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Last Friday, my partner Dustin and I decided to get out of our apartment and go to a film in an actual theater. I chose Snowpiercer because we both love Bong Joon Ho’s other films, and so I guessed we might love this one. We went to the theater at Lincoln Center, and before the film began Dustin said to me, “I’m really glad I didn’t know anything about this film before seeing it.”

As a result, I tried to think of what I knew going in as the credits started.

I knew a few things. As I texted to a friend before I went in, “It’s the new Bong Joon Ho, but with him directing white people”. I also knew it was about a train that circles the world, after an apocalypse, and that it houses the last remnant of humanity. Also, that it stars Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, and the amazing Kang-ho Song. But that was really it.

The film begins with the story of the apocalypse: an attempt to stave off global warming with a chemical shield seeded into the atmosphere accidentally supercools the Earth, and creates an apocalyptic ice age. We are brought into the aforementioned train, circling the frozen landscape of the planet forever, through the story of a heroically built young white man, Curtis, played by Chris Evans, obviously, who is stoically leading a revolution of some kind from within the ranks of the lowest classes of the train. Tilda Swinton is Mason, the villain, a wild-eyed martinet with false teeth and thick glasses, deputy to the train’s inventor, Wilfred. Kang-ho Song, a truly remarkable actor, and a favorite of mine from such films as Thirst and The Host, plays Namgoong Minsoo, a Korean engineer who designed the doors to the train, and the security, and thus is, quite literally, the key to Curtis’s plot to get the front of the train to deal with the rear. The revolutionaries just have to find him.

When they do, Minsoo turns out to have a price for his participation in the revolt: they must also free Yona, a young girl in the drawer next his,played by Ah-sung Ko, and he wants, for each gate he opens, a chunk of a toxic drug that is a byproduct of the engine powering the train, which seems to function like a cross between meth and opium. A chunk for him and a chunk for her. The revolutionaries are bewildered that this is what it takes–isn’t freedom enough?–but he insists, and they oblige.

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I Don’t Even

I pick this blog up again after a 4 month absence, and will begin with the usual blog apology: I’m sorry to have left this off. Especially as, time after time this year, when I have been most ambivalent about blogging, I have had people tell me how much the blog meant to them.

Where have I been? Well, a lot of places. In literal terms, I spent the spring semester teaching at the University of Texas – Austin, in their MFA program, and living on Austin’s East side as I did so. I returned to New York City with a new appreciation for brisket and kombucha on tap.

After that, I went to Boston to teach at Grub Street, then to Korea, on family business, and then gave a reading with Paul LaFarge at the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference. I am back in New York City, and will be teaching a fiction workshop at Columbia University’s MFA in writing this fall.

In a plot twist, two poems of mine have been published, after many years of not writing or at least not publishing poems. I have a new poem up over at the Awl, “I Don’t Even”. Another poem, SAINT, is in the current issue of Azalea.

I have also been doing some reviewing. specifically, I reviewed Clifford Chase’s memoir, The Tooth Fairy, for Slate, and Chris Abani’s novel, The Secret History of Las Vegas, for The Barnes and Noble Review. I interviewed Helen Oyeyemi for Buzzfeed Books.

I also published two big personal essays this spring, a long time in the making. The first, “My Parade”, about how I began as an MFA doubter, and then went to Iowa, appears in n+1′s MFA vs NYC anthology and is excerpted online in full at Buzzfeed. The second, Mr. and Mrs. B, about my time as a cater waiter for William F. Buckley, is currently print only, in Apology, vol. 3.

Looking to the future, this fall, a new short story of mine, “The Insincere House”, will appear in the next Tin House. And as for news on The Queen of the Night, I’m currently making my way through an audit of 9 changes I made to the manuscript this year, and will have scheduling news soon.




The simplest definition of a MacGuffin is that it gives the characters something to do in such a way that the plot is made around it. The term comes from the films of Alfred Hitchcock, who defined it as the mysterious object in a thriller that sets the whole story in motion. For an object in a novel to be the MacGuffin, the object must be one on which the fortunes of a character seem to rest entirely. Think Chekhov’s Gun, then, but if that gun never went off, and instead was stolen by a young man no one in the room quite remembered meeting, and so they set off to find him, and catch him before he uses it—because that gun must be returned, or all is lost. The real story and its major themes arrange themselves as the search for said object is underway. You look up from the search for the gun, and you understand something else entirely has happened. Calling it a plot device makes it seem as if it is somehow separate from the plot, something that drops the plot off at work, but it is more integral than that.

This is from my essay “Donna Tartt and the MacGuffin”, over at Tin House, in which I try to write about some of my thoughts about kinds of retrospective structure. I confined  myself there to the structure of the The Goldfinch, but I had thoughts about The Secret History, too, so I thought I would put an appendix to the essay here for the interested.

Francis Abernathy from The Secret History has a cameo in The Goldfinch. He appears at a party in New York, and you hear Theo get introduced to him and Theo acknowledge him—they already know each other. It was a sweet Easter Egg to fans, and I like the idea of Tartt’s novels as belonging to a single world, though it feels to me more like Theo and Francis are in adjoining rooms in some massive hotel in Tartt’s mind.

This novel really a very different suite of rooms.

If you haven’t read The Secret History, and you fear spoilers, turn back now.  Continue reading

Moonlit Dance

I am visiting my mom in Portland, Maine this weekend. We had a beautiful dinner at Fore Street and then we went to the Portland Museum of Art, where I saw the beautiful old paintings I grew up with on my visits there–the Winslow Homers, the NC and Andrew Wyeth paintings, the Sargents. It was consoling, strangely. I have a recurring dream I haven’t had in a while, in which I am in my mother’s house, but it is some vast place, with libraries that go down several floors, and people living in the stacks. The museum’s exhibits had the feeling of being like a forgotten wing of the house from that dream.

I fell in love with a new painting, or, new to me. Edward Steichen’s Moonlight Dance, Voulangis, 1909. And then we hid from the terrible modern things in the Winslow Homer wing, before finally leaving, though I stopped off to get two postcards, and four moustache-shaped erasers (Winslow Homer’s moustache, of course).

I got a little lost driving back but we didn’t mind because the moon was so beautiful. We wound up by Mercy Hospital. Did you hear about the seal, my mom said.

No, I said.

He came up out of the ocean there, pointing past the far lane on the left, to the water. And then he walked up in the snow to the hospital.

I turned the car around in the hospital driveway.

Did he know someone there, I asked, and she laughed, and we drove home.

When I post again, we’ll be back to the topic of Iris Murdoch.

Hermaneutics of Various Kinds

It was National Coming Out Day yesterday, and I was too busy to observe it any particular way except to think about how impossible it feels now to be closeted. How impossible it would be to be, say, like Proust, especially as characterized here in Anne Carson’s The Albertine Workout, which examines Remembrance of Things Past through the idea that Albertine is a disguise for Proust’s driver, Albert Agostinelli, an idea she calls “The Transposition Theory”. I have been playing this as I work, and this line stays with me, among others: “Albertine’s behavior in Marcel’s household is that of a domestic animal/ which enters any door it finds open or comes to lie beside its master on his bed/making a place for itself.”

Also of interest to me in the same vein is this investigation John Banville made into the life of Kafka–and his sexuality–at the New York Review of Books. And then without any hidden sexual content, Donna Tartt in conversation with her editor, Michael Pietsch.

Iris At Last

I remember a former classmate back at Wesleyan recommending I read Iris Murdoch–her novel The Good Apprentice. “I think you’d like her, based on what you’re writing,” he said. I admired his work above all the other student writers in our very small advanced fiction class–he seemed older than the rest of us somehow and younger at the same time, his hair dyed into leopard spots, his clothes always stylishly punk, even when awkward, and sincerely punk, too–none of that store-bought stuff.  His face was eflin or Vulcan, or the face of a Vulcan elf–beautiful in an otherworldly sort of way. He was also, I know now, like a character from an Iris Murdoch novel himself–he even looked like the young man on the cover, the butterfly like a mask on his face. He was, to my mind, our most talented fiction writer. He gave it up when he began reading Foucault to become, eventually, a queer theorist. He had a boyfriend he’d later marry–they met in prep school, something I envied, and the boyfriend would go on to write and produce one of the few recent successful rock operas in recent history. If Iris was writing now, I believe he–they, really–would be in her newest novel.

Given that admiration I had for this hero of my school days, I still find it hard to believe I didn’t begin reading her back then, but I can only think I was afraid of being influenced, something that now seems ridiculous, but is so common among the young, and that deprives them too often of an education they might otherwise get earlier.

In any case, at some point late last spring, as the whole world was crisping up with that end of times heat and turning into the bleak muggy early summer that threatened to sweat us all to death, I remembered his recommendation. Another friend loved her too, and had sent me an essay she was writing on her. So I got some recommendations, read some samples, chose and downloaded A Word Child, as a test (I often buy an ebook for an author I’m uncertain of) and began. Continue reading