EDITOR'S BOOKSHELF: The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (1962)

Review by Nicole Roché, Online Managing Editor/Fiction Editor

**WARNING:  This review contains spoilers.**

The opening line of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes states, “One day in August a man disappeared.” The unnamed narrator offers various theories about what might have happened to the man. Did he run off with a mistress? Did he take his own life? A teacher and hobby entomologist, the man was known for his frequent insect collecting. As the narrator asserts, entomologists often have secret, even perverse compulsions: “From this point to suicide out of weariness with the world is but a step.” Readers are told at the end of the chapter that after seven years the man was never found, and thus was declared dead.

Like the Book of Genesis, which opens with dual (and contradictory) creation myths, the novel’s next chapter offers readers a second, far more detailed take on the man and his fate. “One August afternoon,” the chapter begins, “a man stood in the railroad station at S—. He wore a gray peaked hat, and the cuffs of his trousers were tucked into his stockings. A canteen and a large wooden box were slung over his shoulders. He seemed about to set out on a mountain-climbing expedition.” This second, far more fleshed-out version of events, begins the story proper. We learn the man has traveled to the village by the sea in hopes of finding a new species of beetle, a discovery that will forever win him a place in the history books. Of course, at this early point in the novel readers already feel the bittersweet pang of dramatic irony—the man’s name will indeed go down in history, though not in the way he has hoped for or imagined.   

As the man first sets foot in the mysterious village, so too are readers brought step by step into the nightmarish unreality of the novel’s setting. The man realizes that as the sand he walks on continues to rise, the village’s houses remain on their original plane. As he continues to walk up the ever-rising dune, the houses become more and more buried. The man stops in his tracks: “What in heaven’s name could it be like to live there? he thought in amazement, peering down into one of the holes.” He becomes preoccupied when the elusive rare beetle makes an appearance. Villagers begin to watch him as he chases after it, and they ask if he is some sort of inspector. Night falls. The villagers offer to put the man up for the night. He must climb down a rope to get to the house at the bottom of the dune where he will spend the night. Here he meets the woman who lives in the house. He learns that her husband and child were killed years ago after being buried in a sandstorm. The woman cooks dinner for the man, and they quibble about the nature of sand, the novel’s central metaphor. The man is attracted to the woman, and annoyed by her. In the night, he awakens to the sounds of the woman shoveling sand. The villagers stand above, on the ridge, and lift buckets the woman has filled. She must work like this all night, every night. “‘But this means you exist only for the purpose of clearing away the sand, doesn’t it?’” the man asks. The woman thus emerges as a Sisyphean figure: both noble and tragic. The man, frustrated, eventually acquiesces and helps shovel. But in the morning, when he tries to leave, he finds that his only means of escape, the rope, has been removed in the night.    

From here, still so early in the novel, the plot becomes, like that of so many other existentialist novels (eg., Franz Kafka’s The Trial or Albert Camus’s The Plague) a lab experiment in which readers see the characters’ mettle tested under increasing degrees of pressure and absurdity. Will the man attempt to escape? Will he harm himself, or the woman who has played such a central role in his capture and imprisonment? Or, on the other hand, will he give himself over to his desire for the woman? Make a life with her? Allow himself to enjoy that life without regret or anger or recrimination?

Camus calls his collection of essays The Myth of Sisyphus (1955) “a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert.” What does it mean to live and to create in the desert? This is essentially what Camus means by learning to live in acknowledgment of, and in spite of, the Absurd, which he says results from the “confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” The world remains indifferent to human ideals and striving. The Myth of Sisyphus, which seeks to answer the question of whether suicide is justified in the face of an absurd existence, argues that to truly live amid the Absurd requires us to embrace it. In other words, we must learn not just to survive but to thrive. “Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum,” Camus writes, “is living, and to the maximum.”   

Living, and creating, in the Absurd can mean so many different things at different points in our lives. At some point everyone undergoes times of turbulence, whether good and bad. Everyone lives, for a time, steeped in grief or despair or regret. Everyone grapples at one time or another with inertia, boredom, discontent, outrage, fear.

John Scalzi with the Los Angeles Times recently offered readers a ten-point plan for getting creative work done during a time many of us would call absurd: the time of a Trump presidency. The first step is, “Acknowledge it’s bad, and other facts of life.” In this first step, which is arguably the most crucial, Scalzi observes that denial won’t change anything about a situation. Furthermore, “It’s all right to acknowledge that day-to-day life exists, even in the face of existential crisis.” Awareness of one’s situation, however terrible, need not necessarily lead to despair, because revolt of some kind is always possible, if only in our essential approach or attitude. The Woman in the Dunes focuses readers on this truth. “There is no sun without shadow,” as Camus writes in The Myth of Sisyphus’s closing essay, “and it is essential to know the night.”

Nicole Roché is the online managing editor and a fiction editor for CutBank. She is a second-year MFA student in fiction at the University of Montana.

EDITOR'S BOOKSHELF: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

By Lisbet Portman, CutBank Nonfiction Editor  

Recommending a book to someone can feel loaded, like asking that person out for the first time by suggesting a short trip to O’ahu. I’ve never recommended a book so fiercely as I did Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts—I’m talking mass texts, Christmas presents, chain emails: read this.


I even went so far as to assign it, perhaps irresponsibly, to a class of undergraduates in a nonfiction writing workshop. Because suddenly I was standing in front of twenty-two students, foaming at the mouth, expected to speak plainly about a slim, dense book in my hand. We made out all right in the end, but the way there was as messy, loaded, and as meandering as could be expected from this picnic of a memoir to which everyone and everything has been invited.

The Argonauts is true to its name—Argo (the Greek ship manned by a crew of heroic sailors—nauts), which was reconstructed so many times that eventually every piece had been replaced, only its name an original. In this book, Nelson conducts an intensive, playful, holy interrogation of her performance in the world as a queer woman, a lover, a mother, a feminist, a writer, and a body. The story lives in chunks of varying sizes, each of which read as a poem or mini-essay when lifted from the bulk. Nelson invokes theorists and philosophers not to support her claims, but organically—these are the voices she has swallowed, their words now entwined with hers. Quotes are embedded in the chunks of text and italicized. The authors' names are kicked to the margins where they hover in white space—at once cast aside and memorialized.

To Nelson, artist Harry Dodge is that “someone with whom my perversities were not only compatible, but perfectly matched.” What follows is a story of their relationship as lovers and intellectuals, the trials of trying to conceive, their “summer of changing bodies” when she was four months pregnant and Harry was six months on T, her experience of pregnancy as someone who had spent years “harshly deriding ‘the breeders.'” What follows is an erotics of the anus, motherhood, discourse, dicks, art, constipation, intimacy, cocktail parties, virgin daquieries, writing, semen in a salsa jar, parenting, fucking, Prop 8, feminism, cruelty, florida, falling forever, clits, vanilla sex, white ceramic horns, death, ceiling fans, etc.

To a few students who found the language difficult to understand, I encouraged them to read as they might listen to a piece of music. There is no way, no need to keep close tabs on the violin and snare drum activity, that kind of focus would in fact detract from hearing the song as it is—buzzing, oh very much alive. Listen to how it moves, pay attention to the lines that pierce. I’ve read the book four times, and each read was different. This experience aligns with certain insistences within the text: Nelson strains against our impulse to “name” things as a way of congealing “difference into a single figure,” and assumes “we are always moving, shape-shifting.” In an interview with ARTFORUM in 2015, she said, “We might not literally be able to call something into being. But we can always sing.”

The internet is fat with reviews of The Argonauts and interviews with Maggie Nelson the poet, the critic, the essayist. I’m not unique in falling for the book and I don’t have anything of note to contribute to the conversation, I’m just telling you that one afternoon I got pinned to the couch and forgot to eat, forgot to pee: read this. And loads of people have. Whether Nelson likes it or not, since its publication in May 2015, The Argonauts has also been taken up by straight people in book clubs in hopes of learning more about the queer and transgender community. While the book interacts with these “names,” it won’t sit tight in any genre: “it’s the binary of normative/transgressive that’s unsustainable, along with the demand that anyone live a life that’s all one thing.” Although fully aware that she is partaking in a longer history by telling her own, Nelson didn’t set out to be a spokesperson: “I am interested in offering up my experience and performing my particular manner of thinking, for whatever they are worth.”

The Argonauts is a production in which Nelson both betrays and honors a multiplicity of selves by asking “a question from the inside.” She can’t bring herself to address her unborn child until the very end:

I want you to know, you were thought of as possible—never as certain, but always possible—not in any given moment, but over many months, even years, of trying, of waiting, of calling—when, in a love sometimes sure of itself, sometimes shaken by bewilderment and change, but always committed to the charge of ever-deepening understanding—two human animals, one of whom is blessedly neither male nor female, the other of whom is female (more or less), deeply, doggedly, wildly wanted you to be.

Lisbet Portman is an MFA candidate in nonfiction and a writing instructor at the University of Montana. Her work focuses on addiction policy in the US and sometimes, glitter. She is originally from Ohio and earned a B.A. in American studies from Smith College in Northampton, MA. 

EDITOR'S BOOKSHELF: Woods etc. by Alice Oswald

By Anna Blackburn, CutBank poetry editor

The woods of Alice Oswald’s Woods etc. at times yield pathways like those I walk here in Montana. Glacial creeks cutting through the abrupt yellow tamaracks, giant Scots pines fur to the tailbones of mountains; in her poems we are sensitized to the immensity of granite and ether. Yet at other times I find myself in landscapes like the deciduous northeast, where each curled fern and dislodged rock seems wakeful to my presence, in the way that a dull stone becomes luminous if dipped in water. Amidst the simple objects of Oswald’s terrain the mind opens into surprising chasms of feeling, those insights “like glass, concealed but not lost in light” (“Poem for Carrying a Baby Out of a Hospital”). Through her organically pitched rhythms, we are shuttled into deeply inhabited lyrics of the natural world, untethered mythologies, and whimsical fable-like meditations on the circularity of life. Poems of earthiness and imaginative reach.      

Oswald’s logic is ecological: consciousness migrates through animal, vegetal, and mineral forms. As metamorphosis counters the gravity of death (a stone becomes a flower becomes a circle of light becomes…), we feel the tension between the eternal whole and the perplexed groping of our lives; in these poems the individual must travel “the whole series of endurable pains” (“Autobiography of a Stone”). Oswald summons elemental personalities with violent intimacy:  

              This is the dandelion with its thousand faculties

              like an old woman taken by the neck and
              shaken to pieces.

              This is the dust flower flitting away. 

              This is the flower of amnesia.  It has opened its
              head to the wind,  all havoc and weakness,  as
              if a wooden man should stroll through fire… 

How fragile our connections, she argues.  Like “the wind-bitten dandelion,” each thing “a flower of no property… / worn away to its one recalcitrant element” (“Head of a Dandelion”).  

Yet, as Simone Weil writes in Gravity and Grace, “stars and blossoming fruit trees; utter permanence and extreme fragility give an equal sense of eternity.” Reading these poems, I feel myself invoked in states of acute limitation (as Sisyphus, who “has to think one pain at a time, like an insect / trapped in a drop of water”), even as I am asked to occupy the field (“Sisyphus”).  The field may be an artery of consciousness, a birch grove, a system of galaxies.  Though full of their own voices, such spaces assert the pressure of silence. This silence functions like the creative landscape of a canvas; though the world in its instability is the medium of exploration, Oswald’s poems also celebrate the void between forms, the potential underlying each expression. Against this eternity we feel the awe and humility of mortal life: traversing “Five Fables of a Length of Flesh” and floating with Voyager 1 “among those homeless spaces gathering in that silence / that hasn’t yet had time to speak” (“Sonnet”).

Anna Blackburn is an MFA candidate in poetry and a writing instructor at the University of Montana. She grew up in Vermont and earned a B.A. in Writing and Literature at Marlboro College.   

EDITOR'S BOOKSHELF: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

By Stephanie Pushaw, CutBank Fiction Editor

I first read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in its essential form: the mass-market paperback that came out in 1981, its ubiquitous cover featuring a bold seventies typeface, a defunct Earth, an eyeless green planet sticking out its tongue, and—at the bottom—a round hand, earnestly thumbing for a ride. This copy had clearly been much-read: fat yellowed pages fanning out, exclamation marks in the margin near the best jokes (all ten thousand of them), flimsy cover peeling off in places. I’d pried it from the communal bookshelf in the London flat my family and I were staying in for a few months. I was thirteen. I read it in a couple hours—one of the beautiful things about the world of Hitchhiker’s is that you can stay in it for as long or as brief a time as you want to—and was all in. It was funny and weird and there were parts I knew were even funnier and weirder, if I could just wrap my head around them. The world ended in the first ten pages, leaving just one Earthling to bound into the deepest recesses of space across a series of fabulous vessels—and what thirteen-year-old hasn’t entertained thoughts of doing that? But beyond the glamorous spaceships, the sharp British wit, the hijinks and battles of interstellar travel, the book held a solemnity as well: everything seemed fraught, even when it wasn’t, with some unspeakable truth about the universe we’d better not look straight in the face for fear of being blinded. The funny bits, I realized, were the only way to deal with the darkness. 

I left that copy in the bookshelf when we returned to the States, feeling like I’d been meant to find it—like I’d been let in on some big crazy secret I now had a responsibility to tell others about (I guess at that tender age my narcissism was so well-developed I still thought I was discovering things, even though Hitchhiker’s and its sequels have been consistent international bestsellers since the day it was published—translated into thirty languages by the time I picked up that first tattered copy in 2005—not to mention the explosive popularity of its other iterations, most notably the radio series that spawned the books in the first place. We won’t mention the movie. We just won’t.). And when I got back to California, back to the house and dog and small eighth grade class, I realized: I needed to read it again, needed to feel again that sensation of escape. I don’t know why this memory sticks with me, but it does: at the now-defunct Borders on the Santa Monica Promenade, I made my way to the sci-fi section and found the holy grail: a leatherbound edition of all the Hitchhiker’s Guide books. The checkout guy looked stoked I was buying them. “All five books in the trilogy!” he said, and I, still thirteen, probably said something irrelevant in reply, thinking: Another thing I know must be funny but I just don’t get. 

About the series, many minds have said things, and I don’t think I could say much more—or really adequately translate why they’ve been a sort of therapy for me over the past ten years. They’re science fiction, but they’re comedy, but they’re deadly serious. It’s not important to me to slot them into a genre, or defend them as literary; it’s important to me that every time I open up that hardcover, I find something that gets rarer and rarer for me every day: a universe so fully contoured, so bulging with strange possibilities, that for those few hours I am not thinking about anything else. 

Six years after I first read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I returned to London. I’d probably re-read the series four times in those six years, my leatherbound omnibus taped up now, its gilt-edged pages losing their sheen. I’d read it after various small college heartbreaks to help get over myself, because it’s virtually impossible to read it without laughing; I’d read it when, stuffed to the gills on “deep” and “challenging” and “literary” assigned literature—even when I loved it—I just couldn’t take another paragraph of Beckett brooding or Nabokov embedding clues into epic poems. I rarely even finished it, on these re-reads; the first chapter, or the first half, was usually enough to knock back into me the wit and whimsy of this alternate world. I’d given up, by then, on hoping for a spaceship to land in an empty field and beam me up to the marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V. The world was proving itself slowly to contain enough mysteries and marvels to content myself with, only looking up now and again longingly to the distant stars. 

But, back in London, I found myself on one hot spring day getting off the tube in Archway with a friend and walking through the iron-gated streets to the Highgate Cemetery. We passed Karl Marx’s grave, featuring a massive bust of the man himself and an exhortation: WORKERS OF ALL LANDS UNITE! We passed the grave of George Eliot, a simple stone with her real name, Mary Ann Cross, engraved below her pseudonym. And then we found it: under a copse of tall trees, another plain tombstone, rectangular like a hardcover book. Carved with thin shallow type, just the words: Douglas Adams. Writer. In front of his grave was a small earthenware pot. It was bristling with pens. Nothing fancy, no Montblancs, no silvery quills. Just cheap plastic Bic pens and ballpoints. I left a pen, too, whatever I had in my pocket. Here, the pens seemed to be saying, in this supposedly haunted cemetery, in front of the grave of a man who died too young, who left behind something that does, at times, truly seem like the guide to the universe. Here. Write us just one more thing.

Stephanie Pushaw is a writer from Malibu, California. Her work has appeared in Fractal, Slippery Elm, The Believer Logger, DIAGRAM, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a fiction editor at Cutbank and a Truman Capote Fellow at the University of Montana. Her essay "Crickets: A Love Song" won the 2014 DIAGRAM essay contest and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is working on her first novel, which features several dog characters. Read more of her work at stephaniepushaw.com


By Nicole Roché, CutBank Online Managing Editor/Fiction Editor

I discovered Art & Fear four years ago at the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas. I was skeptical at first. The cover was dated. The title screamed self-help, and reminded me of the scene in Donnie Darko where the high-strung teacher tries to get students to place their assigned “character dilemma” on the spectrum between “Love” and “Fear.”    

But long before that time I had come to trust the Raven and its staff. For the uninitiated, the Raven is the Platonic ideal of the downtown independent bookstore, complete with resident cats and David-and-Goliath survival story. (In 1997, a Borders megastore opened its doors one block away, only to close them in 2011.) The Raven is one of those places where the employees post notes about their favorite books, right there on the shelves, so if you are too shy to chat up the sales clerk you always have a recommendation at the ready. The note accompanying Art & Fear assured me this was a work that had stuck with the staff member for many years, and was one they continued to return to for inspiration and guidance.

Now, years later, I find myself coming back to this slim text every few months. I, too, feel compelled to write my own little note here, in the digital ether, urging every writer or artist I know to pick it up.

Art & Fear is self-help, it’s true. But it offers up that help in straightforward, no-nonsense, often elegant terms. At every turn, authors David Bayles and Ted Orland work to de-mystify the process of art-making. Here are just a few of the many truths that resonated with me (though I will stress reading them in the context of the book as a whole makes them all the more powerful):

·       “Your job is to develop an imagination of the possible.”

·       (On talent, or perceived lack thereof) “By definition, whatever you have is exactly what you need to produce your best work.”

·       “The depth of your need to make things establishes the risk in not making them.”

·       “Ask your work what it needs, not what you need.”

The book’s multi-disciplinary approach is one of its greatest assets. There is comfort in knowing writing is neither unique in its challenges nor its rewards. Bayles and Orland are themselves photographers (Orland worked as Ansel Adams’ assistant in the 1970s), and though they do draw from big-name writers such as Melville, Nabokov, Tolstoy, Henry James, and Joan Didion, they also reference Frank Lloyd Wright, Chopin, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Robert Mapplethorpe, Stravinsky, Picasso, and many others. The effect is a sense of real solidarity among artists of every kind.

Consider this bit on the interplay of imagination and control/technique, which Bayles and Orland compare to Didion’s lamentation that writing the first few lines of a story quickly eliminates all further possibilities for the story: “The first few brushstrokes to the blank canvas satisfy the requirements of many possible paintings, while the last few fit only that painting—they could go nowhere else. The development of an imagined piece is a progression of decreasing possibilities.”

Then there’s my favorite, the analogy of the ceramics class, which Lit Hub references when arguing why writers should shoot for one hundred rejections a year. In this analogy, a ceramics teacher divides the class into two groups:  those who will graded by the quantity of their work, and those who will be graded by its quality. The students in the quantity group must produce fifty pounds of pots to earn an A (forty for a B, etc.), whereas the students in the quality group must produce only one pot to earn top marks—but it must be perfect. At the end of the semester, the teacher makes a telling discovery: all of the best pots were made by the students who were being graded for quantity. As Bayles and Orland explain, “It seems that while the ‘quantity’ group was busy churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the ‘quality’ group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.” The lesson here is clear, and a welcome reminder: above all, we improve our work by working.     

Of course, sometimes we need a little goading to take up that pen (or paintbrush). It helps to be reminded that while “flow” and “vision” and “inspiration” may be real and admirable things, so are sheer determination and flat-out hard work. A kind of magic may run through our best work, but it is not required. Art-making of any kind is hard—writing this post, in its own small ways, was hard—but we must find ways to get the work done. For me, at least, this book helps. 

About the Author:  Nicole Roché is a second-year MFA student in fiction. She hails from Lawrence, Kansas, where she earned degrees in journalism and creative writing/literature. She is currently obsessed with orange cats, Alice Munro, and huckleberry anything.  


By Eve Kenneally, CutBank Poetry Editor

I first fell in love with Emma Donoghue when I was studying abroad in Dublin, Ireland 4 years ago, when we were assigned her 1995 novel Hood for our Contemporary Irish Fiction class. I have an extremely vivid memory of reading the entirety of it on a train ride one weekend and being left completely speechless: not only was the novel gorgeous and vivid and heart-wrenching, but I had also never encountered a book with such complex and complete queer characters before.

(In fact, I visited the secondhand bookstore closest to my apartment several times that semester, taking a nearly complete Emma Donoghue collection back to DC and devouring them that summer.)

Hood takes place the week after the death of narrator Pen’s longtime partner Cara, pulling you through Pen’s grief as she attempts to navigate the political difficulties of being a gay and grieving woman in 1990s Ireland. Furthermore, Pen teaches at a Catholic school and has to write off Cara’s death as being that of a roommate. She is completely deprived of the right to mourn publicly or properly; seeing how she internalizes her grief and copes practically all on her own is immensely powerful and heartbreaking.

As the New York Times book review stated at the time, “The achievement of "Hood" may lie in its very ordinariness. It states indirectly that love, homosexual or heterosexual, is simply love.” What blew my mind about this book was that it wasn’t merely marketed as being a lesbian love story, but one of grief, complete with the nuanced frustration and pain that anyone who has encountered any kind of tumultuous or unfaithful relationship can relate to.

Cara isn’t granted immunity because of her death. In fact, part of Pen’s grieving process is to trace through the origins of her relationship with Cara, up until they moved in together. Cara is difficult and she’s allowed to remain difficult because she has been granted the right to exist as a complicated character and partner.

Donoghue has been cast into the spotlight lately due to the film adaptation of her 2008 novel Room, which is also a wonderful book. I just don’t want to see her first novels and short stories overlooked as a result, especially because writing as a queer woman from a conservative and Catholic country offers immeasurably invaluable insight. When I first read it, I was a recently and tentatively “out” 20-year-old traveling in a different country: no book has ever made me feel more at home, or stayed with me in quite the same way.

About the Author:
Eve Kenneally is a second-year poet from outside Boston by way of DC, where she got a BA in English from GWU and minored in creative writing/avoiding drunken conversations about the state of the government. Right now, she writes a lot about mermaids, dead girls, and pop culture. She likes poems that are strange and surprising (a less eloquent way of saying this is, "She likes poems that make her feel like she's been punched in the stomach") so send 'em away.

EDITOR'S BOOKSHELF: "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" by Shirley Jackson

By Read Trammel, CutBank Fiction Editor

One of the things I’ve appreciated most about being in an MFA program is the opportunity to be exposed to new books and authors. Not only does this happen through literature classes, but it also occurs through conversations with my peers. I’m currently compiling a long list of these “MFA Recommendations,” which I hope to get to one of these days. As a professor recently said, “There will always be more books to read,” and being in a program with a bunch of other people who love to read is a good way to find out about some of them.

This semester, I’ve been taking an independent study on novellas in which we are trying to write our own novella while reading published novellas and short novels. Members of the independent study picked six books to read and while I have enjoyed all of them, I think the one that will stick with me the longest is We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. I think as readers we all have our blind spots and for me that includes spooky stories in the gothic vein. It’s not that I don’t enjoy them; they just don't typically pop up on my radar. While I had been captivated and disturbed by "The Lottery" as an eighth grader, I had not read any of Shirley Jackson’s other work until now.

From the first paragraph--in which the narrator, Mary Katherine Blackwood, reveals that her affinities include the death cap mushroom and that all of her family, save a sister and uncle, are dead--we are pulled along into a dark world full of suspicion. Mary Katherine and her sister Constance live with their dying Uncle Julian at Blackwood House, a sprawling manor outside of a village where everyone seems to hate them. Their isolation from the village, as well as the village’s mistrust of them due to their family being poisoned years before, is at the heart of the conflict in the novel.

Mary Katherine, nicknamed Merricat, is one of the most fascinating first person narrators I have encountered. Her voice is at once as innocent as a child and as unhinged as a psychopath. She has developed a strange, superstitious system of magic that includes burying money and nailing books to trees, which she hopes will keep out strangers. She pictures these same strangers as bodies she will walk over, reveling in their violent demise. Merricat is not entirely unsympathetic and therein lies Jackson’s skill as a writer. Even while you are made uneasy by reading her narration, you come to root for her to succeed against this village full of simmering rage.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a complex novel, especially impressive due to its short length. It is an exploration of a disturbed character and a study of group dynamics. Reading it, I was reminded that it is good to read outside of our comfort zones. There is too much great writing out there that can be missed.

About the Author: 
Read Trammel is a fiction writer in the MFA Program at the University of Montana. He was born in Colorado and attended college there, but he enjoys traveling and seeing new places. Read is a lifelong fly fisherman and is known to occasionally put down his writing implements for his fly rod. Since both fishing and writing are key activities at UM and in Missoula, he loves calling Missoula home. Read’s writing has appeared in Yale Anglers Journal, Solstice Literary Magazine, and Foothills Literary Journal.

EDITOR'S BOOKSHELF: "Voices in the Night" by Steven Millhauser

By Alicia Bones, CutBank Fiction Editor

I’m reading Steven Millhauser’s 2015 collection of short stories, Voices in the Night, right now. I’ve read a lot of Millhauser over the years, and he always makes me sweat. In this collection, he continues to blur the lines between realism and fantasy, to extend the edges of reality to their most extreme limits.

Millhauser’s characters seek out rule, order, reason, but they rarely—if ever—find it. In “Phantoms,” the collective narrator (the “we”) reports the goings-on in a town haunted by ghosts who seem to operate within a strict series of rules (or do they?). In “Sons and Mothers,” a man visits his long-neglected mother who now seems to be turning to stone (Or wood? Or something?). In “Arcadia,” the reader concludes that the idyllic retreat being advertised has a more sinister—or hopeful?—purpose. Questions, questions, after reading Millhauser, I always have questions. That’s good, I think.

I’ve been assigned Millhauser several times in college and graduate school, and I wonder what it is that makes his work accepted into a canon that excludes so many genre writers. It might be that he dropped out of a PhD program at Brown. Twice. Or, like Ari Laurel mentioned in her post about Kazuo Ishiguro, Millhauser’s often-fantastical stories do not remove us from our world, but instead make us examine the fissures, holes, and exceptions that we can’t comfortably fit into our versions of reality. Millhauser exemplifies the type of writing that’s most exciting to me: it makes us disbelieve in the kind of contingencies to which we so fiercely cling.

Millhauser dazzles with his imagination, his simultaneous understanding of and lack of adherence to convention. These things should be celebrated in reading and writing, but they aren’t always. On dullness in literature, a Millhauser character in another of his collections, Dangerous Laughter, says:

“Art, he said, was a controlled madness, which was why people who selected books for high school English classes were careful to choose only false books that were discussable, boring, and sane, or else, if they chose a real book by mistake, they presented it in a way that ignored everything great and mad about it. …”

I’m always searching for breaks in composure, dissolution of logic, moments of madness in the things that I read. And Millhauser never fails to deliver.  

"Editors' Bookshelf" asks the editorial staff of CutBank to expound on a book or books that have meant something to them, either recently or in the past. These posts take a look at our editors' bookshelves and nightstands, allowing readers a glimpse into what most intrigues our staff.

About the Author:
Alicia Bones is a second-year fiction writer at UM. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, she earned her master’s degree in literature from the University of Iowa in 2013, so she struggles not to make life and fiction into tedious exercises in critical theory. She enjoys hiking in Missoula’s North Hills, and is interested in old people, food and bodies, and the early 20th-century. 

EDITOR'S BOOKSHELF: "Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro

By Ari Laurel, CutBank Fiction Editor

The last book I read that really took me by surprise was Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. It's been months since I finished it, but it's one of those stories that will stick with me in the way of its writing. I consume stories in a ton of different ways, so it happened that I was first introduced to Ishiguro's work through a podcast when I heard Ben Marcus read his short story "A Village After Dark." Usually I listen to podcasts to get to sleep, half listening, sometimes laughing alone to myself if there's something funny, but eventually letting the voices become white noise. But even though "A Village After Dark" was its own dreamscape, I couldn't sleep on it. There is just something about Ishiguro's writing that both guides and disorients, and sometimes disturbs readers. 

The narrator in Never Let Me Go, who is both so earnest and trustworthy, but at the same time unreliable and naive, would guide me along by saying things like, "I guess I said this cruel thing to her now because of what had happened before," and I, the kind of person who can't help but want to be in the loop, could only turn the page and ask, "Well, what happened before?" Her voice, her slow reveal of Ishiguro's mystery, waiting for every piece of the puzzle to be contextualized and cleaving to each crumb like its own reward, is part of the suspense. 

I also credit Ishiguro for reigniting my love of science fiction, long condemned in the MFA under the flag of "genre," even if there was always a part of me who was thrilled to queue that kind of thing up on Netflix--whether it was a Japanese anime about cyberpunk crime or an episode of the ever-optimistic Star Trek: TNG. Ishiguro let me sit in the weirdness and witness the way things naturally unfold, how people inevitably behave, when the surroundings are too unnatural. And I can sit in that world, listening, reading, writing it, for hours.

"Editors' Bookshelf" asks the editorial staff of CutBank to expound on a book or books that have meant something to them, either recently or in the past. These posts take a look at our editors' bookshelves and nightstands, allowing readers a glimpse into what most intrigues our staff.

About the Author:
Ari Laurel grew up in Oakland, CA, and has lived near the ocean for most of her life. Her work has appeared in Bitch Media, The Toast, Riding Light, Quartz, Hyphen magazine, and Kweli Journal. She was a 2012 finalist for the PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellowship. She is currently earning her MFA in Fiction at the University of Montana, in the beautiful landlocked city of Missoula.