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Choose your poison

Barbara Epler has been TANK’s literary oracle since the inception of the books issue in 2015. As director of the singular New York-based publisher New Directions, she delivers a list of the most inventive and ingenious books published in English and in translation today. This year’s selections take us from an abandoned courtyard in Imperial China via the Fire Island Ferry to a manor in the Scottish Highlands, populated by characters including an undead girl whose arm has fallen off, a mother endlessly falling down an elevator shaft, and a Trans-Tibetan angel.

Imagine you are a single mother teaching Vietnamese language classes in Paris, and your own mother in Saigon just plunged to her death down an elevator shaft, and no one knows how that accident could have happened. You return for the funeral, deal with your very capitalist brother, and try to be kind to your mother’s relatives and friends. None of your questions are answered, but you find an old notebook of your mother’s – and in it is an old, yellowed photograph of a Western man no one knows. You start a little sleuthing; you interview her friends; you remember that your mother, a political prisoner during the Vietnam War, was released (another mystery) very unexpectedly from prison… Back in Paris, you carry on your quest to uncover the truth about her past...

This is the narrative premise of Elevator in Saigon, a tough-funny book (which laughs and grits its teeth).

My mother died on a night of torrential rain. A night of unseasonal rain in 2004. In such a freak accident that our language probably had no word to name it. Mai, my brother, my only brother, had just constructed for himself yet another multistorey house, this time with a home elevator, said to be the very first in the whole country. Such a momentous event called for celebration, so he bought my mother a plane ticket to Sài Gòn. Only after her inaugural push of the elevator button — he insisted — only after her round from the ground floor to the top and back, could his guests avail themselves of the device. Among said guests even were members of the press, print as well as TV. Such events always followed a predictable script, but I still spent the evening after my mother’s funeral watching a sixty-minute DVD and flipping through a hundreds-strong album of photos of the inauguration, and then another sixty-minute DVD and another hundreds-strong album of that day’s funeral, which I had attended from start to finish.

I’d realised at a very young age that my mother had always been something of a stand-out, whether alone or in the middle of a crowd, at a party committee meeting or one for the local civil unit, as a recipient of a certificate of merit or bestower of a prize, and now, on the family altar, she was a stand-out among the dead, her dead, her parents and in-laws and elder siblings. And her husband. My brother had taken care to put their portraits side by side, nestling behind a vase of red roses, but they still looked like two strangers who’d never signed a marriage form, never lived together for two decades, never birthed two children (my brother Mai and me) who gave them two grandchildren (Mai’s daughter Ngc and my own son Mike). That evening, I tried and tried to evoke a family scene from our former life, but in vain; I could picture my mother’s face clearly, but had to refer again and again to my father’s portrait, wreathed by red roses and thick incense smoke. He had died ten years earlier.

We had dinner together, my brother and I and the two children. Mai said, “Those inspectors from the German elevator company looked into every corner they could but couldn’t pinpoint the cause of the accident.”


Elevator In Saigon

Excerpt from Thuân, Elevator in Saigon, translated by Nguyên An Lý (Tilted Axis Press, 2024)

Elevator in Saigon explores the Vietnamese diaspora: in a way, Thuân is writing against books such as Marguerite Duras’s The Lover (1984), against the whole paradigm of the Westerner plunging into the Orient. Here a Vietnamese person travels back to Europe to confront the Other. Thuân has said that she wanted to write a Vietnamese take on Camus, but her style and her searching more brings to mind Patrick Modiano, the way that the protagonist starts stalking people from the past. Thuân brilliantly milks that compelling, odd, aspect of sleuthing.

She’s interrogating the form: all in one, it’s a mystery, a family drama, a romance, a ghost story and a detective yarn. Thuân is widely regarded as the most important Vietnamese writer today, and Elevator in Saigon, on the heels of Chinatown (2023), her first in English and quite a different novel stylistically, shows us why.


I love The Life of Tu Fu. I gave it to Gini Alhadeff who said: “This is a perfect little book; it’s the best book I’ve read in years.” I love how tiny it is – I slip it in people’s pockets; they’re so happy when they find it. I much admire Eliot Weinberger’s magpie-eyed collage approach, always employed in his essay collections, where he seizes on one shiny, fabulous, strange discovery (all verifiable facts) after another, and juxtaposes them with a special art, but here he’s moved beyond collage and non-fiction into something like a novella or a poem-as-biography or a biography-as-poem. The Life of Tu Fu is at once a work of ventriloquy and empathic imagination, necessarily. Not much is known about the life of Tu Fu beyond the fact that he lived in the Tang dynasty, suffered through a time of endless catastrophic wars, and never prospered in any conventional sense, but left behind some of the world’s greatest poems. The Life of Tu Fu is as close as Weinberger has ever come to writing a novel. I know it looks like poetry, but I think he’s written a novella. 

There are cuckoos in West Sichuan but no cuckoos in East Sichuan.

There are cuckoos in Yunnan but no cuckoos in Fuzhou.

They say when a cuckoo cries it sounds like the words

“You should go home.”


Friends with good jobs have stopped writing.


Here the houses are impressive, there are crowds and music in the streets.

I don’t know a soul.


In the shade of a mulberry I just stand and look at the bridge.

No one walks by the river.


Wind in the bamboo, foam from the river on the sand.

What news from the capital? I hear the cavalry’s retreated.


So dark I eat dinner at breakfast.

So rainy I imagine the mountain washing away.

The downpour so strong fish in the river sank.

The mud so bad I was sorry I asked you over.


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Excerpt from Eliot Weinberger, The Life of Tu Fu (New Directions, 2024)

After a blaze of early fame in the 1980s and early 1990s for his novels My Search for Warren Harding (1983) and Love Junkie (1992), (Madonna optioned the movie rights) as well as a small but notable role in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), Robert Plunket seemed to vanish. He stopped publishing books and acting in movies. But he didn’t disappear exactly, he just moved to Florida and became Mr Chatterbox, Sarasota Magazine’s gossip columnist.

After decades of living in a trailer park and generally playing possum, Plunket, now 80 years old, is back in the limelight. Last year, when his long-out-of-print 1983 book My Search for Warren Harding was republished, the New Yorker and the New York Times both ran feature articles.

Love Junkie starts out as though it’s going to be the Madame Bovary of Westchester. Poor Mimi has had her crosses to bear: when her husband was posted to Iran (he’s an executive for a multinational petrochemical company), she couldn’t get a decent Christmas ham to save her life.

But Mimi now has high hopes for better things: her husband’s been reassigned to the New York office, they’re living in a posh suburb, and she has a new real goal. Mimi’s dead set on Mrs Rockefeller coming to her dinner party. She’s as tightly wound up about that dinner party as Mrs Dalloway – the party is everything she’s ever wanted. Sadly, it bombs, and Mimi almost gives up on life. Instead, she tumbles into Manhattan’s wild gay scene of the late 1980s after falling in love with Joel, a handsome sodomite and self-starter. Mimi dedicates herself to running his mail-order business (he sells his used undies and verbal abuse cassette tapes).

It was the Friday before Joel’s birthday. This event, by the way, was celebrated rather like Queen Elizabeth’s. The date had been changed to allow greater public homage (he was really born two days before Christmas, but this provided too great a conflict), and people were given reminders via not-so-subtle phone calls so that they would be sure to send cards and presents—particularly presents. Everyone complied: clients, former clients, fans who couldn’t afford to be clients, the staff of the tanning salon, friends from the gym, his cousins Mandy and Deborah, his aunt Rose, who was very liberal, the woman who cut his hair, everybody. He got so many shirts and sweaters from Bloomingdale’s that I had to make two trips when I returned them for a credit. (He would often “triple bill” something—i.e., three different people gave him money for the same exercise bike.) In California he was famous for throwing a big party. Once he rented an Italian ice-cream parlor in Brentwood for the entire afternoon. Guests sat around and enjoyed all the cannolis they cared to eat.

Also like the Queen’s were the many subsidiary events that stretched out for several weeks or longer. Every client wanted to take him out for a ceremonial dinner or lunch. His schedule was so crowded that my own special birthday treat would have to wait until the Monday of the following week. It was the first night he had available. On this particular Friday he was going up to slave sheldon’s house in Connecticut for the weekend to put the final touches on his just-completed screenplay. slave sheldon was his major East Coast client. He paid Joel a flat fee of twenty thousand dollars a year, and in addition was always taking him off to Saint Bart’s or on things like a two-day “Guess the Murderer” train excursion to Montreal and back. (Joel loved little outings.) slave sheldon could afford all this because he was a prominent home-furnishings executive with “money up the wazoo” and no dependents except for a mother in Miami Beach who had been dying of cancer for the past three years, eighty percent of which was covered by Medicare. Joel had been to slave sheldon’s place many times, and I must say, it sounded charming — an authentic saltbox colonial set on five acres plus, furnished with antiques and full of luxuries. It was in that corner of the state known as “the Icebox,” so slave sheldon bought Joel all these cashmere throws which he would wear draped around his body like Lawrence of Arabia. Joel loved going up there. He had peace and quiet to work on his screen- play, and slave sheldon would wait on him hand and foot.

Literally. He made the poor guy sleep on the floor at the end of the bed, like a dog. My favorite slave sheldon story concerns the time Joel was busy writing away in the book-lined library and he asked slave sheldon to fix him a cup of tea. A few minutes later, caught up in solving some plot problem or other, he hears something and looks up. There, crawling toward him on his hands and knees across the Oriental rug, is slave sheldon, pushing the cup and saucer inch by inch with his nose.

Naturally I was dying to see what this person looked like. Nanette and I weren’t allowed to meet him, but there was nothing to prevent us from watching from the window as the slave loaded Joel’s luggage (he was travelling light—just three bags and a typewriter) into the trunk of his Mercedes. Nanette was as curious as I. We had a good-natured tug-o’-war over the binoculars as we peered down thirteen stories at a short, bald, fifty-five-year-old man, totally unremarkable in every way except for the fact that he never once took his eyes off Joel.


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Excerpt from Robert Plunket, Love Junkie (New Directions, 2024)

Her days become a happy riot of witty badinage and snazzy, chic clothes. Yet in contrast poor Mimi feels as dull as ditch water, and her interior monologues form one long, cringing, fretfully bubbling narration about not being funny or glamorous enough – alas, she decides that she is simply not first-rate fag hag material. She yearns to be first-class in everything. Constantly doubting her outfits, she finds herself in completely the wrong look for the ferry to Fire Island:

Everyone was so dressed. Take the man next to me, for example.  In case you’re ever wondering who purchases those ensembles from the men’s department at Bonwit’s, the ones that just a little too chichi for street wear, the ones where you stand there and think, “Who on earth would buy that?” – I’ll tell you. Homosexuals buy them and wear them to Fire Island. Another mystery solved.

Poor Mimi is at a loss: her reference points have always been people like the Duchess of Windsor. Like a manic cartoon character jacking a car up higher and higher, Plunket mercilessly ratchets up Mimi’s agonies and torments of self-doubt. He builds this crazy cardboard house of Mimi’s hopes and despair up higher and higher, and then at the end he lays down with a flourish the most incredible winning trump card. The whole book is a romp and a joy but its ending makes it a masterpiece.

Speaking of masterpieces – I’ve been reading an Anne Carson poem every morning because she is my antidote to the New York Times. Wrong Norma is the first Anne Carson book of new poetry – a book that’s not a translation in one way or another – in eight years. Carson is one of the most arresting writers walking around: ever in swift movement, she has the gift of stopping the reader dead in her tracks. One prose poem, Saturday Night as an Adult (2017), has had a whole life online, with most people totally missing the point, which for me is the deep chime of tragicomedy, the sound that gives you an upside-down smile.

Saturday Night as an Adult

We really want them to like us. We want it to go well. We over-dress. They are narrow people, art people, offhand, linens. It is early summer, first hot weekend. We meet on the street, jumble about with kisses and are we late? They had been late, we’d half-decided to leave, now oh well. That place across the street, ever tried it? Think we went there once, looks closed, says open, well. People coming out. O.K. Inside is dark, cool, oaken. Turns out they know the owner. He beams, ushers, we sit. And realize at once two things, first, the noise is unbearable, two, neither of us knows the other well enough to say bag it. Our hearts crumble. We order food by pointing and break into two yell factions, one each side of the table. He and she both look exhausted, from (I suppose) doing art all day and then the new baby. We eat intently, as if eating were conversation. We keep passing the bread. My fish comes unboned, I weep pretending allergies. Finally someone pays the bill and we escape to the street. For some reason I was expecting snow outside. There is none. We decide not to go for ice cream and part, a little more broken. Saturday night as an adult, so this is it. We thought we’d be Nick and Nora, not their blurred friends in greatcoats. We cover our ears inside our souls. But you can’t stop it that way.


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Excerpt from Anne Carson, Wrong Norma (Jonathan Cape, 2024) 

Jonathan Buckley’s Tell is such an odd book: for me, I think it offers something of a perfect winter’s day of gossip and cognac by a crackling fire – really rich gossip. It’s a book that has the old virtues of tantalising you, not giving you all the information. You hear voices only, so at one level Tell reminds me a little bit of Henry Green, all that dialogue, but then the story being relayed has a certain lurid fascination: it’s all about a rich guy who has disappeared, and the voice is his servant, who is in on quite a bit of his family drama yet far from all-knowing. There is a touch of Upstairs, Downstairs, all the things a gardener has overheard. But it drills deeply and casts a wide net. All talk, all memory, Tell uses elliptical language, eavesdropped discoveries, lines of speech and recorded speech. With only spoken lines, line after line, Buckley weaves a net and pulls you in. At some level it’s essentially a seduction. (And at another level, it could be a send-up of that old bit of hack creative writing class advice, “Show, don’t tell”: Buckley plants a neat little bomb under that.)

What I want to say is that I always liked him. Curtis, I mean, not Harry. But I liked Harry too. Some of us thought Curtis was nicer after the accident, and maybe he was, but he was always a good employer. I’ve never worked for anyone nasty, and being in the garden you don’t have the kind of contact that someone in the kitchen has. You follow me? A gardener, you tend to get respect. It’s your special area. Your domain. But some of the others, they’d encountered some pretty unpleasant people before Curtis. Even the ones who are nice enough don’t seem to understand that you might have a life of your own. Some of them. A lot of them. Or if they do, they don’t think it has anything to do with them. You couldn’t say that of Curtis. We had proper holidays. The accommodation was good, and the pay. The hours were reasonable. People with that kind of money, they tend to expect everyone to be at their beck and call, all hours of the day and night. He wasn’t like that. Still, I think I preferred the later Curtis. He was gentler. He’d talk to you. Well, he talked to us before, but he gave you more time, after the accident. You could almost forget you were working for him. Almost. Before, he was operating at full throttle pretty well all day. Especially after Lily died. She could get him to take a few hours off, once in a while. But he was still putting in the fourteen-hour shifts. There was a huge office on the top floor, in the palace. Afterwards, he took things more slowly. He was detaching himself. But that’s not what happened right away. At first, it was all about recovering. That took a while, for the strength to come back. Most of it. Even then, it was apparent that the old Curtis wasn’t coming back. We talked about Curtis the First and Curtis the Second. Some of us did.




. . . and there wasn’t anything to talk about until January. Conrad and Marisa and the kids came up for Christmas, and Karolina was there for a couple of days. We’ll come on to Karolina. Conrad was the number one son. By preference, not by age. Lara’s article gets that right. He was on his father’s wavelength, and he worked for the company, whereas Carl wasn’t and didn’t. We all preferred Conrad too. I can’t think of anyone who didn’t. But we can talk about the boys later. They can’t be left out of the story. Anyway, it was a quiet Christmas and then Lara reappeared, in January. We’d seen her before, a year earlier. That piece she wrote about Curtis and his collection, and the art market – have you read it? OK, so that’s when she first met him, in London. An interview at the office. The office would have made an impression. I’ve never been there but Asil showed me on his phone. We’re talking about a room the size of a tennis court, and you could see half of Europe out the windows. Curtis’s PA as well. Josefine the Danish goddess. So gorgeous you actually couldn’t look at her for more than two seconds at a time. That’s what Lara said. When you saw that face it was like you’d walked smack into a glass door. Anyway, Josefine gave her a quick tour of the premises, because some of the collection was on the walls of the HQ, then Curtis gave her ten minutes of his time, at the end of the day, and ten minutes turned into an hour, because they’d really hit it off, and the interview went all over the place. The future of the high street, globalization, China, Europe, all sorts of stuff. It gave her the idea of doing a book about him, or with him. Ten Secrets of the Inexcusably Rich. That’s what Harry reckoned it should be called. But that’s not what it was going to be. It was supposed to be about bigger things, as Curtis saw them. Social questions, political questions. The future. That’s why she’d been up to Scotland, to talk about what the book might be. There were some conversations in London too, at the London house. She told me that. It must have been going well, because they did a trip to the Midlands. Back to his roots. Make a note of that, for later. It could be a good scene. So now she’d returned, and some of us assumed that she’d become the designated lady friend. Can’t say I was ever one hundred per cent convinced on that score. Maybe they slept together when she first came up. It’s possible. We can talk about the women as well, if there’s time. But the second visit, I didn’t think the relationship was what you’d call a romantic one. I’m no expert on body language, but it seemed pretty clear to me that this was a professional call, to get the book idea moving again. Say ninety-five per cent professional. It wasn’t going to be a straightforward business, with Curtis not firing on all cylinders, but Lara wasn’t going to give up. And I suppose you could say she was helping him to reconnect with himself. Because it was quite a story, his life.


TELL [Jonathan Buckley]

Excerpt from Jonathan Buckley, Tell (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2024) 

It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over is an amazing high/low book, apparently about zombies and life after death, but actually an incredible voyage into grief. It embodies our lack of knowledge, our reaching for but not attaining any handhold on mortality: it’s a book that gets so real about how we actually feel about death. I don’t know if death has opened a portal in Anne de Marcken’s debut novel, but the reader is launched into some sort of near non-utopian future that’s not too far from our world. The reader learns that when you’re a zombie, you’re ravenously hungry, and you’re driven to eat living people. Our heroine ends up so starved that she pounces on a girl who’s making out with her boyfriend on a golf course and eats her. She feels terrible about it, but doesn’t agonise: she simply stops eating humans. One of her arms has rotted off, so she sews it up in the empty sleeve: simple. She tucks a dead, opinionated crow into her chest cavity and keeps walking west, encountering the living and the living dead in a picaresque.

I  lost my left arm today. It came off clean at the shoulder. Janice 2 picked it up and brought it back to the hotel. I would have thought it would affect my balance more than it has. It is like getting a haircut. The air moving differently around the remaining parts of me. Also by turns a sense of newness and lessness—free me, undead me, don’t look at me.

Isn’t it strange that I never knew a single living Janice and now I know three?

I stay in bed all day. If I lie on my right side, I can keep the arm balanced as if it is still part of me. Or I can pretend it is your arm and that you are in bed with me. I think about how we used to take a blanket into the dunes and wrap up together. Wake with sand in our hair and in the corners of our eyes. Sound of the ocean big as the sky. I miss sleep. I miss you.

Mitchem says I’m in denial. That I am depressed because I am indulging in a sense of loss instead of wonder. “Embrace your new existence,” he says. I picture myself trying to do this with one arm.

When I was alive, I imagined something redemptive about the end of the world. I thought it would be a kind of purification.

Or at least a simplification. Rectification through reduction.

I could picture the empty cities, the reclaimed land. That was the future. This is now.

The end of the world looks exactly the way you remember. Don’t try to picture the apocalypse. Everything is the same.



Excerpt from Anne de Marcken, It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2024)

The whole genius of It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over lies in the way it’s told, a very plain, simply stated way with a flat what-can-you-do tone: as if Samuel Beckett had been hired to write EC horror comics. There’s a great deal of love in it, a love like physical searching, a manual way of grappling with devastating, unspeakable loss, about which there’s nothing you can do. You can’t turn back time, and you can’t bring back the dead, but our heroine (who can’t remember her own name) is still alive in the afterlife. The mortality coin flips and the book lives on both sides. (I’m curious how the novel will be received: it plays with horror genre conventions so much it could be mistaken for a very different book, and true horror fans may miss the genre’s “pleasures” because there’s minimal gore and then it’s over.) In any case, de Marcken had me on the edge of my seat, wondering, “How does she get away with this? Why am I hypnotised?” You can’t figure out how she’s doing it. I stop and gape at a line like this: “The end of the world looks exactly the way you remember.” You could unpack that one for a long time. She also makes a great deal of fun about the healing, self-help lingo of many of the zombies looking to save their souls. Somehow that’s hilarious when you’re already dead.

Meanwhile, Maria Stepanova’s Holy Winter 20/21 is a slender book of poetry that takes a different tack on similar themes of death and isolation. The book is surprisingly in line with In Memory of Memory (2017), Stepanova’s sizeable and astounding documentary novel or memoir-novel that introduced this great Russian writer to readers of English. Written in the shock of being so isolated during the Covid pandemic, Holy Winter 20/21 draws on Ovid (who, oddly, can be found nesting inside Covid). Stepanova writes here of being exiled now doubly: both by the pandemic and by her politics. She was a prominent Russian liberal intellectual, and she had to leave when her country invaded Ukraine.

You, whoever you were: a refugee, forgot your name

Or even where you came from, carried on your family’s back Little piss-pants, your father always on about how

He was once some big shot in the Veterans’ Office

You mixing up words, always on the lookout, ready to draw

If it hadn’t been for me and my strip of farmed land

My widow’s capital, where would you have been

Would you even have been.


When I lay with you, I lay as if in a small boat,

As if in the winter sea I lay, and slowly

Learnt to see, through the wreck of your hull

The slow procession of sea monsters

The hulks of sunken cruise ships

The thrum of the motor as immigration draws alongside

Demanding all hands on deck and no resistance –

And I showed no resistance.


But still we went down. And you emerged onto dry land

Under different constellations, you lost your fins

Grew lungs and left me there in the sand:

Driftwood, driftqueen, drifting boat.

And if I want to give chase – to catch you

I must make myself to fire and air, like the Egyptian

So the smell of me clings in your nostrils, and you wish to dispel it

But can’t.


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Excerpt from Maria Stepanova, Holy Winter 20/21, translated by Sasha Dugdale (Bloodaxe Books, 2024)

The poetry speaks of numbness and the cold, but Holy Winter 20/21 is also a book about thawing, emotionally. Within the lines she is at once slowing down time but also investigating speed. I think that weird striating of the fast and the frozen (where’d the week go? it’s the same day again, isn’t it?) was a common experience of that pandemic period. But Stepanova employs a focal technique that works like a camera aperture that gets so tightly focussed on pain and then suddenly pulls back to larger vistas. It’s not an unhappy book but it’s one that is really coping with enormous unhappiness – Stepanova distils it into something else.

Her home is now something that she once had – that’s gone – and her beautifully modulated language explores presence and absence in so impressive a way.


By contrast, Honoré de Balzac’s The Lily in the Valley opens with an outrageous scene of lust: our shy, very young aristocratic hero Felix is overcome when the beautiful woman he’s been ogling turns her back on him. Confronted with her gorgeous bare skin in a very low-cut dress, he can’t help himself. He covers her beautiful back with kisses. She’s shocked and he flees the party. (She’s not, however, so shocked that years later, when Felix is reintroduced to her, she takes him into her household, where an intense courtship begins…) What’s extraordinary is how Balzac channels that moment of temptation and then the fixation that follows – it’s uncanny and eerie – the unbelievable ability to somehow finger our own fetishes, even the newly acquired one of wanting to kiss her back too. It’s dizzy-making, how he makes the reader moan a little too: it’s as if you’re bewitched and what looked on the outside like a fairly normal 19th-century French novel becomes, as soon as you’ve read a dozen pages, a fairytale of desire. He’s a warlock and The Lily in the Valley is a spell. “A steady course of Balzac,” Charles Baudelaire wrote, “reduces our living friends to shadows, and our acquaintances to the shadows of shades. His characters have a kind of fervent fiery-coloured existence. They dominate us, and defy scepticism.”

TO WHAT tearful talent will we one day owe that most melancholy of elegies, the portrayal of the silent torture suffered by souls whose tender roots find only stone in the soil of home, whose first shoots are ravaged by hands of hate, whose flowers are blighted by frost the moment they blossom? What poet will sing of the sorrow of a babe whose lips suck on a sour breast, whose smiles are crushed by a harsh glint in a cruel eye? A fiction describing the misery of those oppressed by their nearest, who ought to have cherished their feelings, would be the true story of my early years. What pride could I, a newborn babe, possibly injure? What physical or moral defect warranted my mother’s coldness? Was I a child spawned by duty, a chance birth, a life that was a constant reproach?


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Excerpt from, Honoré de Balzac, The Lily in the Valley, translated by Peter Bush (New York Review Books, 2024)

All the wonderful Yoko Tawada tropes are at play in Spontaneous Acts: a Paul Celan obsessive wanders around Berlin; words and letters come alive; discursiveness reaches wacky new heights; there are deep thoughts made effervescent and flashing-mirror bits of linguistic play and “foreign eyes.” A poet friend, Jeffrey Yang, told me that he thought that Spontaneous Acts can also be read as a kind of My Dinner with Andre (1981) except it’s My Dinner with the Trans-Tibetan Angel. The plot is that a lonely poet-scholar guy in Berlin is trying to decide whether or not to travel to Paris for a Celan conference: he spends a lot of time speaking to a (possibly imaginary) person described as “the trans-Tibetan individual,” a Frenchman of Chinese extraction whose grandfather came to Paris in Celan’s time to work as an acupuncturist. “Meridian” is a key word in the book, and it has one of those signature Tawada magical endings.

Deep inside my skull, a dog starts barking its head off. It isn’t just barking, there’s also howling and neighing. Sh! I’m trying to sort out my thoughts! Every bark batters the fragile glass pane of his forehead. The patient kicks the animal a few times, making it bark even louder. Suddenly everything falls silent, and the patient understands that it’s time for his entrance, but he doesn’t know an aria to sing. Why did I attack the dog? It’s my beloved dog Aorta. Haven’t I often embraced him, shedding tears? And that one time I got drunk and reached for my paring knife, he playfully leapt into my lap, and I dropped the knife again. This Siberian husky trusted me completely even though his previous owner beat him and abandoned him in the woods. An American photographer who was out in the woods looking for particularly fine cedars came across the dog and brought him to the SPCA. I read the ad in a local newspaper and came to get him. From the first day on, he ate everything right out of my hand: cookies, chips, autumn leaves. To this day I can feel his rough, hot tongue on the palm of my hand and between my fingers. My parents believed the dog’s name was Franz. I never told them his real name. Aorta! This name, a personified secret, shall remain forever in my heart, even when I lie beneath the earth.


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Excerpt from Yoko Tawada, Spontaneous Acts, translated by Susan Bernofsky (Dialogue Books, 2024) 

About an intense friendship between “the Narrator” and his close childhood friend, Fanny, who suffers from profound psychological disorders, A Leopard-Skin Hat may be the French writer Anne Serre’s most moving novel yet. Short scenes etch the torments of a strong-willed young woman battling many demons, and also illuminate the chain-reaction-sparking pains of the narrator who loves her and is anguished by his helpless attempts to save her. An early work, written in the aftermath of the death of the author’s little sister, A Leopard-Skin Hat salutes a brave but tragic struggle and tries to bid a valedictory farewell. Serre always packs a great deal into her slim books. Her reality is more real than real – but here her uncanniness, generally so slippery and witty, squarely faces the finality of death. Her beguiling books usually feel more like Mozart, but A Leopard-Skin Hat suggests Bach’s funeral cantatas: long after you’ve finished the book, it goes on pulling at your heart.

Fanny and The Narrator had been close friends since childhood, but within that friendship roles that would normally shift about and change had been frozen for years now, and that wasn’t good. Nor did it bode well. The Narrator was stuck in the role of the watchful friend, steadfast and reliable, Fanny of the one who strays, is forever losing things – possessions, lodgings, friends – and only with the greatest difficulty manages to maintain a semblance of stability. He would have liked to have broken out of this box, not because he wished to fall apart in turn, but so that his friend could play the role of the steadfast, reliable one for a change. They could manage this for a minute or two, but not much more. For though Fanny liked to poke fun, and cruelly at times, at the Narrator’s chronic good health, she couldn’t stand him being weak. It would have been too much of an upheaval in the natural order of things.

She couldn’t bear the thought of the Narrator having secrets, and this was their big falling-out, their gruelling war, for though they were perfectly willing to reach out and accommodate one another, the Narrator could never get Fanny to accept that he was entitled to his own secrets, and she never understood or forgave him for this. It would have required a diplomat between them to resolve the matter, bearing missives, shuttling back and forth, toning down their messages and altering them slightly, but there was none. All their lives, but especially during the last twenty years, they had come up against the Narrator’s secret as if it were a rock between them. To meet, they had to find a way around it, and most of the time they did; but like a dolmen in a meadow, the rock was there, day in day out, dawn to dusk. For nothing in the world would the Narrator have parted with his pebble; for nothing in the world would Fanny have consented to its presence. And while they had words for everything, words with which everything could be defined, examined, weighed, and considered, they had no word for this rock.

The Narrator could never understand why Fanny attached so much importance to his secret; as for Fanny, she was so full of it at times that she was unable to lead her own life, inferring and fantasising and dreaming about the Narrator’s secret as if it stood in the way of her existence, hatching plans to destroy it, bombs with which to blow it up. But the secret was actually very simple: the Narrator was happy. Fanny wasn’t jealous of this in the way petty and embittered people are sometimes envious of the happiness of others; her feelings were nobler than that: she couldn’t bear the Narrator’s happiness because she couldn’t conceive of such a thing. It was this that pained her. That you were happy because you had achieved some great victory she could have understood. That you were happy because your existence was unusually full and rich and the world was exactly equal to your appetite she could have accepted. But that you were happy for no real reason, for no good reason at all, was a source of outrage and torment to her, and, to some degree, madness.


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Excerpt from Anne Serre, A Leopard-Skin Hat, translated by Mark Hutchinson (Lolli Editions, 2024) 

I’m not a great reader of biographies, but I just love Candy Darling: Dreamer, Icon, Superstar – Cynthia Carr brings so much heart to one of the bravest lives ever. Candy Darling will make you cry. Roger Vadim, Charles Ludlam, Andy Warhol and Tennessee Williams traipse through Candy Darling, but Candy is the star of her own life, and it’s a life she makes for herself to the max. She transforms herself, escaping her boyhood in Massapequa Park (a village on Long Island) and bravely plunging into her quest for stardom and glamour in the heady revolutionary downtown scene of New York City in the 1960s and early 1970s. Candy tears it up. Deciding to be free to be herself is a life and death game, and she is literally incredible. Candy makes me think of Huckleberry Finn, when Tom Sawyer urges Huck to conform to “sivilization”:

“Well, everybody does it that way, Huck.”

“Tom, I am not everybody.”

Or, as Carr quotes Flawless Sabrina, one of the scene’s drag queens: “Normal is a setting on the dryer.”

Jeremiah Newton met Candy in the summer of ‘66. He was about to start his last year of high school. He’d figured out that he was gay, but hadn’t acted on it. One day, while reading a magazine he enjoyed called Vice Squad, he came upon a story headlined “Boy Brothel Raided in Nefarious West Village.” He decided then that he’d like to find this Village. He took the subway from Queens to Forty-Second Street and stood there until he saw “this very swishy young boy about my age.” Jeremiah followed him into the subway and got out where he did. He ended up on Greenwich Avenue, then the gay mecca.

He scrunched down in a doorway and watched as three women came walking down Greenwich arm in arm “like a small chorus line.” Two of them were quite beautiful, in black cocktail dresses and heels. The third he thought odd-looking, an albino in capri pants with blonde hair – “hepatitis yellow and coarse as a Brillo pad.” They said hello to him and walked by. A couple minutes later they were back, dropping a set of keys in his lap.

“Ma’am, you dropped your keys,” he said.

One of the beauties, who turned out to be Candy Darling, replied, “It’s time for the young man to join the ladies.”

So he walked arm in arm with Candy and Holly and the albino woman, Porky, down Greenwich to Eighth Street and into the Marlton Hotel, then a cheap boho dive. Lenny Bruce had stayed there while on trial for obscenity, and Jack Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans and Tristessa in one of its shabby rooms. The proprietor, Molly Marlton, sat on a high chair near the elevator in what looked to Jeremiah “like a batter’s cage out of Coney Island.” She had no legs and usually wore prostheses. But it was a hot day. She’d taken them off. When she saw Jeremiah walking in with Candy and company, she started screaming, “You’re not taking that kid upstairs with you! Are you crazy?” Candy turned to her and said, “Why don’t you get up and do something about it?”

The four of them stepped into the elevator. Upstairs they walked down a long hallway. Jeremiah remembered that all the doors seemed to be open and people were talking and flitting about. “We went into the last room where there was a big bed with a naked couple on it shooting up heroin,” he said. “I had never seen a naked woman before, let alone a naked man and naked woman in bed. I was stunned.” Candy and Holly walked back out, leaving Jeremiah there with Porky, who sidled up to him and said, “You know those two? They’re not really women. They’re guys. I’m a real woman.” Jeremiah shrieked and ran back to the elevator. Downstairs, Molly Marlton was still strapping on her legs. ◉


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Excerpt from Cynthia Carr, Candy Darling: Dreamer, Icon, Superstar (Picador, 2025)