjunct prof—”

“Not asking for job titles. I mean, how do you fit into the world? What do you do to keep the gears turning? How do you help people?”

To be honest, I do not know now what I said. Maybe I said something about critical thinking. Textual analysis makes better citizens. Careful reading calls into question our received categories. Scholarship in cultural history tells us where we have been and where we are going. While no one had yet given any evidence of having read my article, “The Rationalizers’ Tragedy: Subverting Enlightenment and Restoring Commons in Brown’s Wieland and Goethe’s Die Wahlverwandtschaften” (Journal of Comparative Literature, 16:3 [Spring 2012]: 201-227), I nevertheless thought it had the potential “to revise significantly our understanding of the trans-Atlantic epistemological networks connecting the early American novel to German Romanticism,” as I believe I wrote in a grant proposal once.

P. S. I don’t want to condescend, gentle reader, but this is a time when context cannot be assumed, so please let me offer the friendly reminder that the opinions and attitudes of a fictional first-person narrator are not to be confused with those of the author. There is always the possibility of pervasive irony in fictional narration.

“The Embrace”

My short story, “The Embrace”—in my view, the best of my short stories to be published so far—appears in Vol. 3 of Winter Tangerine Review, an ebook version of which you can download instantly for $10. To arouse your interest in this tale about mothers and daughters, mollusks and marriage, adolescence and the ocean, sex and nature, memory and desire, I give you a paragraph of my heroine’s reminiscences and a soundtrack:

My mother’s marriage to Mr. Stanley proved a lengthy struggle. He traveled incessantly, he buried his head in advertising, he buried his dick in waitresses and secretaries and junior copywriters and vice-chairpersons and kitchen staff. As a stepfather, he offered me needful distance. (A bad husband perhaps makes for a good stepfather.) My mother consoled herself with her bar and her bar patrons until he left, and then she got old and unfuckable, and then she was sick, and then she was dead, is dead, will always be dead. At their wedding reception, when they danced their first dance to their song, when they swayed laughing to good old “Leather and Lace,” I sobbed uncontrollably, my whole body wracked, as if something shook me hard by the shoulders.

Rebecca Harding Davis, Life in the Iron Mills

Life in the Iron Mills and Other StoriesLife in the Iron Mills and Other Stories by Rebecca Harding Davis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This debut novella by Rebecca Harding Davis, first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861, is now a classic after its rescue from oblivion by Tillie Olsen and the Feminist Press in the 1970s. An early example of realism in American fiction, which had been in the mid-19th century dominated by variations of romance (e.g., Hawthorne) and sentimentalism (e.g., Stowe), Harding’s story has since earned comparison with Zola, Tolstoy, and Dreiser for its grim, detailed portrayal of laboring life. It is the tale of Wolfe, resident and worker in a milltown based on Davis’s native Wheeling. While Wolfe is subject to all the deprivations of his co-workers, who live in foul hovels and medicate their wounded souls with alcohol, he nevertheless stands out for being more educated and refined, an artistic soul in a hellish world, judged to be disablingly feminine by his peers as he devotes all of his free time to art:

In the mill he was known as one of the girl-men: “Molly Wolfe” was his sobriquet.…

For other reasons, too, he was not popular. Not one of themselves, they felt that, though outwardly as filthy and ash-covered; silent, with foreign thoughts and longings breaking out through his quietness in innumerable curious ways: this one, for instance. In the neighboring furnace-buildings lay great heaps of the refuse from the ore after the pig-metal is run. Korl we call it here: a light, porous substance, of a delicate, waxen, flesh-colored tinge. Out of the blocks of this korl, Wolfe, in his off-hours from the furnace, had a habit of chipping and moulding figures,—hideous, fantastic enough, but sometimes strangely beautiful: even the mill-men saw that, while they jeered at him. It was a curious fancy in the man, almost a passion. The few hours for rest he spent hewing and hacking with his blunt knife, never speaking, until his watch came again,—working at one figure for months, and, when it was finished, breaking it to pieces perhaps, in a fit of disappointment. A morbid, gloomy man, untaught, unled, left to feed his soul in grossness and crime, and hard, grinding labor.

One night, the mill-worker’s son brings an entourage through the iron-works, and they discover one of Wolfe’s sculptures. This leads them to a philosophical discussion of what should be done given that industrial society needs laborers—mere “hands”—even though said laborers have talents and abilities that could lift them above their impoverished life. One of those touring the factory is Mitchell, the “man of culture,” in whom Wolfe recognizes his kin in aesthetic sensibility. Mitchell, a reader of “Kant, Novalis, Humboldt,” recognizes the genius in Wolfe’s sculpture—the “Korl Woman” of the novella’s alternate title—because he sees the spiritual aspiration and soul-hunger in the represented woman’s features. Following the German Romantic ideas Mitchell is familiar with, Davis demonstrates through a brilliant allegory how aesthetics may be the common ground of humanity, manifesting across differences of class and culture the universal spirit of reason, a spirit insulted when men and women are immured in poverty and labor. The story is at its best in the scene in the factory, where the interplay of powerful physical description, philosophical dialogue, and aesthetic beauty is indeed reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, which Davis perhaps inevitably alludes to.

The second half is less original and compelling: it traces Wolfe’s downfall after Deborah, his hunchbacked cousin who loves him unrequitedly, steals some of Mitchell’s money in the hopes that it will allow Wolfe to escape the town; the blame for the theft falls mostly on him, and he commits suicide in prison after realizing that he will never have the opportunity to develop the spiritual powers revealed in his art. This chronicle of doom foreshadows, in its pessimism, the naturalist novels that will dominate the end of the nineteenth century, even if Davis sugars the pill by introducing late in the story a Quaker woman who bears all the values of Christian charity excluded from the mill-town.

Ideologically, the story is somewhat confused, pushed and pulled among Dickensian sentimentalism (shown by the portrayal of the indefatigably loyal Deborah and the Quaker woman, as well as the narrator’s persistent Christian allusions); proto-naturalism (as when Davis depicts individual development as wholly determined by environment); and Romanticism (communicated by the korl woman’s status as an aesthetic object that has the potential to heal the riven community). This last element is most interesting to me, because it goes beyond what one tends to find in Dickens’s or Stowe’s ultimately Christian and anti-aesthetic portrayals of “life among the lowly” and unites Davis’s story to the concerns of the American Renaissance writers, especially to Hawthorne’s fears about the fate of art in Puritan and materialist society (cf. “The Artist of the Beautiful”).

Another fascinating element of the story is its nameless narrator, who stages his or her own narration as coming from within the former house of Wolfe, where his korl woman still sits behind a curtain. (Most likely, in a grim irony, it is Mitchell who narrates the tale.) The narrator essays and exhorts and preaches, sometimes tiresomely, but his or her dense, allusive, poetic prose lifts the story above reportage and gives it a tragic resonance uncommon in realistic short stories:

The road leading to the mills had been quarried from the solid rock, which rose abrupt and bare on one side of the cinder-covered road, while the river, sluggish and black, crept past on the other. The mills for rolling iron are simply immense tent-like roofs, covering acres of ground, open on every side. Beneath these roofs Deborah looked in on a city of fires, that burned hot and fiercely in the night. Fire in every horrible form: pits of flame waving in the wind; liquid metal-flames writhing in tortuous streams through the sand; wide caldrons filled with boiling fire, over which bent ghastly wretches stirring the strange brewing; and through all, crowds of half-clad men, looking like revengeful ghosts in the red light, hurried, throwing masses of glittering fire. It was like a street in Hell. Even Deborah muttered, as she crept through, “looks like t’ Devil’s place!” It did,—in more ways than one.

This story very much deserves its newfound place in the American canon.

Tillie Olsen’s long biographical essay places “Life in the Iron Mills” in the context of Davis’s life and times. Olsen has an interesting case to make: that Davis’s literary career was thwarted by the domestic responsibilities she took on when she married and had children. This is a more difficult argument than it seems, because Davis was productive, writing fiction and non-fiction until her death and earning a living through her work. She was not “silenced” in the conventional sense. But Olsen argues that none of her subsequent work lived up to her early promise, that in fact “Life in the Iron Mills,” written when she was thirty and living with her parents in Wheeling, isolated from literary life and from the social scene, remains her greatest masterpiece. The pressures of domesticity and the consequent need to write potboilers for money combined to warp Davis’s gift, so that she never produced the great novels one might have expected from the author of such a brilliant first novella. The contrast is to women writers who did not have children and who either never married or were lucky enough to find supportive spouses: Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf. Olsen’s implicit politics are Marxist-feminist, in that freeing up mothers to be great writers would necessarily involve a revolution in the economic and familial order.

Olsen does not do as much textual analysis or intellectual biography as one might wish; I was disappointed to see no discussion at all of Dickens’s potential influence on “Life in the Iron Mills,” since the story seems almost like a programmatic reply to—and advance upon—the characterization of Stephen Blackpool in Hard Times. I do admire Olsen’s lack of special pleading for the bulk of Davis’s work, which she admits does not bear re-reading or merit rediscovery:

But Proust is right. There are no excuses in art. Including having been born female in the wrong time/place.

Such a clear assessment of reality, such a forthright admission that poverty and deprivation make people worse and not better, is a great improvement on the dominant Left perspective today, mired as it is in a strange belief that oppression is something like a superpower, granting magical powers of accurate perception to the oppressed that the privileged do not have.

On that note, the most interesting story about Davis’s life related by Olsen involves the young author’s entry into the literary society of Emerson’s New England. As a writer from the Pittsburgh lower middle class (not too far from Wheeling) who has also spent a lot of time negotiating the culture of the intellectual/academic left, I have to say that I identified with Davis in this passage:

Emerson came shortly thereafter. Her tongue was “dry with awe” (“I went to Concord, a young woman from the backwoods, firm in the belief that Emerson was the first of living men”). It loosened, after listening the entire morning, along with Emerson and Hawthorne, to Alcott’s “orotund” sentences

paeans to the war, the “armed angel which was wakening the nation to a lofty life unknown before.”

I had just come up from the border where I had seen the actual war; the filthy spewings of it; the political jobbery in Union and Confederate camps, the malignant personal hatreds wearing patriotic masks, and glutted by burning homes and outraged women, the chances in it, well improved on both sides, for brutish men to grow more brutish, and for honorable gentlemen to degenerate into thieves and sots. War may be an armed angel with a mission, but she has the personal habits of the slums.

Rebecca found herself tartly, though tremblingly, saying substantially the above.

This would-be seer who was talking of it, and the real seer who listened, knew no more of war as it was, than I had done [as a child] in my cherry tree when I dreamed of bannered legions of crusaders, debouching in the misty fields.

Alcott’s orotund sentences went right on, till Hawthorne “rose lazily to his feet, and said quietly: ‘We cannot see that thing at so long a range. Let us go to dinner,’ and Mr. Alcott suddenly checked the droning flow of his prophecy and quickly led the way to the dining-room.”

Her dislike for Alcott, “that vague, would-be prophet,” is unconcealed and sometimes vitriolic. She found Emerson’s deep respect for him “almost painful to see.”

For all Emerson’s flattering and receptive attention to her, his “exquisite courtesy,” she felt he regarded her not as Rebecca Harding, writer, human being, but as some kind of specimen.

Davis, like Hawthorne, was ambivalent about the Civil War, wishing for an end to slavery even as she recoiled from the carnage and corruption and feared for the future of the nation. Such ambivalence is never welcome; to query the Civil War as a good war at all is to apologize for slavery, they say, just as to question that World War II was an even better good war is to apologize for Nazism, and to oppose the Iraq War was to support Saddam Hussein. And to be sure, he who wills the ends wills the means; but to be glad that slavery and fascism were defeated should not involve denying the disasters of war and should not be used to silence questions about the necessity of war in the present and future, however unavoidable we may judge it to have been in the past. Fiction writers, who have to keep their eyes on details and on individual stories, will inevitably notice the cost of bloodshed in even the most just cause, and will prefer the naming of facts to the recitation of abstractions. But I digress…

Hawthorne, Olsen notes, was the nicest to the young Rebecca Harding of all the New England literati; he has a bad reputation among feminists for his notorious remark about “the damned mob of scribbling women,” but he was disparaging commercial fiction when he wrote that. He knew the real thing when saw it, and “Life in the Iron Mills” is certainly the real thing.

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Daniel Clowes, Ghost World

Ghost WorldGhost World by Daniel Clowes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another re-read for the graphic novel class I’m teaching. I did not know what to expect.

Somewhere or other in his voluminous Livejournal archive, the musician/theorist Momus brought some nuance to the common theory of cultural cycles. The styles of whatever past decade we are currently recycling, he said, feel cool and natural to us; but the styles of the period immediately following the currently-recycled period will feel strange, even creating an “uncanny valley” effect of almost-but-not-quite-humanness. I suspected that Ghost World would come off this way right now.

We are recycling, in pop culture anyway, “the ’90s,” which really means something like 1989-1997—characterized by all the ennui, sarcasm, optimism, and earnestness of the post-Cold-War period, when all universalisms seemed to be discredited, the market seemed to rule forever, identity politics filled the gap left by communism and social democracy, and the middle-classes felt an anxiety or even a dread without a name. These feelings and ideas are in the air again after being temporarily derailed by the bomb-blasts of the Bush years, which, you’ll recall, took us back to the mid-’80s in the cultural cycle, all cheesy glamor, ersatz religiosity, and action heroes. The late ’90s produced the backlash that flung us into the Bush era; it was a time of ferocious reactions against PC and identity politics, when the fashions got as dark, colorful, and streamlined as pop militarism from the future, and the music went electronic or else heavy. It was a soured postmodernism, a search for authenticity less in culture than in intense experience.

Ghost World is a transitional work between these moods—Enid, the teenaged red-diaper baby protagonist, is sarcastic, but she is more than that; she scorns her radical 1960s father and dresses up as a 1970s punk, embracing nihilism and eschewing prettiness, championing an elitist and exclusive ugliness or unconventionality meant to weed out the culturally weak. We are at an early point of hipsterism in this book, in its early quasi-fascist phase, restless and mean and in quest of novelty. (I am not talking about the period the book evokes, but the mood it transmits to and about its own time.)

For most of the narrative, Clowes more or less just revels in it, letting the gender-swapped semi-autobiographical Enid have her say on everything and playing her small city, wrapped in the TV-blue glow of the book’s only color, for laughs. Maybe guilty laughs, but laughs nonetheless. (The roughly contemporaneous Daria was the tamer, more commodified version.) I suppose the series started as a joke, a set of short gag-comics for Eightball, and then got away from Clowes as the characters deepened. The last two chapters—especially the final one, which is much longer than the others—keep some of the bigger comedy but end up in Chekhovian wistfulness. Time starts passing more quickly; the unease that has surrounded the heroines in their cultural barren increases, as if imaginary and surreally amusing threats—the “Satanists,” for instance—have receded back into the real things they were only ever allegories for in the first place, and have become all the more frightening for it. Maybe the effect is more deliberate than I give it credit for: maybe it represents the drift out of adolescence, from a posture of aloofness over exaggerated drama to a greater emotional openness as real losses start to mount.

Despite the “graphic novel” label, which rarely makes much sense anyway, Ghost World is probably best thought of in literary terms as a (realist) short story, pretty much as Frank O’Connor defined it in The Lonely Voice. Like the best short stories, it represents people at a vulnerable point in their lives, baffled and stuck, until they are crushed or else find some means of escape or at least illumination. One of those happens to Enid in the end, though it is not clear which. The last line of dialogue is wonderful, unforgettable.

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Agent Provocateur

[This is a, well, provocation of some sort, posted earlier on Tumblr, and recommended for those interested in my fiction.]

I always forget to self-promote (it’s because I am so virtuous!)! What I should have said about that MFA=CIA thing everybody was talking about yesterday is the following:

I have this story I just can’t seem to get published anywhere; it’s called “Agent Provocateur,” which I also nominate as the title for an eventual story collection of mine, and it has to do with possible secret-agency manipulation of both intellectual life and “random” violence, though in a quasi-magical register of definite uncertainty (really I consider it a fairy tale).  I do occasionally worry that my subject matter puts people off, because I have not quite managed to sufficiently aestheticize away the propositional quality of fringe-political materials à la my hero, Don DeLillo.  There is a danger of being thought of as “just some crank on the Internet.”  I am not just some crank on the Internet, though; I have been “involved with literature” in various official capacities (scholar, teacher, reviewer, writer) for almost a decade now, and I believe this if nothing else gives me a fairly objective sense of my work’s quality, which is significant.  (Oh yes, I’m arrogant; I’m not one of your Kafkan writer-saints, alas, though they have my undying respect.)  Moreover, I hold whatever political attitudes may have escaped my Pyrrhonism very lightly.  I have also studied the old CIA stylebook well enough to handle fringe-political materials in a way so seemingly de-politicized that you could read my work to your grandmother, even as I hope it also gives her bad dreams later.  (Surface difficulty in literature is highly overrated, I say even though I am an admirer of Joyce; keep the surface placid, better to conceal your shark.)  Anyway, I’ve been blaming the apparent unpublishability of this piece on its almost novella-sized length (about 11,000 words), but now I know that it must be the CIA suppressing it through the diffusion of their flattening ideology through the culture of creative writing.  I’ve actually come close to self-publishing “Agent Provocateur” as an e-book; I suspect I could probably even sell a few.  I am not so down on self-publishing as a lot of people are—the gatekeepers were never so great—but I have a personal horror of it as my day-job (adjunct professor, we who live like Dickensian orphans according to the press, with an eye toward more long-term options) depends partly on my participation in economies of prestige related to publication.  But what the hell, I’ll paste in the first few pages below to whet the old readerly appetite.  A note for any literal-minded reader who might happen by: my first-person narrator is not meant to be admirable, so you really mustn’t attribute his vices (misogyny, totalitarian sympathies, etc.) to the author.  In the biz, you know, we speak of irony.  At least that’s what James Jesus Angleton told me to say.  Here you go, and I hope you enjoy:

“Agent Provocateur”

She was a risk, but that’s what I’ve been drawn to lately.  Nothing in her look or demeanor suggested desperation, dissatisfaction, recklessness, craziness, or nihilism: all the things I am supposed to seek.  No, she positively lounged in the rickety wooden café chair, her trim legs primly crossed, sleek in black tights and ending in leather half-boots with a pointed toe and a stylish cuff turned down at the ankle.  Anyone who dresses like that has not yet surrendered.  She propped a book—how quaint!—between her little belly and the edge of the table while she waited for her tea to steep; a garish hibiscus red-pink wisped and reeled into the steaming water.  The kind of people I was instructed to target drank black, black coffee, the kind you have to chew through.

I was sitting in my usual seat, a barstool at one of the high tables that ringed the periphery of the café.  The place was empty just then, in the lull between the after-lunch and the after-dinner crowds, and anyway it was the first eighty-degree day of the year, so most of the college kids were out tossing around frisbees or lolling in the grass.  The weather made it especially important that I man the dim café with its pale sea-green walls, because I, a low-level long-shot craftsman of chaos, hunted types who scorned the frisbee and cursed the sun.

Before she came in, I busied myself with disdaining the art on the walls: muddy ’90s-revival acrylic paintings of mystical Jungian themes and New Age or else Goth iconography.  Women with earth-mother hips and green dreadlocks birthing radiant and monstrous thoughts from their foreheads.  White owls communing with shipwrecked sailors, naked and skinless, all sinew and fascia, under a scarlet sky.  Hazily serene orbs amid graffiti-style swirls, Fibonacci spirals, screaming skeletons, Lovecraftian tentacular horrors, Gigeresque bodily architecture.  What a lot of shit, I was thinking; don’t these kids know that when there are no jobs to be had, no money to be made, wars breaking out, revolutionaries plotting, countries rising and countries falling, then it’s time to take to the stylos?  To choose the bullet over the ballot, the church over the spirit, religion over mysticism, politics over ethics?  To murder the moonshine, as the man said?  I would get nowhere with the painter of these pictures, I was sure of that.  I almost felt inspired to go home and paint clean diagonal lines, red and silver and black, sharp enough to cut.

But then she came in and, in an almost empty room, sat at one of the low middle tables nearest to mine.  Her hair in its tight ponytail and her pursed little lips were not promising.  Surely, this was a dreamy girl on her way to grad school—projected dissertation: Hearts and Sleeves: The Dialectic of Fashion and Inwardness in Dorothy Richardson, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, and Elizabeth Bowen—or, failing that, librarian school.  But she did sit close.  She must want something, and a person capable of wanting anything is just a wind-up toy.  All you have to do is set it in motion and point it where you like; if you so desire, you can make it walk right off the edge of the table.  Maybe she just wanted me (I reflected on the palpable hunger of single girls in their late twenties, as well as the hiply counter-hip chic of my tatty gray jacket and East Berlin prolie shoes, the perhaps enticing wisps of premature white at my cadaverous temples).  I could turn that to my advantage as well.

She effectively sat beneath me, but she had no computer, which enabled her to hide more thoroughly.  I could not pluck her name over her shoulder from a social networking site or email display, and I could not learn it from scanning the other names on the wireless network that showed up on my own screen.  The old-fashioned way, then.  I squinted over her shoulder—bare and a little fleshly (round hillocks rising on either side of her purple camisole strap) and goose-stippled in the cool dim air—to find out what she was reading: not a fashionably modern lady author at all, but the prose of T. S. Eliot.  The prose, mind you—We are living at present in a kind of doldrums between opposing winds of doctrine, in a period in which one political philosophy has lost its cogency for behaviour, though it is still the only one in which public speech can be framed, that sort of thing—and not flattering fictions about just how rich with loam are our inner lives if we would only pay attention to them.

 To be continued…

[If you want to read the rest, feel free to email me at the address on my ABOUT page and I’ll send it to you.]