Saturday, July 26, 2008

Steven Wingate

Steven Wingate is the author of Wifeshopping (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) which won the 2007 Bakeless Prize in fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He spends his analog time in Colorado and his digital time at

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Creation Myths by Mathias Svalina (New Michigan Press, 2007). I should file this mighty-mite of a book one under “what I’m re-reading,” because I find myself coming back to it again and again. In twenty-four poems—both line and prose—Svalina creates an equal number of competing cosmologies that add up to something like the human world: contentious, incomprehensible, indomitable and yet barely holding itself together. Many start with proclamations: “In the beginning everything I said exploded”; “In the beginning everyone wanted to fight to the death”; “In the beginning there were only borders, because no one had created the space within the borders.” From these beginnings, Svalina weaves tales of the world’s creation that we recognize simultaneously as absurd and undeniably human. Whether it’s members of the Church of Money climbing over a wall to try stealing hovercraft parts, a slacker God taking four years to create the world, or a man making humankind out of caulk and nails so it can eat the excess of lasagna he has cooked, Creation Myths always always gives me a surprise and a smile. Every time I flip through it for a gem of a phrase or image, I find one.

Intercourse by Robert Olen Butler (Chronicle Books, 2008). Butler is my most important fiction teacher; so I read everything he writes, and it’s been interesting to watch the phases of his work. After the earnestness of his early novels (The Deuce is my favorite) and his Pulitzer-winning story collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, he started dabbling in pop culture, camp, and miniaturism with formal, voice-driven collections like Tabloid Dreams, Had a Good Time, and Severance. In Intercourse, which consists of brief he said/she said reports of famous (and sometimes legendary) couplings, it becomes clearer that Butler’s ouvre is of a piece. He has always been interested in characters who yearn to embrace that is beyond them, even if it only provides them a fleeting glimpse of self-understanding. Now he’s doing it not through big novels but through short, highly constrained forms. Whether it’s through Mata Hari and Jack Johnson, Richard and Pat Nixon, or Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde, Butler in Intercourse gets us to the root of what we don’t (and can’t) know about ourselves. Time and again you start out a piece thinking Ha ha, that’s pretty clever; but seventy words later you find yourself saying Oh my God, that’s me!

Allah Is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma (Random House, 2006). For those who found the hullaballoo surrounding Ishmael Beah’s memoir A Long Way Gone excessive, Allah Is Not Obliged is a brilliant fictional answer. In this novel we follow Birahima, a ten-year-old boy soldier, as he travels with an inept sorcerer named Yacouba through a variety of African civil wars. Traded from one side to another, threatened regularly with death, and routinely pumped full of drugs, Birahima somehow manages to retain some sense of his own humanity despite the madness that swirls about him. A phantasmogoric picaresque, this novel reads like a modern day version of Denis Diderot’s 18th century classic Jacques the Fatalist and His Master (which in itself is a perverted take on Don Quixote) or a very, very sordid Candide. Kourouma died before his work was translated from its original French into English, but mark my words: two decades from now, when we look back at the millennial literature of Africa, Allah Is Not Obliged and its author will stand tall. P.S.: This is a great airport novel, and only people who are serious about literature will strike up a conversation with you if they see it in your hands.

Floating in My Mother’s Palm by Ursula Hegi (Simon & Schuster, 1990). This book gets called a novel, but today it would probably be called a “novel-in-stories”—and it’s a fine, early example of that genre. Hegi dissects with savage tenderness the mythical German city of Burgdorf as it tries (not always successfully) to emerge from the long, tenacious shadow of WWII. In it we follow the adventures of an adolescent female protagonist, but through her we meet an entire town choked with secrets and unspoken compromises. We learn about Hannah’s community as she learns about it herself—a conceit that allows Hegi to sink us completely into her experience and see Bergdorf as the wild mix of false calm and desperation that it is. Masochists, lost lovers, suicides, and town gossips all get the breath of complete, for-better-or-worse life from Hegi, and most refreshingly of all she never judges. Each chapter/story holds its own in lush but incisive prose, and “Dogs of Fear”—in which a man is attacked by the dogs he buys to protect himself—is one for the ages.

Unlucky Lucky Days by Daniel Grandbois (BOA Editions, 2008). The venerable poetry publisher BOA Editions has recently begun publishing a particular kind of fiction that basks in the eddies between prose poetry and flash fiction. Their second book of this stripe, Unlucky Lucky Days, traverses this territory with a blend of clarity and haze. Its seventy-three short, predominantly one-page absurdist tales tend to focus on moments of epiphany—not the Joycean “Aha!” epiphany of self-realization but the subtler kind, in which human life is revealed as having an order beyond what we can comprehend. They are divided by days of the week, an organizational structure that not only gives the book a skeleton—lack of which is the bane of prose poem/flash fiction collections—but adds a sense of narrative arc to help the reader through. Although this book will not be for everyone, it does reveal Grandbois as an unfettered and more than adept practitioner at exploring the no-man’s land between what we know and what we don’t—which, after all, is the fundamental subject and territory of literature (and sort of a theme of his batch of mini-reviews, too).
Amy Hempel on Wingate's Wifeshopping:
"What makes these studies in discovery and disillusionment so startling and affecting is the energy of Steven Wingate's language, and the agency of his characters.... The stories in Wifeshopping expand with subsequent readings; they do not end on the page, but continue in a reader's mind."
Read more about Steven Wingate and his work at his website, his blog, his Facebook page, and his MySpace page.

--Marshal Zeringue