Saturday, November 7, 2009

Dylan Landis

Dylan Landis is the author of the novel-in-stories Normal People Don't Live Like This, published to strong praise from Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Times, and More magazine and with a blurb from Pulitzer Prize-winner Elizabeth Strout. The book was a finalist for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction.

Landis, a former newspaper reporter and interior-design writer, has published stories in many magazines and anthologies, including Bomb, Tin House, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She lives in Washington, DC.

Recently, I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I'm nailed to the wall by Apocalyptic Swing, the second poetry collection by Gabrielle Calvocoressi. Some poems brim with violence, or religion—it's like hearing a transformer crackle at night. Or they hum with sex and something more: loneliness, or a sense of history and place. It's like reading short stories (often about fighters) from which Calvocoressi has stripped away words, until what remains is supple as a whip. From "Boxers in the Key of M":

I also just finished the Cyclops chapter of Ulysses. Trust me, this requires a support group; mine meets monthly at the Politics & Prose bookstore in DC and is also reading Homer's Odyssey and various guidebooks—mine is The New Bloomsday Book by Harry Blamires. It would be a lie to say that I understand everything I read. But I love Stephen Dedalus's intelligence and Bloom's curiosity and compassion. I love moments of unexpected heartbreak—like Dilly Dedalus, who is starving along with the other Dedalus children, but spends a penny on a French textbook. She desperately wants a lifeline from Stephen, which she won't get. God, there's a novel I'd love to write—how Dilly Dedalus saves her own life.

I reread a lot, which means I'm always behind on new books, and I just reread Jim Krusoe's novel Erased. It's got a deadpan-ironic voice, and an odd bafflement with the world that I just love. It also raises something painful, at a gut, almost subliminal level: Is death permanent? And if death is not permanent (here many reasons flashed through my mind: because a mother lives on in a son's memory, or in his children, or simply in a certain resonance that's left behind) then what exactly is the demarcation between life and death? Given the marvelous plot absurdities, I was astonished to find myself in tears at the end.

And I'm rereading all ten Cormac McCarthy novels, pretty much in order. McCarthy is a great teacher when you read him with two eyes, left eye for pleasure and right eye on what he's doing. I'm almost through The Orchard Keeper, his first novel, pretty quiet if you compare it, say, to Child of God, in which Lester Ballard murders women so he can have sex with their decaying corpses. McCarthy's craft is gorgeous, and visible, if you're looking.

There's a scene in which young John Wesley finds a hawk with a broken wing and nurses it in a box for three days; it dies anyway. Pay attention, I thought—the second time, not the first—because this connects to an earlier scene, almost a brushstroke, in which the child John Wesley discovers a dry well with a rabbit at the bottom, and drops greens down the well every day. And then, many pages on, I found the third connected scene, like a matching bead strung farther down the string: John Wesley in town, selling the hawk's carcass for a dollar bounty. You know that dollar's precious because he folds it into a nugget, tucks it into his watch pocket, and pats it often for reassurance. Here's a boy, McCarthy's telling you, who would rather try to save and release an injured hawk than sacrifice it for a dollar.

McCarthy does not try to sew things up neatly—not, I think, until the last page of his last novel, The Road. I'm a clumsy student, but I try to watch him closely while I read.
Visit Dylan Landis's website and read the Los Angeles Times review of Normal People.

--Marshal Zeringue