Six Questions — October 30, 2014, 2:00 pm

Discussing Man V. Nature with Diane Cook

I became curious about how a person might react to the kind of hardships that exist in the wild. It became one of the preoccupations of the book.”

Diane Cook’s stories work like carnival mirrors, warping the familiar into something dark and funny. The characters in her debut collection, Man V. Nature, reckon with unsparing worlds: a flooded planet, the deep woods, a neighborhood where children are stolen. Widows are penned up until they remarry. Epidemic impotence makes men go berserk. White-collar types are eaten alive. But amid all the calamity, Cook’s eye is drawn to the everyday, the quiet gesture—and to antiheroes, with their helpless little rituals and perversions. In her taut and rhythmic language, the commonplace is endowed with unexpected significance and intensity. “It’s kind of beautiful,” says a hack television writer wilting away on a motorboat. “This world collapses. But the world below this world—it flourishes. Man V. Nature. See?” The V. notwithstanding, Cook’s fiction isn’t about survival so much as how the rest of us, safe at home, are living. I asked her six questions about the book via email.

1. You produced This American Life for six years. Admittedly, I was looking for the overlap in your fiction, but by and large, these stories are so much crueler than what I’d expect to hear on the radio. Is your fiction a conscious departure from that work?

My writing is a response to the job in a lot of ways, but I’d never thought about it in these terms. The gentler nature of the radio stories I imagine has something to do with them being true. And people generally aren’t monsters partaking in monstrous things.
Something about terrible, complex, psychological behavior doesn’t play well on the radio. Layers don’t play well. Subtlety sinks. Questions beg for answers. I remember this one story that aired a long time ago, in the first year or two of the show, before I worked there. It was fiction, a short story by Ira Sher called “The Man in the Well” about some kids who find the trapped man and, for reasons you never learn but could puzzle over for years, leave him there. It’s rich and deep and strange and psychological and brutal and full of all the things you want in fiction. And it tracks too. It’s a perfect narrative. Many listeners obviously loved the story. I did; the producers who aired it did. But, as I remember it, for years after, as new people listened to that story, we’d get complaints. I guess some people thought it was a true story (a hazard of having a mostly true format) and were offended by the idea that children could be so inexplicably brutal. Why would they do such a thing? I think the question was too big for radio, especially since there was no answer. The subtext of a listener’s complaints seemed to be, And why would you broadcast such behavior without some kind of resolution? The show thrives on stories told by people who are able to talk about and make sense of events, their own behavior, other people’s behavior. But there are deeper, elusive, unnamable things in us, things that have no answer and no resolution. Which is the realm of fiction, or at the very least, the realm of the page.

2. You’ve mentioned Rebecca Curtis’s Twenty Grand as being important to your writing. What nonliterary influences shaped Man V. Nature?

I get a lot of inspiration from the natural world. While writing the stories that would eventually become this book, I would often “get away” to write. I’d leave Brooklyn and rent a cabin in the woods, or go somewhere that felt secluded. There, I’d walk and hike and write. In these places, I observed the natural world more than I observed people. I’d spend so much time in the woods, blending in and being quiet, I was privy to more of what actually took place there. Of life there. I’d witness things that looked like ritual, work, sweetness and desire, exuberance, caution, the small things we easily recognize in ourselves. But I’d witness wild tragedies, too: predation, death, abandonment, grief. I became curious about how a person might react to the kind of hardships that exist in the wild. It became one of the preoccupations of the book. I wondered under what circumstances those more primal instincts might rear up again in us. How many of our basic behaviors are really just small or large efforts to survive.

3. Speaking of which, your settings usually have a narrative logic of their own. They’re never just backdrop. Even the run-of-the-mill suburb in “Meteorologist Dave Santa” has this planned-community weirdness to it that haunts the story. Had you thought up the circumstances shaping each story to begin with, or did you start with the characters?

I had a loose framing for some of these stories. The trick was to make sure that the conceit or frame didn’t overtake the story. It needed to be a way to begin, an initial question or query, but it couldn’t be the whole focus. Making sure the conceit didn’t dominate helped me revise. It was a good baseline—is this story just a fleshed-out scenario or are these living, breathing characters experiencing something?

A few of the stories just came the way some stories do. Some idea or voice or character invades your space. Sometimes I just launch and I don’t know where it’s coming from. I mentioned I like to walk. Sometimes I’m walking and I am looking at the world and then I begin to see it as a character might see it, a character I’m working with already, or maybe a new one, a new voice. And I’ll start jotting things down as that character.

4. And when you do, to what extent do you think about the balance between realism and surrealism, between representing the world and distorting it? Do these modes serve each other when you write, or are they at odds?

Though I fully admit that many of my worlds can’t “happen” or aren’t happening now, I see them as real and I try to give the reader the necessary details to believe that world. And I try to do that right away. Set the world and rules up quickly and with authority so the reader has no desire, or time even, to argue. In this world, when you have a baby, some guy shows up and tries to steal it. Go. In this world, when your spouse dies, you get put in a shelter until someone else wants you. Go. Meanwhile, the worlds happen to be pretty suburban or urban. There are cul-de-sacs and interstates. There are neighborhood associations and bingo night. I like to populate a strange story with familiar things, so a reader can find some common ground, comfort, but also have to be sharp to what’s different. So to answer you, I find that surrealism and realism temper one another. For me there is a sweet spot between the real world and a world I’m dreaming up. I’m trying to find that spot and am very aware of it as I’m writing and revising. I want readers to feel connected to the world I’m writing about. But I want them to be surprised by it, too.

5. And that connection/surprise often comes by way of understatement. In “Marrying Up,” for example, a woman cycles through pygmy lovers until she marries a giant—and that’s just where the story gets started. How do you decide what to minimize or conceal from the reader?

I try to say what is necessary and not much more. But whether I’ve said too much or just enough kind of depends on the reader. I think a lot of—maybe all—readers have a thing they want to see in a story, an itch they want scratched. If you don’t present that, they may feel you’ve concealed too much, or that the world just isn’t believable. “Where’s the dad?” “What does the bedroom look like?” “I can’t picture it!” “The ending was meh.” This is all a bit out of your control, though. As the writer, you have to make decisions that not everyone will be happy with. Some days, you the writer might not even be happy with them. I guess you try to offer enough of the world that it ignites the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest, the stuff the story itself doesn’t need.

But sometimes there is honesty and alchemy to consciously withholding something. It changes the reader and changes how they interact with the story—makes them a voyeur hoping to discover what might not be theirs to discover. Two characters might have an intimacy that means they don’t verbalize everything and so something important lives in this alluring but hazy space a little off the page. Other times, information gets revealed as the story goes on, and you end up building a truth from the top down. These are difficult moments to orchestrate. You don’t want to manipulate but you want the experiences of the characters to read true.

6. In “Bounty,” a flood unleashes avarice; boys exiled to “The Not-Needed Forest” resort to cannibalism. What is it about the extremity in your stories that leads to inhumanity? Isn’t our better nature—compassion, justice, integrity, self-sacrifice—just as primal?

I guess extreme situations kick our instincts into gear. Maybe this is a bit above me, seeing as how I’m merely a fiction writer. But I think compassion moves on a spectrum. I think we have an instinct for it but other instincts war with it. I guess what I mean is that compassion that lives on a spectrum is more interesting than one that is overbearing or absent. And more true. “Bounty” tells the story of two houses near the end of a world-ending flood. One house is full of refugees. The other houses one guy who doesn’t want to let anyone in. This seems heartless, and yet he has lots of justifications for his actions. And he does let one man in, a drunk named Gary. Over time he grows fond of Gary, grows to need him in a way. He cares for Gary. He has compassion. It’s a tricky sort of compassion. But it’s there. It feels small, but who on Earth lives a daily life driven by major, life-changing and potentially life-ending acts of compassion? Not many, which is why their story always seems remarkable. In “Bounty,” the extreme situation confuses the behaviors. The narrator’s refusal to let anyone in seems like the extreme position, while the neighbor seems compassionate, reasonable even. But if you took the extremity of the situation away, the neighbor who gives everything to anyone who asks or has need would seem like a crazy saint and you’d probably think, Ugh, I could never do that. While the narrator, the one who doesn’t really share, or really help anyone day to day, would kind of seem like a normal person. I mean, I certainly didn’t save anyone’s life today. In fact, I sat at a desk all day—one that is literally squeezed into a closet that is four by four feet. I didn’t even manage to help anyone. I mean, did you? Maybe I helped someone by writing a story that person happened to read today, one that gave him a feeling, not an answer necessarily. And that feeling led him to think about how he behaves on a day-to-day basis. And maybe what he came to think made him change in some slight and positive way. Or hell, maybe he changed in some negative, self-serving way he felt fine about, and maybe that behavioral change happened to save his life during some crazy, extreme situation. I really hope this person, whoever he is, gets the chance to tell me if it did. I’d be able to look back on life and think, That day? At my closet desk? It wasn’t wasted. I helped someone.

Diane Cook’s story “Bounty” was published in the August 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Airfare for a corpse on an American Airlines flight from New York City to Los Angeles, one way:


Seventy percent of voters who claim to be undecided have already made up their minds.

Trump struggles to pronounce “anonymous”; a Sackler stands to profit from a new drug to treat opioid addiction; housing development workers in the Bronx are accused of having orgies on the clock

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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