August 2018 Guest Editor Is JOHN TREFRY!!! Theme: NON-NONFICTION


Burning House Press are excited to welcome JOHN TREFRY as our seventh guest editor! John will take over editorship of Burning House Press online for the full month of August.

Submissions for John are open from today – 1st August and will remain open until 24th August.

John’s Theme for the month is as follows


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Some Thoughts on Mark Fisher and João Gilberto Noll

Last week, Necessary Fiction published my review of Atlantic Hotel by João Gilberto Noll, a novel that I recommend. The review can be read here. I hope you enjoy it.

But early on, within the first paragraph, there is a sentence that bothers me, one that contains the phrase “a galaxy of questions swirl,” a disappointing choice in hindsight. If not a cliché, it comes close enough. The language we leave behind has various dates of expiration.

Anyway, here are some more thoughts on Atlantic Hotel:

Noll’s fiction, the two novels I have read, has what Mark Fisher called an “eerie” quality, which he set in contradistinction to the “weird”. These definitions constitute, with aid of various examples, a book on the subject, named, appropriately enough: The Weird and the Eerie. It was the last book Fisher published before dying, by suicide, earlier this year. Many passages from it merit a block quote.

The feeling of the eerie is very different from that of the weird. The simplest way to get to this difference is by thinking about the (highly metaphysically freighted) opposition—perhaps it is the most fundamental opposition of all—between presence and absence. As we have seen, the weird is constituted by a presence—the presence of that which does not belong. In some cases of the weird (those with which Lovecraft was obsessed) the weird is marked by an exorbitant presence, a teeming which exceeds our capacity to represent it. The eerie, by contrast, is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. The sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or there is nothing present where there should be something.

A great deal is absent in Atlantic Hotel. The narrator (unnamed) literally falls apart. His leg is amputated for no apparent reason. In the last few pages, his sight begins to fail. His hearing goes too. This is not the mannered, philosophical blindness of Jorge Luis Borges. This is a dimming of mind as well as body. But the prose continues, not far, but it continues.

And then there is the matter of style. Without reference to its content, you have difficulty finding many distinguishing characteristics: irony, simplicity, concision, and then what? These are can be found in abundance nowadays, in any text message, any clickbait article. What makes them so compelling here?

My suspicion is that these qualities, so highly prized, are symptoms of existential malaise. Better minds than mine have come, quite separately, to this determination. But it does bear repeating. And, in a striking way, without pleading its case too much, Atlantic Hotel evokes a much broader condition.

The narrator never speaks honestly. He can elaborate to a certain degree, but not at length, not with much intimacy. The subject here is not so much divided as atomized and inert. More than merely isolated, he is mostly void.

“Never connect,” Noll seems to say, to turn E.M. Forrester on his head. The author provides, through his fiction, an interesting case in which this holds. The frightening (or eerie) thing is the degree to which that holds in the real world.

I Miss Gorgon

In the back of my apartment building there’s a box garden measuring about 7 feet long by 2 feet wide. Following years of neglect (not my own) the soil has become poor. In dry times, it’s sandy. Under a steady rain, it turns to paste. The steady application of compost has improved the garden but only somewhat.

A few herbs can thrive: thyme, oregano, lavender, and winter savory. A rose bush casts shadows in the evening. Its leggy branches sway in the almost nonexistent breeze. As the blossoms die away, they tumble onto the courtyard floor. A carpet of petals, dry and crimson, leads toward the basement laundry room.

But other plants (or plans) refuse to grow. The elephant garlic has rotted away. So have the sweet onions. The basil remains as pale and stunted as the day I planted it. An epazote bush droops into the lavender. Its leaves are withering. Beyond the garden, over the cinderblock wall, stand three newly built townhomes, their blank facades lit by the evening sun. Some luxury cars (Audi, BMW, Mercedes) are parked in the narrow driveways between units. Occasionally I’ll hear a door being shut, the beep of a car alarm set to activate, and then silence.

A single story rental house once occupied the lot. Its crooked walls were painted a fecal shade of brown. An elderly German Shepard named Gorgon lived there. He would escape on occasion, shambling up and down the block on his weak hips, whining softly to himself. The people I met only briefly. Their names escape me. None of them were as striking as Gorgon. A few days a week a band would practice there, at the house, playing an amateurish blend of indie rock and funk. Dingy quilts hung over the windows to baffle the sound.

Further on, at the end of the block, was a motel fronting Highway 99, one of the main north-south thoroughfares in Seattle. The name of the motel escapes me, despite it being one of the last places Kurt Cobain was seen alive, in early April of 1996, a few days before he retired from music, at his mansion facing Lake Washington, with a shotgun and a fatal dose of heroin.

The motel lot has proven less tractable for redevelopment. The sound of traffic echoes through its empty foundations. A few box vans park there during the night. In fissures along the concrete fennel and blackberries grow wild. Rats scurry between clumps of vegetation.

Every week my landlord gets mailed offers to sell his property. I’m uncertain how long he will hold out. At any rate, eventually, the box garden will demolished, the plants composted, and the soil (the soil I helped rehabilitate) sent to the landfill.

Since moving to this apartment, nothing has really changed for me, not really, not yet. I tend to my garden, sit on stoop. But I do miss hearing from Gorgon, his voice mixed the rustling of leaves, the muffled beat of drums, and the traffic as it diminished slowly toward nightfall.

I Give Up (Not Really)

Summer has arrived in Seattle. Summer in Seattle ranks among the best in the world. This opinion is uncontroversial. For three to four months a year, the weather achieves a perfection of clear skies, warm days, and cool nights.

Outside my office window, the rose bushes have come into bloom. Their pink and carmine flowers are radiant against the milky sky. Mount Rainer towers in the distance. A steady cooling breeze blows in from the sea. Now is as good a time as any to abandon literature.

Here is The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa. It rests on my desk, among other more consulted works, seeing enough use to keep the dust away, but barely. As the title would imply, this book is vague and somber, although disquiet is perhaps too strong a word, at least in terms of its effect on the reader.

Pessoa is famous for adopting a multitude of literary personas under which he wrote the vast majority of his work. The count goes over seventy. Depending on the date of the manuscripts, the author of The Book of Disquiet is either Vicente Guedes or Bernardo Soares, though published editions credit Pessoa himself.

Guedes or Soares or Pessoa ruminates on his dissatisfaction with life — not his life in particular but life in general, life as concept — its impermanence, its petty and inexhaustible disappointments. These sentiments take no particular object. There is no story, no characters as such, no beginning or end. Pessoa never got around to finishing the book. It was cobbled together, posthumously, from author’s notes.

I take up my copy, read a page or two at a time, laugh at its pessimism, set it down again.The breeze combs the rose blossoms. Leaves gently rake the window glass. The day is growing brighter. It has a clarity deeper than any page.

I leave the house, walk down the narrow forested streets, toward the Lake Washington Ship Canal, and sit at the water’s edge, forgetting how to read perhaps, at least for one tranquil moment, as the ships, large and small, pass on their way to the sea.


Review: Tropisms by Nathalie Sarraute

It has always been a bit mysterious to me that the forms of literary concision—short stories, lyric poetry, and novella etc.—remain secondary in the digital age, at least in comparison to the novel. Viewed strictly in terms of the attention economy, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

With so many distractions in life, wouldn’t readers of Roberto Bolaño prefer, say, Distant Star over 2666? The latter is several hundred pages longer than the former, and yet there’s no question which work is more popular. Something other than efficiency must be guiding readers.

Yet there is something to be said for concision. Unlike length, one can make the case that it is a good unto itself. A novella simply eats up less of our life. Even more than that, there are certain effects that naturally lend themselves to the form.

These thoughts occurred to me as I was reading Nathalie Sarraute. Her 1939 debut, Tropisms, was reissued last year by New Directions as part of their Pearls series. The novella is composed of episodes in the life of an unnamed bourgeois couple living in Paris. There is little to say about them that’s separable from the text itself. The plotless, impressionistic prose resists summary.


When we meet the principle characters, they are on a walk in the city during springtime. They pause in front of a shop window:

A strange quietude, a sort of desperate satisfaction emanated from them.They looked closely at the White Sale display, clever imitations of snow covered mountains, or at a doll with teeth and eyes that, a regular intervals, lighted up, went out, lighted up, went out, each time at the same interval, lighted up and again went out.

I wrote “characters”, but in typing the passage above, it became clear that these are not characters at all. They are placeholders for bits of consciousness, not unlike the mysterious “it” that keeps reappearing the poetry of John Ashbery. The he’s and she’s and they’s form negative space around which sensory precepts and spasms of emotion congeal.

Despite the exacting nature of the physical descriptions, the general impression is of vagueness. But vagueness comes in different forms, and Tropisms comes in like the breeze. You can’t see the air but it refreshes nonetheless. A strange and beguiling book, and one that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Relevance is Bunk

“I never read fiction.” It could be a PHD candidate who says this. She is busy designing a study testing the heritability of behaviors associated with methamphetamine addiction. It could be a businessman who says this. He is busy learning the tax codes for wine distributors, which are different in every state. It could be some aspiring music producer. He is busy pouring over an Abelton manual, trying to design the right envelope filter for a characteristic bass thump. Each of them have practical reasons for why they don’t read fiction. But, often enough, these people will have another reason, one that cuts across all kinds of different situations. It is this: fiction isn’t “relevant” to their lives. That reason is bunk.

This came to mind as I was reading The Hunters by James Salter. The novel follows Cleve Connell, an Air Force Captain, who flies F-86 jet fighters against Soviet and Chinese MIGs during the Korean War. Although he is an experienced pilot, Connell finds his ability and courage questioned when he fails to shoot down the expected number of enemy planes. Written in spare but vivid prose, the book sharply demonstrates how notions of glory can warp as well as nurture men. It holds a critical eye to the military without the baggage of outright polemicism. Salter, himself a pilot and veteran of over 100 combat missions during Korean War, intimately knew the life he fictionalized.

The Hunters shows how a good stylist can open up an area of human endeavor that would otherwise be closed.  Aerial warfare hasn’t interested me since I was a kid, when I would obsessively watch documentaries about test pilots and WWII flying aces. Reading the book, I remembered how much I wanted to be an aviator. It was also a reminder of how fundamentally unsuited I am for that life. The elitism among the pilots is vividly brought to life. It is the metaphorical air in which they fly. These men are making life and death decisions on the basis of who will get bragging rights. Some prefer downing enemy planes to protecting their own comrades. What a monstrous situation.

There’s an interesting episode halfway through the book. Connell, on leave in Japan, visits a friend of the family in the outskirts of Tokyo. He is a painter by the name of Miyata. In the brief portrait he writes, Salter creates something close of an ideal for an artist and a human being:

They spoke briefly of Korea and then of the past war with the United States. Miyata had been in Japan for its entire duration and must have been deeply affected, but when he talked about it, it was without bitterness. Wars were not of his doing. He considered them almost poetically, as if they were seasons, the cruel winters of man, even though almost all the work he had done in the 1930s and early 1940s had been lost when his house was burned in the great incendiary raid of 1944. He described the night vividly, the endless hours, the bombers thundering low over the storms of fire.

“All of your work?” Cleve said. “It must have been like being killed yourself.”

Miyata smiled.

“One would think so,” he replied, “and I, myself, did at first, but no, it was not. It was finally like being born again, I decided. I started life for a second time.”

Lessons aren’t offered with such style and concision in self-help books. There is no effected chattiness. There are no bullet point summaries. And finally, there are no concessions to what the reader, in 2016, might think of as relevant. Who would have an unprompted interest in the fate of modernist painters in mid-20th century Japan? Who would need a complete correspondence with the historical record (an actual painter, an actual pilot, and actual house in suburban Tokyo) to think of the conversation as significant? The story itself and the manner of its telling are what create the stakes. The fact that scene in question is partially or even wholly invented doesn’t lessen its impact.

What Miyata said, what Salter said, taking on the character of Mr. Miyata, was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. It put me and my sense of relative failure in check.  Starting over in life can be a noble thing. Being able to start over is a gift. But I wasn’t reading The Hunters for inspiration. I was reading the novel because I admired the writer’s prose style. Instead, I got something unexpected, something better. This sense of surprise is why I keep going to back to fiction. It is an indelible characteristic of that mode of expression and one of its chief pleasures. Fuck relevance.

What I’m Reading: Sloane, Harris, Kincaid, Lovecraft, Jannson

At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid: This was easily one of the weirdest books I’ve read in the past few years and all the better for it. I first encountered Kincaid’s work through the long essay “A Small Place” and there are certainly parallels to that book and the autobiographical fiction in this collection: themes of poverty, family relations, and the legacy of colonialism. Kincaid is known as a protest writer but the short stories collected here are much more ambiguous in their intent. The prose is intensely varied from one story to the next, taking radical shifts in register and perspective within the space of a few pages. Boundaries between fantasy and reality, between inner and outer life, are not so much transgressed as they are ground to bits and used as mulch for Kincaid’s imagination.

Free Will by Sam Harris: On a recent podcast, the controversial neuroscientist and moral philosopher said that disbelief in free will was his most strongly held conviction. He would more easily believe in the Abrahamic God of Creation, for instance, than in an autonomous “I” that is the author of each person’s actions. His case is compelling. While the position itself can be traced back to antiquity, Harris brings to bear modern evidence. Experiments using brain scans indicate relevant portions of our nervous system activate well before we consciously decide something. Of course, absence of free will has massive implications for contemporary society. Many of our institutions, including the US legal system, are predicated on its existence. Harris doesn’t supply many concrete alternatives. He does counsel for more compassion towards other conscious beings.  This is wholly consistent with his model of human behavior, in which even the worst person can’t help but be themselves. But it also has the mixed blessing of being generally good advice. If we are really to parse out the implications of what a world without free will should look like, more guidance is needed than what this slim volume provides.

The Summer Book by Tove Jannson: Reading this was a treat. Jannson’s prose is direct, unpretentious but nonetheless incredibly evocative. This short novel relates discrete episodes in the life of Sophie, a young girl who has recently lost her mother. Somewhat reluctantly, she comes to live on an island in the Gulf of Finland under the care of her paternal grandmother. Their relationship, its joys and difficulties, is depicted with a sweetness that never becomes cloying. The island, the changes it undergoes with the seasons, parallels Sophie’s coming to terms with the beautiful and sometimes frightening world around her.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft: One of horror-master’s longest and, I think, best works, this novella follows the title character as he descends into inhuman madness. The trouble begins when Ward discovers that an ancestor had been conducting occult research in colonial Providence, Rhode Island. The young scholar resumes those researches—with predictably ghoulish results. But Lovecraft is more convincing here than practically anywhere else in his body of work. The setting of Providence and its environs, the author’s home town, is brilliantly realized. Lovecraft’s characteristic bigotry and overheated prose style are both present in abundance. But so is an obvious expertise in early American history. Whatever his limitations, stylistic or ethical, Lovecraft could be a disciplined writer when it came to background research.

To Walk the Night by William Sloane: This, along with another novel, The Edge of Running Water, form the author’s complete published works, gathered together by NYRB Classics under the title The Rim of Morning. A well respected writing instructor and editor, Sloan’s posthumous memory survived in the form of the ultimate SF writer’s-writer, as Stephen King explains in his introduction. His fans and publishers needn’t make such a hard sell. Slone’s prose is descriptive yet understated. His characters, particularly the female ones, are vivid to a degree that is sadly atypical in genre writers of the early 20th century. The difference between Sloan and Lovecraft is striking and instructive. The first novel in the collection, To Walk the Night, follows the narrator Bark Jones as he and his friend Jerry Lister investigate the mysterious death of an astronomy professor at their alma mater. The professor, whose body is completely consumed by fire, had been doing research in how to extend consciousness through space and time. The single person who can provide answers is the professor’s mysterious wife, who had wandered into town only days before the death. SF aficionados will probably recognize the tropes and plot twists that drive Sloan’s novel. They’ve been repeated and remixed a thousand times in novels, radio serials, movies, and television shows. It’s the sensitivity to character and place that makes this work special.