Quantcast

Video of the Day

Masthead

Editor-in-Chief
Alex Carnevale
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

Managing Editor
Kara VanderBijl
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

Senior Editor
Durga Chew-Bose
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

Senior Editor
Brittany Julious
(e-mail/tumblr/twitter)

Live and Active Affiliates
Search TR


follow us in feedly

Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Entries in isaac scarborough (5)

Saturday
Jan192013

In Which Our Carbon Footprint Is Nearly Invisible

by wendy zhao

An Organic Affair

by ISAAC SCARBOROUGH

I used to shop at a local grocery store. This was something of an ethnic market. I think it was owned by Latin American immigrants, but I couldn't say for sure. They did stock a lot of horchata and tortillas. Hell, I don't know. It was nice to have a local store to shop at. I was never really friendly with the staff, but I did get the impression that they knew who I was, that I was a valued customer.

But problems soon developed in our relationship. My eating habits aren't exactly what people would call healthy. Which is not to say I eat potato chips by the bagful. My inclination is to aim at somewhere towards the opposite end of the spectrum. So my desire for a grocery store often amounts to wanting a closet full of carrots and pickles and other various items that don't really involve calories but are, technically, food. And here I found my local grocery sorely lacking. So I joined the masses, I'm afraid. I stopped shopping for groceries anywhere near my home. I began to take the train just to wander the aisles of Whole Foods.

This didn't always please me. I grew very angry about it at first. I blamed the local grocer for not stocking enough low-calorie food and bananas that weren't frighteningly overripe. I blamed society for allowing me to have a diet that had long forsaken bread and cheese and actual meat. And I blamed everyone around me for allowing the monstrosity that was my new grocery store to actually exist.

+++

by wendy zhao

I was standing in line at Whole Foods, waiting expectantly to pay for the overpriced bananas and soy-milk that pretty much kept me alive. I really hated the store at times like this. The "organic" mantra was a source of constant irritation; the abundance of “cliff bars” and specially manufactured, sugar free ginger chews, not to mention the occasional copy of Mother Jones – impulse buys – were of particular frustration. But I liked my bananas fresh.

A young woman standing in front of me dropped a can of cat food. I stared down at it. This wasn’t the reassuring Friskies of my childhood. Even cat food was organic here, so this must be one well-fed cat. Doesn't matter if the owner obsesses over her weight. The cat probably can't crawl across the floor on its own, let alone heave its girth up to the food dish. The can sat there on the ground for a moment, as the young woman shuffled the groceries in her arms, trying to determine whether or not she could feasibly reach down and pick it up without managing to drop the rest of her purchases. I, carrying my bananas and soy-milk comfortably in one hand, continued to stare at the can as she shuffled about.

A man in the next aisle over bent down and picked up the cat food and handed it to the young woman. I guess he was in a good position to help, since he wasn’t carrying very much: a head of lettuce, a tomato and a package of tortillas (whole wheat, I think. It was difficult to tell). He smiled at the young woman, and although it brought out the hook of his nose, it was still, I thought, a pleasant and charming smile. She returned the smile coyly. I couldn't help but notice that the man dressed like he worked late at the office, and would be returning there with his tomatoes and tortillas, to munch away in front of the computer, crunching numbers. Or writing ad-copy. Or designing a web page for a company that sold designer cat food. This was only noticeable, I think, because the young woman was dressed as though she had spent most of her day sitting on a couch. Or a park bench, maybe. Which is not to say her clothes were cheap - but nobody ever wore cut-off jeans to an office. "I always manage to drop something," the man remarked to the young woman, gesturing to his three items which anyone with a mental age north of eight would be hard pressed to drop.

"Yeah. I know," she said, "Every time I'm in here, I think about getting a basket, but then I never do."

He shrugged his shoulders. "Yeah."

They smiled shyly at each other. And I thought then: you, hooknosed man, ask her for her name. Keep talking. Ask about her damned cat. You, poorly dressed girl - he has a nice smile, doesn't he - don't just simper.

No. Fuck it. Hooknose, drop your groceries. Jump the separating rope and grab this girl and kiss her, because you know you're going home alone, or back to the office, to eat a tomato and finish paperwork. You, girl with the ugly shorts, respond in kind. Your cat will be fine. It's already too fat from easy living. Right there in the aisle, in the middle of Whole Foods, go at it, the two of you. Tear each other's clothes off. Run your tongues over one anothers’ skin. Fuck each other crazy while the rest of us shop for the food that we really don't want to eat.

Don't worry. We'll walk right around you.

The man walked down the line and disappeared. The girl - I don't know what the girl did. Probably went home and fed her cat. I realized then that the bunch of bananas I had chosen was in fact much less fresh than I had thought. I left the line and went back downstairs, treading my steps carefully and knowingly towards the banana aisle of the produce section. I spent quite a lot of time at Whole Foods. I had heard a compelling argument or two as to how it was bad for local markets, local grocery stores and probably (although this was never made explicit), cute little starving children or bunnies or the terminally ill or someone else equally inoffensive. Honestly, though, I didn't really care for bunnies. Moreover, Whole Foods amused me sometimes. It was a complicated relationship.

+++

A couple of weeks later, when in search of something new and exciting, I decided to venture away from my trusted bananas, delving further into the produce aisles. I decided that maybe - I didn't want to be too adventurous here, but maybe - I would be in the mood for a plum or two. Standing in front of my four plum options, I noticed that the hooknosed man I had seen the week before was standing next to me, similarly perusing the plum choices. Or was it the nectarines next door? Was he a plum-eater? Or just like me, in search of some new delight? After all, from tomatoes to plums - far more adventurous or desperate than I - changes like that. I felt empathy well up inside of me for his quiet indecision. He narrowed his eyes at the nectarines, reaching out to run a finger across their abject lack of fuzz. I sidled up to him.

"Excuse me," I said, "Sorry, but did anything come of that girl and her cat?"

Hooknose looked very confused. "I'm sorry," he said, "but I don't know what you're talking about."

"No really," I continued, "This may seem like prying, but lord knows we all spend a lot of time here, and I was standing in line behind you a week ago."

"So?"

"So you helped some girl pick up the cat food she dropped. And it was very obvious that the two of you found each other attractive. So I figured you might have caught her on her way out, or posted some missed connection online. I was wondering if something came of it. It was such a poignant desire."

He stared at me aghast. "Um. No. I really think you've mistaken me for someone else."

He backed away from the nectarines, shuffled towards the bell peppers, turned right, grabbed a tomato and made a bee-line for the upstairs escalator. I sighed. I had scared him back to his tomatoes. He might've enjoyed that nectarine. This began to amuse me, and I chuckled. So did the man stocking apples, down the aisle. He turned to me.

"Ain't that sort of store. Our clientele are a little more...skittish. Consummation of desire isn't what they're looking for. Especially not here, when you think about it."

I thought this stock-boy, although the term seemed struck me as inaccurate, was well-spoken, so I smiled a little. Continuing to ponder the plums, I said, "So you've never seen some guy hit on a girl here?"

"Well, sure," he said, "more of them stare. But sometimes one will have the nerve to make a move, so to speak."

This conversation seemed more rewarding than the choice between black and red plums. Pitted fruits don't do much to keep my attention. "Do any of these love-stricken young men succeed in acquiring a smile or perhaps a phone number?" I asked the stock-boy.

He was placing apples from a bin marked Fuji #62843 onto the shelf labeled Organic Fuji Apples! Grown in California. He didn't turn to me, but shrugged his shoulders, "Well. Smiles often enough. I suppose phone numbers occasionally."

"Pity," I said, "I'd be more amused if some couple began to make out amongst the cereal or had a quickie somewhere near the natural soap."

He laughed, I thought, almost. It was hard to tell. He was fairly short, his hair was thinning and wore thick glasses that obscured much of his face. There isn't much to say about his garb. Everybody who worked at Whole Foods wore pretty much the same uniform. He might've been somewhere in his mid-thirties.

The stock-boy's name was Daniel. I learned this much later. Three or four minor conversations - the course of a month or so - passed before I felt compelled to introduce myself, and he had never offered his name before then. I had slowly developed a taste for Gala apples after repeatedly eating those that the young woman I was seeing would buy, and I subsequently found myself in Daniel's aisle quite enough as he would place apples on the shelf and I would take them off.

In the beginning, “conversations” might have been something of a misnomer. I would wander down the stairs, avoiding the aging hipsters and their younger, hipper girlfriends, not to mention the young mothers with their broods of Aryan young. Passing the parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, and other roots (where they hid actual carrots escaped me. I could've sworn that they normally came in sizes longer than two inches. And not conveniently bagged like that. Baby anything scares me), I would pause in front of my beloved Galas. Daniel, most of the time, avoided stocking my preferred variety when in my company. He would instead work on the Fujis, the Braeburns, the Granny Smiths or the Pink Ladies. I might nod my head at him. Half the time, I bagged three or four apples and left. Otherwise I might comment on the store or ask after his health.

He would shrug if I asked the latter question and say, well, I'm okay, and you? I mentioned once that I was under deadline to finish a supremely banal article about spyware regulation. "I don't own a computer," he said then, "so, although I think that is computer related, I don't entirely know what it means."

"You're probably better off that way," I said, "It's not very exciting."

"Neither are apples."

"Point."

I learned, at some point, that Daniel had once been a student of theology. He had, in fact, finished a master’s degree at St. Thomas Aquinas in Minnesota. How this led to stocking apples at Whole Foods I didn't know, but I didn't ask. He also wrote poetry, and had, a few years ago, convinced a small press to put out a collection of his poems. After many requests, and under some duress, he gave me a copy. I found the poems completely inscrutable, full of references to religious authors of the sixth century. The collection, I gathered, had sold around twelve copies.

There were a lot of holes in the story Daniel told of himself. He said once that he had grown up in a small town somewhere in Oklahoma (the name escapes me now, but it never meant much to me then). How this led through a undergraduate degree and to a master’s, I didn't know. I gathered that for a while he ran around with one of those evangelical quasi-political organizations that deployed volunteers to the front lines of the culture war. I figured he must have held up a few picket signs in his day, which I once made a crack about, but he, filling in for the organic juice stocker, who he complained was unreliable, didn't find this funny, and frowned. The level of religiosity didn't entirely surprise me, given his choice of hobbies (nobody ever read Boethius without outside motivation). It intrigued me, though, so I asked him what church he went to. He smiled wanly.

"I don't go to church," he said, "not anymore."

"Really?" I asked, "not at all? I mean, from what you said - and there's a big Catholic community here, isn't there?"

"Man," he laughed. "You think I'd move to New York because I was looking for a church?"

I'm not entirely sure why I found Daniel so interesting. Our friendship, of sorts, was built on convenience, as I wanted a reason beyond fresh bananas or apples to choose one particular grocery store, and conversation made the entire experience of Whole Foods a bit more pleasant. Perhaps I longed for those days when a neighborhood would have a grocer, when the person selling shanks of lamb and fresh vegetables would be more than blank face in a green uniform. His reasons were his own. I never became so rude as to question why he spoke to me. Maybe he was bored.

+++

by wendy zhao

Boredom, in retrospect, is the most likely cause of what happened next. At the time, it seemed the thing to do. Not for hooknose's benefit, or the girl's, but for the simple reason that produce can become a tedious background. And all people begin to run out of things to discuss after a time, and so in all circumstances, topics of conversation are manufactured. In this case our topic just happened to be two customers who I had thought would have stumbled across each other by now.

This all started when I observed hooknose, while seemingly engrossed in the choice between bok choi and a more traditional cabbage, flit his gaze repeatedly down the aisle towards the sushi-bar. I followed his line of sight, and there, ordering raw fish and rice in some combination I couldn't ascertain, was the girl whose cat he had saved a meal. She was no longer dressed for the couch or the gym, but looked as though she might have come from work at a small office. Which is to say: dressy, but not exactly put together. It was far more flattering than her earlier attire.

 

I pointed him out to Daniel. We paused and watched as the girl got her sushi and walked past hooknose. He smiled at her, and seemed about to say something, but she passed him by and he was left standing there, one hand slightly outstretched. Perhaps he realized that he looked a bit funny. Turning around, he disregarded the numerous choices of cabbage and instead stood for a moment, staring blankly at the bell peppers. I turned back to Daniel.

He shook his head. I had explained to him the original encounter between the two, and why I had harassed hooknose about it before. Daniel was convinced that nothing was to come of the attraction. I thought Whole Foods had made him far too cynical. As hooknose stared at the pepper display, we argued over the possibility of his ever actually going out on a date with the girl. I swore it was possible.

"He's too timid," Daniel sad, "He'll never make the first move. And you know she won't."

"Then they just need a little help."

So a plot was hatched to give the two of them just a little push in the right direction. Or directions, really. The problem with meeting people in Whole Foods is that the place is something of a labyrinth. If it were an open room full of shelves, or bins, or hell, I don't know, stations with different options, I might have reasonably expected hooknose to bump into the girl eventually. But there were too many aisles. On three floors. And nothing lined up properly. So it was very possible that even if the two of them happened to shop on the same day at the same time, week after week after week, they two of them would never actually run into one another.

The place to start was tracking their movements. Daniel worked five days a week, so this required me to shop for groceries twice a week, which took a little planning in and of itself. I had to think: do I need bananas today, or perhaps on Thursday? What can I buy on Saturday that will justify taking a trip to Whole Foods? But this did mean that I never bought much at once and could always use one of their many express lanes. As it turned out, hooknose and the girl did shop on the same day, and for some inexplicable reason, at the same time every third week. Daniel and I realized this after quite some time of watching and passing Excel charts back and forth.

So it was to be the third Wednesday of each month at 7:20 pm. They both entered the store sometime after 7:00. He was more likely to arrive slightly before her, but by 7:10 they were both generally on the first floor, looking vacantly at the options arrayed in front of them. By 7:15 he had bagged a few bagels and made his way down the escalator to the lower level, and without fail at 7:19 she had made it down as well, sometimes carrying a small carton of pre-cooked tofu. At 7:35 he would begin to walk towards the up escalator, while she continued to shop, often in the rice and pasta aisle. He would get in line at 7:40 while she selected eggs and milk, and at 7:46 when she arrived upstairs in line he was either checking out or had left the store.

This gave us fifteen minutes when they were on the same floor and general vicinity. But their timing was slightly off, and they never crossed into Daniel’s produce territory at the same time. As it normally went he would arrive in produce three or four minutes ahead of her and leave about a minute before she arrived. We needed to slow him down.

On a Wednesday evening in late August I collected a lot of paper, some old political buttons that I hoped no one would look at closely and a clipboard. Stationing myself outside of Whole Foods, with long-forgotten presidential candidates and flags on the ratty backpack I had found under my bed, I loitered, scribbling in names, signatures and phone numbers on the blank lines of the paper on my clipboard. At 7:07 I began asking those entering Whole Foods if they were registered New York voters. Hooknose walked down the street at 7:09. I cornered him.

“Are you registered to vote in New York?” I asked him, moving into his path. He paused and looked me over. There was, of course, the risk that he’d recognize me from my earlier harassment.

“Yes,” he said, “but I’m in a hurry, sorry.” He tried to move out of my way. I moved in front of him again.

“But wait,” I waved my arms a little and raised my voice, “Don’t you think classroom sizes are too big in New York? Don’t you think they should be smaller? All I need is for you to sign a petition.”

He paused, so I had to scramble.

“Really – New York pays what, well, more than most states per child on education, and yet our test scores are some of the lowest anywhere,” I continued, guessing at facts I had probably read in the New York Times years ago, “so we must not be doing something right. Don’t you think it might have to do with overcrowding? It can’t hurt, right? Please, will you sign the petition?”

He grumbled for a moment, but took the proffered pen. He scribbled on the clipboard and handed it back to me. I tucked the pen away as he walked, slightly disgruntled, into Whole Foods. I went across the street to Starbucks to wait.

Daniel joined me when his shift ended a few hours later. He told me that hooknose had shown up in produce four minutes later than normal, scowling, just in time to see the girl stare intently at a tomato. And he had smiled, and walked over to her. Evidently, he had casually suggested a different tomato, which she taken. He kept smiling at her, almost forlornly, as she stood there for a moment and then wandered off into dried goods. So hooknose had retreated upstairs. It was something of start, but still, not enough for these finicky creatures.

What it’s important remember when trying to bring two people together is that chaos and fear make just about anyone like to talk. To whoever is around them – it doesn’t matter if they’ve ever spoken before. It’s also helpful to remember that all public buildings have fire alarms. It’s a little juvenile, I know. But it works. I’m actually a little embarrassed. We created far more chaos than was necessary, and got the organic juice stock-boy who owed Daniel a favor fired for actually pulling the fire alarm. But as the customers filed out of Whole Foods we saw, ducking in the upper story cafe, hooknose and the girl talking, as we expected them to, looking over their shoulders and laughing a little.

 

Outside the store was a mess, with some customers running off with purloined Tofurkey and organic asparagus, others staring back at the store, evidently waiting for it to reopen so that they could continue shopping. But hooknose bummed a cigarette from the girl, and they stood there talking, until she looked at her watch, stomped out the cigarette – Daniel had just last week commented on her partiality for spiky boots – and looked up at hooknose. He stared down at her. Here, I thought, here – take the initiative, you fool. But she kissed him on the cheek and sauntered off. He walked in the other direction. Fire trucks pulled up in front of Whole Foods and Daniel and I went back to Starbucks.

I swore a lot at hooknose, declaring that if that gambit hadn’t worked, I wasn’t prepared to bother. Daniel sat passively. And then he brought out a large folded piece of paper. He motioned that I move my coffee and unfolded it on the very small table in front of us.

It was a map of the lower level of Whole Foods, with each aisle and shelf marked in perfect detail. Evidently this was how shifts were designated; I could make out a lot of names that had been penciled in with dates and times and then erased or written over. Daniel pointed at the produce section.

“At 7:21 the girl has made it to the apples, while hooknose is moving towards dairy,” making a swoop of his arm, “and so they miss each other. What we need to make sure is that he doesn’t make it to dairy and has to turn back.”

I stared sort of blankly at the map, “To where?”

“Here,” he pointed the intersection between produce and baking goods, “here. And we then need to make sure that she moves from produce to that same spot. And then we need to stop them from leaving for at least a minute or two.”

“So we block off the other exits to produce,” I said, thinking quickly – there were two others, “the one by the stairs, and the one that leads to soaps and lotions. And to stop hooknose, we have to block the cereal aisle.”

“Exactly,” Daniel stole some of my coffee, “well, something like that.”

“And you know how to do all this?”

“Sort of. I’ll probably get fired. But apples. You know.”

At 7:15 that Wednesday evening I was in Whole Foods as planned. I didn’t really have all that much to do, but had stationed myself in place behind the cereal aisle at 7:10, pretending to look at the sliced almonds on sale. Hooknose came down the stairs and began to browse the tomatoes. At 7:21 he walked my way, down the center aisle to dairy, just as the girl made it to the bottom of the escalator. I pulled the crowbar out of my bag.

Leaning down, I placed it under the bottom support of the leftmost cereal display and tested that I had leverage. I heaved down on the crowbar. Once – the aisle strained, creaking. Twice, it cracked and buckled. And then again, and not only the one display but seemingly half the cereal in the store came crashing down into the center aisle, right in front of hooknose, who dropped his basket and fell backwards. Scrambling to his feet he turned back to produce and witnessed the chaos there.

Daniel had done the same as I for the soap aisle, and now cereal and hemp based lotions filled the two exits to the produce section. A few people were screaming. I don’t know if we had inadvertently hurt anyone, but when the shopping carts all came crashing down and clogging the escalator, I figured we probably couldn’t worry about that anymore.

The girl stood frozen as people began to run aimlessly around her, knocking over the fruit stands. And then one shopping cart came loose and slid towards her. She bolted away, through a display of apples, and Braeburns flying, ran straight into hooknose, who had dazedly made his way out from under a mountain of cereal. She fell against his chest and he stared down at her for the third time.

And then he kissed her.

I walked by them two or three minutes later on my way towards the – mercifully intact – banana display. Their clothes had come off by then and their naked bodies grappled with one another as I paused to consider a particular bunch of bananas. He entered her right as I made my selection, and they began to grunt and thrust, there on the floor, surrounded by mounds of cereal and apples. A stray bottle of hand lotion had rolled towards them and lay in front of two pairs of writhing feet.

I walked around them and made my way upstairs.

Isaac Scarborough is a writer living in Bloomington. You can find his writing for n+1 here and his writing on This Recording here.

Wendy Zhao is an artist living in Brooklyn. You can find her website here.

 

Saturday
Feb112012

In Which We Hide In The Cereal Aisle

Every Saturday from now until the sun dies we will feature a made-up story.

by wendy zhao

An Organic Affair

by ISAAC SCARBOROUGH

I used to shop at a local grocery store. This was something of an ethnic market. I think it was owned by Latin American immigrants, but I couldn't say for sure. They did stock a lot of horchata and tortillas. Hell, I don't know. It was nice to have a local store to shop at. I was never really friendly with the staff, but I did get the impression that they knew who I was, that I was a valued customer.

But problems soon developed in our relationship. My eating habits aren't exactly what people would call healthy. Which is not to say I eat potato chips by the bagful. My inclination is to aim at somewhere towards the opposite end of the spectrum. So my desire for a grocery store often amounts to wanting a closet full of carrots and pickles and other various items that don't really involve calories but are, technically, food. And here I found my local grocery sorely lacking. So I joined the masses, I'm afraid. I stopped shopping for groceries anywhere near my home. I began to take the train just to wander the aisles of Whole Foods.

This didn't always please me. I grew very angry about it at first. I blamed the local grocer for not stocking enough low-calorie food and bananas that weren't frighteningly overripe. I blamed society for allowing me to have a diet that had long forsaken bread and cheese and actual meat. And I blamed everyone around me for allowing the monstrosity that was my new grocery store to actually exist.

+++

by wendy zhao

I was standing in line at Whole Foods, waiting expectantly to pay for the overpriced bananas and soy-milk that pretty much kept me alive. I really hated the store at times like this. The "organic" mantra was a source of constant irritation; the abundance of “cliff bars” and specially manufactured, sugar free ginger chews, not to mention the occasional copy of Mother Jones – impulse buys – were of particular frustration. But I liked my bananas fresh.

A young woman standing in front of me dropped a can of cat food. I stared down at it. This wasn’t the reassuring Friskies of my childhood. Even cat food was organic here, so this must be one well-fed cat. Doesn't matter if the owner obsesses over her weight. The cat probably can't crawl across the floor on its own, let alone heave its girth up to the food dish. The can sat there on the ground for a moment, as the young woman shuffled the groceries in her arms, trying to determine whether or not she could feasibly reach down and pick it up without managing to drop the rest of her purchases. I, carrying my bananas and soy-milk comfortably in one hand, continued to stare at the can as she shuffled about.

A man in the next aisle over bent down and picked up the cat food and handed it to the young woman. I guess he was in a good position to help, since he wasn’t carrying very much: a head of lettuce, a tomato and a package of tortillas (whole wheat, I think. It was difficult to tell). He smiled at the young woman, and although it brought out the hook of his nose, it was still, I thought, a pleasant and charming smile. She returned the smile coyly. I couldn't help but notice that the man dressed like he worked late at the office, and would be returning there with his tomatoes and tortillas, to munch away in front of the computer, crunching numbers. Or writing ad-copy. Or designing a web page for a company that sold designer cat food. This was only noticeable, I think, because the young woman was dressed as though she had spent most of her day sitting on a couch. Or a park bench, maybe. Which is not to say her clothes were cheap - but nobody ever wore cut-off jeans to an office. "I always manage to drop something," the man remarked to the young woman, gesturing to his three items which anyone with a mental age north of eight would be hard pressed to drop.

"Yeah. I know," she said, "Every time I'm in here, I think about getting a basket, but then I never do."

He shrugged his shoulders. "Yeah."

They smiled shyly at each other. And I thought then: you, hooknosed man, ask her for her name. Keep talking. Ask about her damned cat. You, poorly dressed girl - he has a nice smile, doesn't he - don't just simper.

No. Fuck it. Hooknose, drop your groceries. Jump the separating rope and grab this girl and kiss her, because you know you're going home alone, or back to the office, to eat a tomato and finish paperwork. You, girl with the ugly shorts, respond in kind. Your cat will be fine. It's already too fat from easy living. Right there in the aisle, in the middle of Whole Foods, go at it, the two of you. Tear each other's clothes off. Run your tongues over one anothers’ skin. Fuck each other crazy while the rest of us shop for the food that we really don't want to eat.

Don't worry. We'll walk right around you.

The man walked down the line and disappeared. The girl - I don't know what the girl did. Probably went home and fed her cat. I realized then that the bunch of bananas I had chosen was in fact much less fresh than I had thought. I left the line and went back downstairs, treading my steps carefully and knowingly towards the banana aisle of the produce section. I spent quite a lot of time at Whole Foods. I had heard a compelling argument or two as to how it was bad for local markets, local grocery stores and probably (although this was never made explicit), cute little starving children or bunnies or the terminally ill or someone else equally inoffensive. Honestly, though, I didn't really care for bunnies. Moreover, Whole Foods amused me sometimes. It was a complicated relationship.

+++

A couple of weeks later, when in search of something new and exciting, I decided to venture away from my trusted bananas, delving further into the produce aisles. I decided that maybe - I didn't want to be too adventurous here, but maybe - I would be in the mood for a plum or two. Standing in front of my four plum options, I noticed that the hooknosed man I had seen the week before was standing next to me, similarly perusing the plum choices. Or was it the nectarines next door? Was he a plum-eater? Or just like me, in search of some new delight? After all, from tomatoes to plums - far more adventurous or desperate than I - changes like that. I felt empathy well up inside of me for his quiet indecision. He narrowed his eyes at the nectarines, reaching out to run a finger across their abject lack of fuzz. I sidled up to him.

"Excuse me," I said, "Sorry, but did anything come of that girl and her cat?"

Hooknose looked very confused. "I'm sorry," he said, "but I don't know what you're talking about."

"No really," I continued, "This may seem like prying, but lord knows we all spend a lot of time here, and I was standing in line behind you a week ago."

"So?"

"So you helped some girl pick up the cat food she dropped. And it was very obvious that the two of you found each other attractive. So I figured you might have caught her on her way out, or posted some missed connection online. I was wondering if something came of it. It was such a poignant desire."

He stared at me aghast. "Um. No. I really think you've mistaken me for someone else."

He backed away from the nectarines, shuffled towards the bell peppers, turned right, grabbed a tomato and made a bee-line for the upstairs escalator. I sighed. I had scared him back to his tomatoes. He might've enjoyed that nectarine. This began to amuse me, and I chuckled. So did the man stocking apples, down the aisle. He turned to me.

"Ain't that sort of store. Our clientele are a little more...skittish. Consummation of desire isn't what they're looking for. Especially not here, when you think about it."

I thought this stock-boy, although the term seemed struck me as inaccurate, was well-spoken, so I smiled a little. Continuing to ponder the plums, I said, "So you've never seen some guy hit on a girl here?"

"Well, sure," he said, "more of them stare. But sometimes one will have the nerve to make a move, so to speak."

This conversation seemed more rewarding than the choice between black and red plums. Pitted fruits don't do much to keep my attention. "Do any of these love-stricken young men succeed in acquiring a smile or perhaps a phone number?" I asked the stock-boy.

He was placing apples from a bin marked Fuji #62843 onto the shelf labeled Organic Fuji Apples! Grown in California. He didn't turn to me, but shrugged his shoulders, "Well. Smiles often enough. I suppose phone numbers occasionally."

"Pity," I said, "I'd be more amused if some couple began to make out amongst the cereal or had a quickie somewhere near the natural soap."

He laughed, I thought, almost. It was hard to tell. He was fairly short, his hair was thinning and wore thick glasses that obscured much of his face. There isn't much to say about his garb. Everybody who worked at Whole Foods wore pretty much the same uniform. He might've been somewhere in his mid-thirties.

The stock-boy's name was Daniel. I learned this much later. Three or four minor conversations - the course of a month or so - passed before I felt compelled to introduce myself, and he had never offered his name before then. I had slowly developed a taste for Gala apples after repeatedly eating those that the young woman I was seeing would buy, and I subsequently found myself in Daniel's aisle quite enough as he would place apples on the shelf and I would take them off.

In the beginning, “conversations” might have been something of a misnomer. I would wander down the stairs, avoiding the aging hipsters and their younger, hipper girlfriends, not to mention the young mothers with their broods of Aryan young. Passing the parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, and other roots (where they hid actual carrots escaped me. I could've sworn that they normally came in sizes longer than two inches. And not conveniently bagged like that. Baby anything scares me), I would pause in front of my beloved Galas. Daniel, most of the time, avoided stocking my preferred variety when in my company. He would instead work on the Fujis, the Braeburns, the Granny Smiths or the Pink Ladies. I might nod my head at him. Half the time, I bagged three or four apples and left. Otherwise I might comment on the store or ask after his health.

He would shrug if I asked the latter question and say, well, I'm okay, and you? I mentioned once that I was under deadline to finish a supremely banal article about spyware regulation. "I don't own a computer," he said then, "so, although I think that is computer related, I don't entirely know what it means."

"You're probably better off that way," I said, "It's not very exciting."

"Neither are apples."

"Point."

I learned, at some point, that Daniel had once been a student of theology. He had, in fact, finished a master’s degree at St. Thomas Aquinas in Minnesota. How this led to stocking apples at Whole Foods I didn't know, but I didn't ask. He also wrote poetry, and had, a few years ago, convinced a small press to put out a collection of his poems. After many requests, and under some duress, he gave me a copy. I found the poems completely inscrutable, full of references to religious authors of the sixth century. The collection, I gathered, had sold around twelve copies.

There were a lot of holes in the story Daniel told of himself. He said once that he had grown up in a small town somewhere in Oklahoma (the name escapes me now, but it never meant much to me then). How this led through a undergraduate degree and to a master’s, I didn't know. I gathered that for a while he ran around with one of those evangelical quasi-political organizations that deployed volunteers to the front lines of the culture war. I figured he must have held up a few picket signs in his day, which I once made a crack about, but he, filling in for the organic juice stocker, who he complained was unreliable, didn't find this funny, and frowned. The level of religiosity didn't entirely surprise me, given his choice of hobbies (nobody ever read Boethius without outside motivation). It intrigued me, though, so I asked him what church he went to. He smiled wanly.

"I don't go to church," he said, "not anymore."

"Really?" I asked, "not at all? I mean, from what you said - and there's a big Catholic community here, isn't there?"

"Man," he laughed. "You think I'd move to New York because I was looking for a church?"

I'm not entirely sure why I found Daniel so interesting. Our friendship, of sorts, was built on convenience, as I wanted a reason beyond fresh bananas or apples to choose one particular grocery store, and conversation made the entire experience of Whole Foods a bit more pleasant. Perhaps I longed for those days when a neighborhood would have a grocer, when the person selling shanks of lamb and fresh vegetables would be more than blank face in a green uniform. His reasons were his own. I never became so rude as to question why he spoke to me. Maybe he was bored.

+++

by wendy zhao

Boredom, in retrospect, is the most likely cause of what happened next. At the time, it seemed the thing to do. Not for hooknose's benefit, or the girl's, but for the simple reason that produce can become a tedious background. And all people begin to run out of things to discuss after a time, and so in all circumstances, topics of conversation are manufactured. In this case our topic just happened to be two customers who I had thought would have stumbled across each other by now.

This all started when I observed hooknose, while seemingly engrossed in the choice between bok choi and a more traditional cabbage, flit his gaze repeatedly down the aisle towards the sushi-bar. I followed his line of sight, and there, ordering raw fish and rice in some combination I couldn't ascertain, was the girl whose cat he had saved a meal. She was no longer dressed for the couch or the gym, but looked as though she might have come from work at a small office. Which is to say: dressy, but not exactly put together. It was far more flattering than her earlier attire.

I pointed him out to Daniel. We paused and watched as the girl got her sushi and walked past hooknose. He smiled at her, and seemed about to say something, but she passed him by and he was left standing there, one hand slightly outstretched. Perhaps he realized that he looked a bit funny. Turning around, he disregarded the numerous choices of cabbage and instead stood for a moment, staring blankly at the bell peppers. I turned back to Daniel.

He shook his head. I had explained to him the original encounter between the two, and why I had harassed hooknose about it before. Daniel was convinced that nothing was to come of the attraction. I thought Whole Foods had made him far too cynical. As hooknose stared at the pepper display, we argued over the possibility of his ever actually going out on a date with the girl. I swore it was possible.

"He's too timid," Daniel sad, "He'll never make the first move. And you know she won't."

"Then they just need a little help."

So a plot was hatched to give the two of them just a little push in the right direction. Or directions, really. The problem with meeting people in Whole Foods is that the place is something of a labyrinth. If it were an open room full of shelves, or bins, or hell, I don't know, stations with different options, I might have reasonably expected hooknose to bump into the girl eventually. But there were too many aisles. On three floors. And nothing lined up properly. So it was very possible that even if the two of them happened to shop on the same day at the same time, week after week after week, they two of them would never actually run into one another.

The place to start was tracking their movements. Daniel worked five days a week, so this required me to shop for groceries twice a week, which took a little planning in and of itself. I had to think: do I need bananas today, or perhaps on Thursday? What can I buy on Saturday that will justify taking a trip to Whole Foods? But this did mean that I never bought much at once and could always use one of their many express lanes. As it turned out, hooknose and the girl did shop on the same day, and for some inexplicable reason, at the same time every third week. Daniel and I realized this after quite some time of watching and passing Excel charts back and forth.

So it was to be the third Wednesday of each month at 7:20 pm. They both entered the store sometime after 7:00. He was more likely to arrive slightly before her, but by 7:10 they were both generally on the first floor, looking vacantly at the options arrayed in front of them. By 7:15 he had bagged a few bagels and made his way down the escalator to the lower level, and without fail at 7:19 she had made it down as well, sometimes carrying a small carton of pre-cooked tofu. At 7:35 he would begin to walk towards the up escalator, while she continued to shop, often in the rice and pasta aisle. He would get in line at 7:40 while she selected eggs and milk, and at 7:46 when she arrived upstairs in line he was either checking out or had left the store.

This gave us fifteen minutes when they were on the same floor and general vicinity. But their timing was slightly off, and they never crossed into Daniel’s produce territory at the same time. As it normally went he would arrive in produce three or four minutes ahead of her and leave about a minute before she arrived. We needed to slow him down.

On a Wednesday evening in late August I collected a lot of paper, some old political buttons that I hoped no one would look at closely and a clipboard. Stationing myself outside of Whole Foods, with long-forgotten presidential candidates and flags on the ratty backpack I had found under my bed, I loitered, scribbling in names, signatures and phone numbers on the blank lines of the paper on my clipboard. At 7:07 I began asking those entering Whole Foods if they were registered New York voters. Hooknose walked down the street at 7:09. I cornered him.

“Are you registered to vote in New York?” I asked him, moving into his path. He paused and looked me over. There was, of course, the risk that he’d recognize me from my earlier harassment.

“Yes,” he said, “but I’m in a hurry, sorry.” He tried to move out of my way. I moved in front of him again.

“But wait,” I waved my arms a little and raised my voice, “Don’t you think classroom sizes are too big in New York? Don’t you think they should be smaller? All I need is for you to sign a petition.”

He paused, so I had to scramble.

“Really – New York pays what, well, more than most states per child on education, and yet our test scores are some of the lowest anywhere,” I continued, guessing at facts I had probably read in the New York Times years ago, “so we must not be doing something right. Don’t you think it might have to do with overcrowding? It can’t hurt, right? Please, will you sign the petition?”

He grumbled for a moment, but took the proffered pen. He scribbled on the clipboard and handed it back to me. I tucked the pen away as he walked, slightly disgruntled, into Whole Foods. I went across the street to Starbucks to wait.

Daniel joined me when his shift ended a few hours later. He told me that hooknose had shown up in produce four minutes later than normal, scowling, just in time to see the girl stare intently at a tomato. And he had smiled, and walked over to her. Evidently, he had casually suggested a different tomato, which she taken. He kept smiling at her, almost forlornly, as she stood there for a moment and then wandered off into dried goods. So hooknose had retreated upstairs. It was something of start, but still, not enough for these finicky creatures.

What it’s important remember when trying to bring two people together is that chaos and fear make just about anyone like to talk. To whoever is around them – it doesn’t matter if they’ve ever spoken before. It’s also helpful to remember that all public buildings have fire alarms. It’s a little juvenile, I know. But it works. I’m actually a little embarrassed. We created far more chaos than was necessary, and got the organic juice stock-boy who owed Daniel a favor fired for actually pulling the fire alarm. But as the customers filed out of Whole Foods we saw, ducking in the upper story cafe, hooknose and the girl talking, as we expected them to, looking over their shoulders and laughing a little.

Outside the store was a mess, with some customers running off with purloined Tofurkey and organic asparagus, others staring back at the store, evidently waiting for it to reopen so that they could continue shopping. But hooknose bummed a cigarette from the girl, and they stood there talking, until she looked at her watch, stomped out the cigarette – Daniel had just last week commented on her partiality for spiky boots – and looked up at hooknose. He stared down at her. Here, I thought, here – take the initiative, you fool. But she kissed him on the cheek and sauntered off. He walked in the other direction. Fire trucks pulled up in front of Whole Foods and Daniel and I went back to Starbucks.

I swore a lot at hooknose, declaring that if that gambit hadn’t worked, I wasn’t prepared to bother. Daniel sat passively. And then he brought out a large folded piece of paper. He motioned that I move my coffee and unfolded it on the very small table in front of us.

It was a map of the lower level of Whole Foods, with each aisle and shelf marked in perfect detail. Evidently this was how shifts were designated; I could make out a lot of names that had been penciled in with dates and times and then erased or written over. Daniel pointed at the produce section.

“At 7:21 the girl has made it to the apples, while hooknose is moving towards dairy,” making a swoop of his arm, “and so they miss each other. What we need to make sure is that he doesn’t make it to dairy and has to turn back.”

I stared sort of blankly at the map, “To where?”

“Here,” he pointed the intersection between produce and baking goods, “here. And we then need to make sure that she moves from produce to that same spot. And then we need to stop them from leaving for at least a minute or two.”

“So we block off the other exits to produce,” I said, thinking quickly – there were two others, “the one by the stairs, and the one that leads to soaps and lotions. And to stop hooknose, we have to block the cereal aisle.”

“Exactly,” Daniel stole some of my coffee, “well, something like that.”

“And you know how to do all this?”

“Sort of. I’ll probably get fired. But apples. You know.”

At 7:15 that Wednesday evening I was in Whole Foods as planned. I didn’t really have all that much to do, but had stationed myself in place behind the cereal aisle at 7:10, pretending to look at the sliced almonds on sale. Hooknose came down the stairs and began to browse the tomatoes. At 7:21 he walked my way, down the center aisle to dairy, just as the girl made it to the bottom of the escalator. I pulled the crowbar out of my bag.

Leaning down, I placed it under the bottom support of the leftmost cereal display and tested that I had leverage. I heaved down on the crowbar. Once – the aisle strained, creaking. Twice, it cracked and buckled. And then again, and not only the one display but seemingly half the cereal in the store came crashing down into the center aisle, right in front of hooknose, who dropped his basket and fell backwards. Scrambling to his feet he turned back to produce and witnessed the chaos there.

Daniel had done the same as I for the soap aisle, and now cereal and hemp based lotions filled the two exits to the produce section. A few people were screaming. I don’t know if we had inadvertently hurt anyone, but when the shopping carts all came crashing down and clogging the escalator, I figured we probably couldn’t worry about that anymore.

The girl stood frozen as people began to run aimlessly around her, knocking over the fruit stands. And then one shopping cart came loose and slid towards her. She bolted away, through a display of apples, and Braeburns flying, ran straight into hooknose, who had dazedly made his way out from under a mountain of cereal. She fell against his chest and he stared down at her for the third time.

And then he kissed her.

I walked by them two or three minutes later on my way towards the – mercifully intact – banana display. Their clothes had come off by then and their naked bodies grappled with one another as I paused to consider a particular bunch of bananas. He entered her right as I made my selection, and they began to grunt and thrust, there on the floor, surrounded by mounds of cereal and apples. A stray bottle of hand lotion had rolled towards them and lay in front of two pairs of writhing feet.

I walked around them and made my way upstairs.

Isaac Scarborough is a writer living in Bloomington. You can find his writing for n+1 here and his writing on This Recording here.

Wendy Zhao is an artist living in Brooklyn. You can find her website here.

"Skin, Warming Skin" - Laura Gibson (mp3)

"The Rushing Dark" - Laura Gibson (mp3)

"Red Moon" - Laura Gibson (mp3)

Monday
Mar072011

In Which We Develop A Radiant New Love For Literature

Our Novels, Ourselves

This Thursday, This Recording unveils our list of the 100 Greatest Novels. This will likely be the final word on the subject, and a key to the city will be presented to us in the shape of a novel. In order to broaden our horizons, we asked a group of talented young writers and artists to name their favorite novels. This is the first in a three part series.

Part One (Tess Lynch, Karina Wolf, Elizabeth Gumport, Sarah LaBrie, Isaac Scarborough, Daniel D'Addario, Elisabeth Donnelly, Lydia Brotherton, Brian DeLeeuw)

Part Two (Alice Gregory, Jason Zuzga, Andrew Zornoza, Morgan Clendaniel, Jane Hu, Ben Yaster, Barbara Galletly, Elena Schilder, Almie Rose)

Part Three (Alexis Okeowo, Benjamin Hale, Robert Rutherford, Kara VanderBijl, Damian Weber, Jessica Ferri, Britt Julious, Letizia Rossi, Will Hubbard, Durga Chew-Bose, Rachel Syme, Amanda McCleod, Yvonne Georgina Puig)

Tess Lynch

In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien

This is a book about Vietnam. Please, sit down. Come on, it isn't really about Vietnam, it's about – just sit down for one second – the clashing of public and private life, when the demon-like personifications of every horrible thing you've ever done wage war with whatever good parts of you still exist; the plot consciously implodes on itself, leaving you feeling psychologically fractured and with nightmares about killing your houseplants with boiling water while screaming "Kill Jesus," just like you've always wanted.

Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie

Ignore the movie please. This was Beattie's first novel, and my favorite of hers, not only because there's a character in it who spends all of her time in the bathtub like I do, and not only because Sam is the fictional hot best friend I projected any and all fantasies onto during my formative years, but because it's a quiet study of the electrically-charged feeling of being in love operative-word-hopelessly. The desserts she cooked that you miss, the radio songs, the happy hour beers spent bumming. Too true, Ann, too true.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

You know what? Fuck Lolita. I take that back, don't fuck Lolita, she's too young, plus I loved that book. I loved this one more, though. The poem makes me disintegrate with feelings. I'd get all 999 lines tattooed on my face, but then I'd never be able to work in corporate America. John Shade's poem can be a bit of a downer ("how many more/Free calendars shall grace the kitchen door?"), so fictional editor Charles Kinbote comes in to offer up some zippy commentary from the imaginary land of Zembla. I thought Kinbote was supposed to make me feel better, that that was his purpose, but apparently Nabokov, in an interview, mentioned that Kinbote killed himself after publishing the manuscript. God, what a downer. I wish I'd never heard that bit of imaginary news; maybe there's no point to anything and I should go ahead and get that tat, do you think it would be pretty sickkk?

The Stand by Stephen King

This is my favorite Stephen King novel, and that's saying a lot, since I never leave the bookstore without some SK representation. The Stand is so long that if you get the uncut edition, you can step up onto it and get the bird's nests off your roof; even still, you feel depressed when you turn the last page. There's nothing like a story that begins with the end of most of humanity and then continues for about 1100 pages, peppered with the lyrically satisfying name Trashcan Man and lots of details about stomachs exploding. Life is gross. Books can be gross. You didn't want to finish those nachos anyway.

Tess Lynch is a writer living in Los Angeles. You can find her website here.

Karina Wolf

Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin

These days, Melmoth the Wanderer is more an allusion than a perused text. Nabokov named Humbert Humbert’s automobile after the damned nomad; Oscar Wilde took "Melmoth" as a pseudonym, perhaps because of his shared status as eternal outsider. Maturin’s 1820 gothic novel begins with a bequest – a young Trinity student inherits his uncle’s estate and a manuscript, which relates the tale of his ancestor Melmoth, who extended his life by 150 years, presumably by selling his soul to the Devil. The only out from damnation is to find someone to take over the pact. The novel consists of a rococo series of nested vignettes, wherein characters encounter the cursed wanderer, sometimes peripherally. The pleasure (and challenge) of the text is in its stylish excesses.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

I re-visited Wuthering Heights when I taught at hokwan, a Korean cram school that aimed to stuff as many five dollar words possible into the minds of the foreign-born students. The odd task of reading Brontë’s novel aloud to a teenage boy (who loved it) made me appreciate its ingenious storytelling along with its elemental feelings. As a child, Brontë endured the deaths of two sisters and in response created Gondal, a detailed imaginary world that she sustained in letters and stories from adolescence to adulthood. Wuthering Heights retains a similarly corrective power; the novel is less a romance than a psychic outcry and self-assertion.

The Witches by Roald Dahl

The best children’s books are clever rejoinders to the early onset of life, primers for how to deal. Roald Dahl’s The Witches retains the violent menace of early fairy tales while offering readers a wry (and controversial) antidote to vanquishing the enemy, a kind of mass witch transformation and cat-led genocide. Dahl retains his spiky humor and incorrectness – also, his irresistibly charming prose. With lovely line drawings by Quentin Blake.

Karina Wolf is a writer living in New York. Her book The Insomniacs is forthcoming from Penguin. You can find her website here.

Elizabeth Gumport

I am too adrift from myself to know what my favorite novels are. If I could tell you that, I could tell you so many things! But like rats fleeing a sinking ship, my former selves keep escaping me. One of the few things I am sure of these days is that I am twenty-five years old, and so like a child I go around insisting on my age. But we can forgive a child for identifying herself by how old she is, since what else would she have done with those months and years except live them? I, on the other hand, ought to have more and deeper moorings. Instead, the first page of D.H. Lawrence’s St. Mawr looks like a mirror: "Lou Witt had had her own way so long, that by the age of twenty-five she didn't know where she was. Having one's own way landed one completely at sea."

Reading St. Mawr, the feeling I had was not of identifying with the character but of being identified by them. I did not “find”myself. I was found, as if by a carrier pigeon bearing a note. A few months later, it was The Wings of the Dove that saw me: James writes that Kate Croy “had reached a great age for it quite seemed to her that at twenty-five it was late to reconsider, and her most general sense was a shade of regret that she hadn't known earlier. The world was different--whether for worse or for better – from her rudimentary readings, and it gave her the feeling of a wasted past. If she had only known sooner she might have arranged herself more to meet it.”

My sense of being “found”by these books was heightened by how I happened to read them: St. Mawr did in fact arrive for me by air, in a package from Amazon. It was a gift from a friend – the same friend who several months later would be the one to recommend The Wings of the Dove. A truly personal recommendation shows you something you don't often see, which is the way you hold yourself out to the world. That is what Lord Mark offers Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove, when he shows her “the beautiful” Bronzino portrait “that’s so like” her. What matters is not merely what you are like, but that you are like something – that the world knows what you look like, even when you don’t. When shown the portrait, Milly admits she doesn’t see the resemblance.

Knowing that a book exists is one thing, being made to recognize its existence by someone else another. It is the fact of Lord Mark’s showing her the portrait, and not the portrait itself, that so topples Milly: “It was perhaps as a good a moment as she should have with any one, or have in any connexion whatever.”A personal recommendation is not the same as one cast out to anonymous strangers on the internet.

I will try, therefore, to be as specific as possible: if you are my age, self-absorbed, and aimless but not hopeless, you should read these books immediately. Perhaps the figure sketched in them will impress you as your own, and perhaps it will resolve something for you. Sometimes books enter your life at exactly the right moment. It doesn't happen as often as you'd think: like people, they tend to appear too early, when you are too foolish to appreciate them, or too late, when they have been claimed by someone else.

Elizabeth Gumport is a writer living in New York.

Isaac Scarborough

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Amongst all of the fantasy novels I devoured as an adolescent, Tigana is the only that holds up through the prism of passed years and moderate maturity – going back and rereading it remains the same mind-bending pleasure that it was when I was fifteen. Not only is it – a rarity in the subgenre – genuinely well written, but it does what fantastical writing is truly meant to: it comments on our world today, in a way that would otherwise be impossible. The power of names and naming stuck with me, and if there’s a reason why I today refuse to spell Ashkhabad “Ashgabat” Kay may very well have something to do with it.

Making Scenes by Adrienne Eisen

The basic willingness to describe modern life’s brutality – from lists of food consumed and bulimiacally purged, to the absurdity of what passes today for courtship – sets Eisen apart; her willingness to describe without going somewhere is also laudable. Reading Making Scenes is an experience closest to voyeuristically watching that cute neighbor across the hallway, except that she has begun to leave audiotapes on your doorstep of her – just as you suspected – far too aware and intelligent inner monologue. This voice sticks around.

Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

By and large, Dostoyevsky doesn’t do plot: throughout his works, there are simply long periods of hysterics and contemplation, generally circling around a heinous crime committed in the very beginning of the work. Demons is no different in this respect, but here the hysterics come first, and then the crimes – a set-up that avoids the disappointment with which both Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment end, and one that provides much more space for the author to develop his characters’ private insanities. And when it comes to madness, Dostoyevsky simply has no equivalent.

Isaac Scarborough is a writer living in Kazakhstan.

Sarah LaBrie

The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams

A manifesto for young women destined to spend adulthood in a dimension just to the left of reality, the result of not having solidified quite correctly as children. The three teenaged orphans who guide us through Williams’ strange desert are peculiar but not precious, compelling in their very anti-Amelieness. It’s okay to be a genuine girl wacko, Williams tells us: if you’re smart enough to own it, you still get to win.

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson

Fiction writers who start out as poets have an edge when it comes to building faultless sentences. Carson, a Classicist by trade, applies her skills as a translator of Greek verse to a novel about a monster named Geryon and his arrogant sometimes-boyfriend, Herakles. Building loosely on fragments of a poem by Stesichorus, Carson winds together scholarship and brutal wit to build a discomfitingly relatable love story.

The Counterlife by Philip Roth

In the autobiographical note that begins Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin discusses coming to the conclusion that, before he could produce anything else of substance, he had to write about what it meant to be black. Through the lens of Nathan Zuckerman, Roth offers a metafictional take on the same question as it relates to Judaism while experimenting with perspective, structure, time and form. Probably the most skillfully written examination out there on the bond between fiction writing and the desire for control.

Sarah LaBrie is a writer living in Los Angeles. You can find her website here.

Daniel D'Addario

England, England by Julian Barnes

In college, one of my mistakes was taking a class on comparative literature, after which I was left thinking that Britain or America could never produce a homegrown “national allegory.” Was I ever wrong! England’s image of itself is grist for this bizarre novel of ideas in which the nation is reassembled as a giant theme park for tourists—with a false king and queen and every famous Briton brought back to life. The novel questions the value of history and of myth—and despite its scorched-earth ending and brilliant dissection of the corporate profit motive, it does so with a bit of affection.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Including Kazuo Ishiguro’s cloistered-England novel The Remains of the Day in my three favorites here felt a little unfair; it’s like being asked to choose among your children, when one is an ultra-sensitive genius. Instead I chose to include the instance in which Ian McEwan, predominantly a creator of tight narrative schemes, most closely approaches Ishiguro’s sensitivity to context (a past era’s very Britishness) and to character. For not the first but the most exhilarating time, McEwan’s games have real consequence: the fate of a young marriage.

Morvern Callar by Alan Warner

Novels with inert protagonists slay me, like Mary Gaitskill’s books, or Updike’s Rabbit series: watching things happen around characters is somehow more exciting and lifelike than watching characters conquer situations themselves (with the author’s help). The protagonist, the amoral Scottish girl Morvern, is glamorously inert; things happen around her as she observes and calculates. The scene in which Morvern, unmoved, lights a Silk Cut cigarette while staring at her boyfriend’s corpse is choked with an ennui Camus would envy.

Daniel D'Addario is a writer for The New York Observer. You can find his website here.

Elisabeth Donnelly

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn

Nick Flynn was a poet, and a good one, before he was a memoirist (shades of Denis Johnson), which is why his raw recounting of a fragile family stings with moments of sharp beauty and heartbreaking empathy. The plotline is relatively simple; when Flynn was 27 and working at the Pine Street Inn, a homeless shelter in Boston, he comes into contact with his long lost father. The book is elliptical and non-linear, echoing Flynn’s memory, diving into blood and family legacy, Flynn’s father’s delusions of grandeur and his mother’s suicide, homelessness, forgotten people, the way cities and vice can chew you up, and the burden of the past on Flynn’s own life. It will knock you on your ass.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

The thing that sticks in my mind about Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece is that it’s so… weird. The imagery that he uses to describe the cruelty of this world is unforgettable: the nameless protagonist in his basement with 1,369 lightbulbs, the Black youths forced to fight for gold coins on an electrocuted rug, the riot (and spear) that rips through Harlem thanks to the Invisible Man’s gift of speech. While the book is ostensibly a record of growing up Black in a divided America, Ellison defies expectations at every turn, putting his character through scenes that are consistently strange and always feeling new (which left a legacy extending from John Cheever’s short stories to Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle); and this surprise means that Ellison can cut sharply with the anger, satire, and moody magnificence that’s fueling his work.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

In the category of smart-girl-coming-of-age novels, Elaine Dundy’s American girl in Paris farce is particularly delicious. You’re in good hands with Dundy, after all, her biography was called Life Itself! (yes, with the exclamation point). The semi-autobiographical adventures of Sally Jay Gorce follow her as she dates, fucks, quips, and somehow makes a bad art film in the French countryside. It’s hilarious, and by the story’s end, proto-feminist Sally Jay is like a friend you don’t want to leave.

Elisabeth Donnelly is a writer living in New York. You can find her website here.

Lydia Brotherton

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

I was late to the Brideshead party – I only read it a couple years ago — but now I’m one of those people who owns the entire Granada miniseries and sort of goes on about gillyflowers and plover’s eggs too much. I can’t help it, and I’m not sure I can explain it without embarrassing myself: I really love this novel.

Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

When I first read Orlando, I was confused by its weirdness and delighted by its casually historical imaginings (there is absolutely no way to read fiction involving Elizabeth I that isn’t tacky except for this). And although I haven’t reread it in a while, I remember and misremember it like a tricky, particularly good dream. Maybe if there were an umami taste of novels, Orlando would be it.

Chéri by Colette

One of the reasons I like reading Colette novels is that in addition to being evocative of summer holidays in France I’ve never had, they have the potential to read as little lyrical self-help books. To be honest, what actually happens in Chéri is less important than the life lessons I manage to project onto all that description of pale, beribboned wrists and afternoon weather: how to wear silk robes during the day and take up with younger men, why it’s nice to upholster your furniture in dove-gray velvet, and — maybe most importantly—how to grow older, and, in your increasing age, more glamorous, demanding.

Lydia Brotherton is a soprano living in Basel, Switzerland. You can find her website here.

Brian DeLeeuw

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

"Favorite novels" is a slippery idea. Favorite when? When I read it? Now, years later, in the memory of reading? I’m not sure I would even finish Danielewski’s novel today (this is saying something bad about me, not the novel), but its blending of pulpy horror and deconstructionist theory felt custom designed for where my head was at ten years ago, in the middle of college. I’ve never in my life been as consumed by the experience of reading a book. Probably I should try to read it again.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

One of the ways a satire can be judged successful is if a lot of people don’t understand that it’s satire. Another is if a lot of these same people get very exercised and moved to protest and write angry and self-righteous ad hominem reviews. American Psycho passes both tests. If there remain any doubters (after talking to some of my friends, I know they’re out there), the fact that Mary Harron directed the movie adaptation should be proof enough. This is the funniest book I’ve ever read, which makes it puzzling why much of Ellis’s other work is so unfunny and sometimes plain bad.

Veronica by Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill writes about complicated and uncomfortable emotional states with more precision and cold elegance than anybody else I have read. She’s most known for doing this in her short stories, and in some structural ways Veronica feels like a very long story rather than a novel. But those sort of classifications are irrelevant here. The book spares no one, least of all the reader. The prose itself is a representation of one of the novel’s central ideas: beauty is cruel, but no less beautiful because of it.

Brian DeLeeuw is a writer living in New York. He is the associate editor of Tin House and the author of the novel In This Way I Was Saved. You can find his website here.

digg delicious reddit stumble facebook twitter subscribe

Our Novels, Ourselves

Part One (Tess Lynch, Karina Wolf, Elizabeth Gumport, Sarah LaBrie, Isaac Scarborough, Daniel D'Addario, Elisabeth Donnelly, Lydia Brotherton, Brian DeLeeuw)

Part Two (Alice Gregory, Jason Zuzga, Andrew Zornoza, Morgan Clendaniel, Jane Hu, Ben Yaster, Barbara Galletly, Elena Schilder, Almie Rose)

Part Three (Alexis Okeowo, Benjamin Hale, Robert Rutherford, Kara VanderBijl, Damian Weber, Jessica Ferri, Britt Julious, Letizia Rossi, Will Hubbard, Durga Chew-Bose, Rachel Syme, Amanda McCleod, Yvonne Georgina Puig)

The 100 Greatest Novels

If You're Not Reading You Should Be Writing And Vice Versa, Here Is How

Part One (Joyce Carol Oates, Gene Wolfe, Philip Levine, Thomas Pynchon, Gertrude Stein, Eudora Welty, Don DeLillo, Anton Chekhov, Mavis Gallant, Stanley Elkin)

Part Two (James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Margaret Atwood, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov)

Part Three (W. Somerset Maugham, Langston Hughes, Marguerite Duras, George Orwell, John Ashbery, Susan Sontag, Robert Creeley, John Steinbeck)

Part Four (Flannery O'Connor, Charles Baxter, Joan Didion, William Butler Yeats, Lyn Hejinian, Jean Cocteau, Francine du Plessix Gray, Roberto Bolano)