A little over three years ago I asked George Saunders whether I could sit in on one of his MFA classes at Syracuse, and, flabbergastingly, he said okay.
This opportunity seemed particularly valuable at a time when education privatizers and MOOC-peddlers were busily attempting to equate “education” with “that which can be bubbled in on a Scantron form.” Saunders’ work is very particularly about human qualities, fallibility, the unexpected; dissonance, misapprehensions; comedy; mystery; beauty. Immeasurable and incommensurate things. What he’d already taught me, just as a reader of his fiction, was and remains the diametric opposite of anything you could answer by multiple choice.
MFA studies consist largely of working on individual students’ writing, in conditions too sensitive for me to be barging in on with a tape recorder. But George’s students were also required to take “ENG 650 (Forms): The Russian Short Story in Translation (for Writers),” a class devoted to learning structures and techniques that might effectively be pilfered from the Russian masters—and that one, I could attend.
My instructions were as follows:
Syllabii attached – looks like you’ll be there for the Chekhov “About Love” trilogy – usually the best class of the year. It’s Bowne Hall 101 or 110 – it says on the sheet. The easiest thing to do is to park at the University Sheraton and have them give you a campus map – it’s a short (though uphill) walk… I’d say read the stories just a few days before and if you really want to do it the way we do it, write a little essay on each, or on the three (they’re linked).
I’ve wrestled with how to write about the resulting experience in a way that would most clearly transmit the benefits I received to readers. I’ve reread the stories many times in the years since, and it’s always acutely pleasurable—increasingly so, in fact. The repetition in slightly different circumstances is something like the telling of a literary rosary; the same ideas seen and considered through all different prisms of personality, time and circumstance grant a newly deepened awareness each time. This is the sensation I sought to reproduce in what follows.
In the end I made this kit, which provides a number of methods by which you can experience The Little Trilogy, and George Saunders’ teaching methods, on your own, according to your own purposes.
Some of the djinn enjoyed walking like men—the slowness of it. Qumqam had never been one of them. He had never understood why the flapping bags of flesh were first in God’s eyes. They tore at each other like dogs at any chance. They starved each other to sit on piles of gold. Most unforgivably, they had taken this astonishing garden—this jagged half-paradise of leaf and ice and mountain and flower that God had made for them—and they had filled it with shit and poison.
Sidebar: If you’re on Twitter and you’re not following Saladin Ahmed, you can fix that here.
In Vulture, book critic Christian Lorentzen suggests we dispense with terms like “postmodern” and “postwar” when discussing novels, and instead analyze them relative to the presidential administrations under which they were released.
What will we mean when someday we refer to Obama Lit? I think we’ll be discussing novels about authenticity, or about “problems of authenticity.” What does that mean? After the Bush years, sheer knowingness and artifice that called attention to itself had come to seem flimsy foundations for the novel. Authenticity succeeded storytelling abundance as the prime value of fiction, which meant that artifice now required plausible deniability. The new problems for the novelist became, therefore, how to be authentic (or how to create an authentic character) and how to achieve “authenticity effects” (or how to make artifice seem as true or truer than the real).
That we’ve been passing through an era that especially prizes authenticity in fiction is no coincidence. These were years when America was governed by someone who’d written a genuine literary self-portrait, whose identity was inscribed with the traumas of the age of colonialism and its unraveling, whose political appeal hinged on an aura of authenticity and whose opponents attacked him by casting doubt on the authenticity of that identity. Now, as he leaves the scene, we’re troubled by questions of fakeness — a moment of fake news but also a time when the reassurances of big data have proved fallible, when a shared civic reality has cleaved definitively into a pair of mutually distorting digital bubbles, exposing a national identity crisis that America’s left and its writers (most of them creatures of the left) didn’t know, or want to know, was happening. Even the president-elect’s hair seems to be a fiction. No wonder some are pointing to science fiction as the best predictor of what’s to come.
Below is a guest post from Mumbai-based writer-filmmaker—and longtime #longreads contributor—Pravesh Bhardwaj (@AuteurPravesh).
I’ve been doing this for some time now — seeking out short stories from free online resources, and sharing them on Twitter (#fiction #longreads). It’s now a habit: Every night after dinner, before I start writing (screenplays), I look around for a story and read it.
Starting with Upmanyu Chatterji’s “Three Seven Seven and the Blue Gay Gene,” from Open magazine, and ending with Callan Wink’s “Off the Track” from Ecotone, I ended up reading and posting 292 stories in 2016. Here are ten of my favorites, in random order. Read more…
In The Red Car, Marcy Dermansky’s newly released third novel, 33-year-old Leah Kaplan is lured away from an ill-considered marriage and taken on a surprise hero’s journey.
With deadpan humor, in dreamlike, Murakami-inspired unvarnished prose, Dermansky tells the story of Leah’s adventures after a former boss dies and bequeaths to her the red sports car Leah never liked in the first place.
This curious inheritance, and her boss’s funeral, leads the Queens-dweller back to San Francisco, where she’d worked and lived just after college. There, Leah gets to back up in reverse to relive a bit of her youth, and to reconsider her life choices from a better informed perspective before moving forward into a more intentionally designed adulthood.
“Maybe coming of age is happening a bit later,” she said. “Maybe people find themselves a bit later. It’s funny because you’re not supposed to come of age in your 30s, but maybe people are allowed to keep reinventing themselves. Maybe it doesn’t stop.”
As a 51-year-old late bloomer I’m encouraged by that idea. And it supports a hunch of mine: that the older women are—the more entrenched patriarchy was when they were growing up—the longer they might need to be allowed to arrive at true self-actualization. Here is Dermansky’s excerpt. Read more…
This is the lesson: Great cities are like any other living things, being born and maturing and wearying and dying in their turn.
Duh, right? Everyone who’s visited a real city feels that, one way or another. All those rural people who hate cities are afraid of something legit; cities really are different. They make a weight on the world, a tear in the fabric of reality, like . . . like black holes, maybe. Yeah. (I go to museums sometimes. They’re cool inside, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is hot.) As more and more people come in and deposit their strangeness and leave and get replaced by others, the tear widens. Eventually it gets so deep that it forms a pocket, connected only by the thinnest thread of . . . something to . . . something. Whatever cities are made of.
But the separation starts a process, and in that pocket the many parts of the city begin to multiply and differentiate. Its sewers extend into places where there is no need for water. Its slums grow teeth; its art centers, claws. Ordinary things within it, traffic and construction and stuff like that, start to have a rhythm like a heartbeat, if you record their sounds and play them back fast. The city . . . quickens.
A few months ago, my friend Maud was in town from New York, and one afternoon I met her and her stepdaughter at a teahouse downtown. The conversation turned to what we were each reading, and I mentioned that I was rereading Harriet the Spy. Within a minute, I noticed, we’d all grown extremely animated: three women in the corner of a dark tearoom, waving their arms around and exclaiming “Harriet the Spy! Harriet the Spy!!”
I was skipping around Google the other day and was reminded of a piece by Colson Whitehead called “How To Write.” You may have read it when it came out in 2012 and laughed and, if you did, I can assure you that if you reread it now you will laugh again. It starts with the observation that the “art of writing can be reduced to a few simple rules” and kicks off with this one:
It is like putting your broken unicorn out there, isn’t it? Anyway, Whitehead’s new novel The Underground Railroad is coming out Sept. 13, and I’ve been counting down to it.
In between bites of hot dog and sunscreen applications, you can read about police brutality, what the rest of the world thinks about the United States, one woman’s American wardrobe and so much more. Happy Independence Day, America!
J.D. Salinger, Toni Morrison, Yiyun Li, Julie Otsuka and Annie Proulx are just a fraction of the authors cited by this “deeply unscientific survey of nearly 50 writers, editors, publishers, critics, and translators, representing 30 countries.” I feel patriotic just reading this list!
Below is the first chapter from The Veins of the Ocean, the new novel by author Patricia Engel. Thanks to Engel and Grove Press for sharing it with the Longreads community.
* * *
When he found out his wife was unfaithful, Hector Castillo told his son to get in the car because they were going fishing. It was after midnight but this was nothing unusual. The Rickenbacker Bridge suspended across Biscayne Bay was full of night fishermen leaning on the railings, catching up on gossip over beer and fishing lines, avoiding going home to their wives. Except Hector didn’t bring any fishing gear with him. He led his son, Carlito, who’d just turned three, by the hand to the concrete wall, picked him up by his waist, and held him so that the boy grinned and stretched his arms out like a bird, telling his papi he was flying, flying, and Hector said, “Sí, Carlito, tienes alas, you have wings.”
Then Hector pushed little Carlito up into the air, spun him around, and the boy giggled, kicking his legs up and about, telling his father, “Higher, Papi! Higher!” before Hector took a step back and with all his might hoisted the boy as high in the sky as he’d go, told him he loved him, and threw his son over the railing into the sea.
Nobody could believe it. The night fishermen thought they were hallucinating but one, a sixty-year-old Marielito, didn’t hesitate and went in after Carlito, jumping feet first into the dark bay water while the other fishermen tackled Hector so that he couldn’t run away. The police came, and when all was said and done, little Carlito only had a broken collarbone, and Cielos Soto, the fisherman who saved Carlito, developed a permanent crook in his back that made him look like a big fishing hook when he walked until his death ten years later.
Hector Castillo was supposed to spend the rest of his life in prison—you know the way these things go—but he killed himself right after the sentencing. Not by hanging himself from the cypress tree in the front yard like he’d always threatened since that’s the way his own father had chosen to depart this life. No. Hector used a razor purchased off some other lifer in a neighboring unit and when they found him, the floor of his cell was already covered in blood. But Carlito and I didn’t hear about all that till much later.
Since Carlito had no memory of the whole disaster, Mami fed us a story that our father died in Vietnam, which made no sense at all because both Carlito and I were born years after Vietnam, back in Colombia. But that was before we learned math and history, so it’s no wonder she thought her story would stick. And forget about the fact that Hector was born cojo, with a dragging leg, and never would have been let into any army.
In fact, the only clue we had about any of this mess was that Carlito grew up so scared of water that Mami could only get him in the bathtub once a week, if she was lucky, which is why Carlito had a rep for being the smelliest kid on the block and some people say that’s why he grew up to be such a bully.
But then, when he was fourteen and our Tío Jaime decided it was time for Carlito to get drunk for the first time, only Jaime got drunk and he turned to Carlito over the folding card table on our back patio and said, “Mi’jo, it’s time you know the truth. Your father threw you off a bridge when you were three.”
Patricia Engel. Photo by Marion Ettlinger.
He went on to say that Hector wouldn’t have lost it if Mami hadn’t been such a puta, and next thing you know, Carlito had our uncle pinned to the ground and smashed the beer bottle across his forehead.
He was asking for it, I guess.
Mami had no choice but to tell Carlito and me the real story that same night.
In a way, I always knew something like that had happened. It was the only way to explain why my older brother got such special treatment his whole life—everyone scared to demand that he go to school, that he study, that he have better manners, that he stop pushing me around.
El Pobrecito is what everyone called him, and I always wondered why.
I was two years younger and nobody, and I mean nadie, paid me any mind, which is why, when our mother told the story of our father trying to kill his son like we were people out of the Bible, part of me wished our papi had thrown me off that bridge instead.
* * *
All of this is to tell you how we became a prison family.
It’s funny how these things go. After Carlito went to jail, people started saying it was his inheritance—que lo llevaba en la sangre. And Dr. Joe, this prison shrink I know who specializes in murderers, told me that very often people seek to reenact the same crime that was inflicted upon them. I said that sounded a lot like fate, which I am strictly opposed to, ever since this bruja on Calle Ocho, a blue-haired Celia Cruz knockoff with a trail of customers waiting outside her shop door, told me no man was ever going to fall in love with me on account of all the curses that have been placed on my slutty mother.
What happened is that Carlito, when he was twenty-two, heard that his Costa Rican girlfriend, Isabela, was sleeping with this insurance guy from Kendall. And that’s it; instead of just dumping her like a normal person would, he drove over to her house, kissed her sweet on the lips, told her he was taking her daughter by her high school boyfriend out to buy a new doll at the toy store, but instead, Carlito drove over to the Rickenbacker Bridge and, without a second’s hesitation, he flung baby Shayna off into the water like she was yesterday’s trash going into the landfill.
But the sea wasn’t flat and still like the day Carlito had gone in. Today it was all whitecapped waves from a tropical storm moving over Cuba. There were no fishermen on account of the choppy waters, just a couple of joggers making their way over the slope of the bridge. After Shayna went in, Carlito either repented or thought better of his scheme and jumped in after the little girl, but the currents were strong and Shayna was pulled under. Her tiny body is still somewhere down there, though somebody once told me that this water is actually full of sharks, so let’s be realistic here.
When the cops showed up and dragged my brother out of the water, Carlito tried to play the whole thing off like it was one big, terrible accident. But there were witnesses in sports bras who lined up to testify that Carlito had tossed the child like a football into the angry Atlantic.
If you ask him now, he’ll still say he didn’t mean to do it; he was just showing the baby the water and she slipped out of his arms—“You know how wiggly little kids are, Reina. Tú sabes.”
I’m the only one who listens because, since they arrested him, Carlito’s been in solitary confinement for his own protection.
If there’s one thing other inmates don’t tolerate, it’s a baby killer.
* * *
This is Florida, where they’re cool about putting people to death. After the Supreme Court banned capital punishment in the seventies, this state was the first to jump back into the execution business. I used to be one of those people saying “an eye for an eye,” even when it came down to my own father, who was already dead, God save his soul. But now that my brother is on death row, it’s another story. Mami doesn’t go with me to see Carlito. She’s over it. Not one of those mothers who will stand by her son till his dying day and profess his innocence. She says she did her best to make sure he grew up to be a decent man and the day he snapped, it was clear the devil had taken over.
“Out of my hands,” she says, smacking her palms together like there’s dust on them.
The last time the three of us were together was the day of the sentencing. I begged the judge for leniency, said my brother was young and could still be of use to society, even if he got life and was stuck banging out license plates for the rest of his days. But it wasn’t enough.
After she blew Carlito her last kiss good-bye, Mami began to cry, and her tears continued all night as she knelt before the altar in her bedroom, candles lit among roses and coins offered to the saints in hopes of a softer sentence. I heard her cry all night, but when I tried to comfort her, Mami brushed me off as if I were the enemy and told me to leave her alone.
The next morning she announced her tears had run out and Carlito was no longer her son.
Mami’s got a dentist boyfriend in Orlando who she spends most of her time with, leaving me in the Miami house alone, which wouldn’t be so bad if I had any kind of life to fill this place. But I use up all my free time driving down US 1 to the South Glades Penitentiary. We’re lucky Carlito got placed in a prison just a few hours’ drive south and not in center of the state or up in the panhandle, and that he gets weekly visitation rights, not monthly like most death row killers.
I want to say you’d be surprised by the kind of people who go visit their relatives and lovers in jail, but really you wouldn’t be surprised at all. It’s just like you see on TV—desperate, broken-toothed women in ugly clothes, or other ladies who dress up like streetwalkers to feel sexy among the inmates and who are waiting for marriage proposals from their men in cuffs, even if they’re in maximum security and the court has already marked them for life or death sentences. There are women who come with gangs of kids who crawl all over their daddies, and there are the teenagers and grown-up kids who come and sit across the picnic tables bitter-lipped while their fathers try to apologize for being there.
Then there are the sisters, like me, who show up because nobody else will. Our whole family, the same people who treated my brother like he was baby Moses, all turned their backs on Carlito when he went to the slammer. Not one soul has visited him besides me. Not an uncle, a tía, a primo, a friend, anybody. This is why I take visiting him so seriously and have spent just about every weekend down there for the past two years, sleeping at the South Glades Seaside Motel, which is really a trailer park full of people like me who became transients just to be close to their locked-up sweethearts.
I’m not allowed to bring Carlito snacks or gifts since he got moved to the maximum-security prison. If I could, I would bring him candy bars because, back when he was a free man, Carlito spent a big cut of his paycheck from his job at the bank on chocolate. I mean, the boy was an addict, but you could never tell because Carlito was thin like a palm tree and had the smoothest complexion you’ve ever seen. Carlito got it together late in high school, and even made it into college and graduated with honors. I’m telling you, even Mami said it was a milagro. He got into a training program at a bank and was working as a teller, but they said after a few years he’d be a private banker, moving big money, and his dream was to work at one of the Brickell banks that hold the cash of all our Latin nations.
Carlito would move our family up—make enough so that our mother wouldn’t have to paint nails anymore. That was the plan.
Carlito, now, is fat like you’d never have predicted. He says it’s a prison conspiracy given all the mashed potatoes they feed the inmates, and he thinks everything is laced with hormones meant for cows. He has to eat his meals alone in his cell and not in the chow hall like the regular lifers. He doesn’t get to work out in the yard with the other prisoners, he just gets an hour a day to walk laps around a small fenced-in concrete cage with a chicken-wire roof they call “the kennel.”
Sometimes he gets his rec time deducted because a guard decides to write him up for some made-up offense. So he mostly does his routines in his little cell—push-ups, sit-ups, and squats—but he still looks like a two-hundred-fifty-pound troll because Carlito’s hair started to fall out the day of his sentencing. That luscious, shiny Indian hair went straight into the communal shower drain and now my brother, barely twenty-five, looks like he’s somebody’s grandfather, with anxious creases burrowed into his forehead and a nose that turned downward into a beak the day he lost his freedom.
He’s not your typical inmate; he doesn’t try to act remorseful or even say he’s innocent anymore because really, after the first appeal to overturn his conviction was denied, we sort of lost hope. He did the whole thing of writing letters to Isabela before the trial, apologizing even though he says it wasn’t his fault, but even then you could tell Carlito’s heart wasn’t in it.
He blames Papi for all this, and then Mami. Says maybe Tío Jaime was right, if Mami hadn’t been such a puta all those years ago, none of this would have happened.
I don’t tell my brother that Dr. Joe, who works in Carlito’s prison and sometimes meets me for drinks in the lounge of the South Glades Seaside Motel, told me it probably all comes down to brain chemistry and Carlito may have just been a ticking bomb, and that homicidal tendencies sometimes run in families. I pretended not to be worried by this, acted nonchalant, and even went so far as to lie to Dr. Joe and say, “I guess I lucked out because Carlito and I have different fathers.” I believed this for a while, but Mami said, “Lo siento, mi corazón. Hector was your papi too.”
Dr. Joe is familiar with Carlito’s case. Not just from the newspapers but because he reviewed his files when assigned to the Glades prison, hoping Carlito was in need of some kind of counseling. He says he’s doing research on the ways solitary confinement can change a person’s mind over time. He got permission to scan lifers’ brains to compare the ones who are segregated from the main prison population and those who are not. I asked him if it’s right to run them through tests like they’re animals, but Dr. Joe said, “It’s for science, Reina,” and he can already prove being in isolation makes inmates nearsighted and hypersensitive to sound and light. Solitary can also make a person psychotic, paranoid, and develop hallucinations, he says, but it’s hard to tell who is being honest about their nervous breakdowns because, even if lots of inmates check into prison as mentally ill, some just want to be labeled crazy to take or trade the free pills.
Carlito wants nothing to do with Dr. Joe or the other prison shrinks and refuses to talk to any of them. Dr. Joe tried playing the insider, standing outside Carlito’s cell door, peering through the small reinforced glass windowpane, saying he knew Carlito was innocent, and he was on his side. If only Carlito was willing to talk, maybe he could help him with his next appeal. Carlito didn’t bite.
Sometimes I suspect Dr. Joe only acts interested in me so that I’ll soften Carlito, convince him to hand himself over for Dr. Joe’s research, persuade him the way Dr. Joe tries to persuade me that since they won’t let Carlito take classes or socialize like other inmates, submitting to his study is a small way to feel useful, give something of himself, and it’s also a way to have interpersonal contact those weeks when he doesn’t exchange words with a single human besides the prison guards, and me.
“All of this has to be so hard on you, Reina,” Dr. Joe said to me the first time we met at the motel bar. “You must be overwhelmed with so many feelings.”
Dr. Joe thinks I have anger toward my brother because when I was nine he locked me in my bedroom closet for hours, told my mother I’d gone to the neighbor’s to play, and I had no choice but to pee in a shoebox. Also, because when our mother was at work, he would make me take off my clothes and sit around watching TV naked, or sometimes he’d make me get up and dance, and when I refused, he’d pull out a knife from a kitchen drawer and hold it to my neck.
But I tell Dr. Joe my brother was mostly a good brother because he never did dirty things to me like the brothers of some of my friends. And when a girl from school started bullying me in the eighth grade, saying I was an ugly junior puta, Carlito went over to her house one night with a wrestling mask on his face, crept into her room, and beat her out of her sleep.
Nobody ever found out it was him.
He did that for me.
Joe—he told me to stop calling him doctor but I keep forgetting—thinks I’m confused. He buys me beers and told me he’s thirty-two, which is really not much older than my age, twenty-three. He’s from Boston, which he says is nothing like South Florida. He might even be cute if he got a normal haircut, not his side-parted dusty brown shag, and lost those round glasses that look like they belong in 1985. He has a condo in Key Largo and sometimes invites me there. Just yesterday he said I could sleep there if I wanted, so I don’t have to spend all my money at the prison motel. I said thanks, but no thanks. I make good enough money to pay for this piece of paradise.
“You’re real pretty,” he said last night when I walked him to his car on the gravel driveway outside the lobby. “You got a boyfriend up there in Miami?”
“No, I come with a whole lot of baggage, if you know what I mean.”
I was thinking specifically about the last guy, Lorenzo, a plastic surgeon who picked me up at Pollo Tropical. We went for dinner a few times and when we finally fucked at a hotel, he told me he’d do my tetas free if I promised to tell everyone they were his work. Then he wanted to take me to Sanibel for a few days, but I said my weekends were reserved for Carlito.
I still remember his eyes when I explained.
“You’re Carlos Castillo’s sister?”
That was the end of that.
Joe laughed as if I’d meant the baggage thing as a joke, and then swallowed his smile when he realized I hadn’t.
“You’re a great girl. Any man would be lucky to be with you.”
I smiled at Joe, even though I feel like people only say shit like that when they know you’re already a lost cause.