Word and Flesh: The Strange Worlds of Dennis Y. Ginoza

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This is not Dennis Y. Ginoza.

I’d like to introduce you to my friend, Dennis Ginoza.

I would, at least, like to think of him as my friend; I certainly would not want him as an enemy. He’s a mysterious figure, you see, a bit of enigma, who tends to spend his time (as far as I can tell) constructing alternate universes of often-alarming brilliance and brutality.  He is also one of the finest writers I know.

I started my MFA at Pacific University like so many others who’d been praised, perhaps inordinately, in undergrad, eager to prove myself as an exceptional writer. It requires a great deal of energy, that sort of proving, and I am forever indebted to Dennis for relieving me of it in the course of my second workshop at Pacific.

It was here he dropped the bomb that would come to be known as “Euler’s Identity” (later published by Prime Number, and collected in the first volume of its Editors’ Selections). It is the story of a teenage boy seduced by his math teacher and her mathematics, both of them elegant and beautiful and just a bit cruel. Every sentence of this story sings, and every image casts back the internal dimensions of the story like a hall of mirrors.

Here, at last, was the workshop young writers dream of: the one in which no one, not even the highly published rockstar ostensibly running the show, has anything to offer the story but unbridled praise, and perhaps even outright astonishment.

In the course of a residency I spent at the Vermont Studio Center, many years before, I remember the author David Gates telling us about another writer (I believe it was actually his ex-wife) who could write a serviceable novel in the course of just six weeks. That this was such an outrageous feat that he wasn’t even jealous of it, just the way he wasn’t jealous of people who could swim the English Channel–such a thing was simply out of his league.

That’s how I felt about “Euler’s Proof,” and about Dennis’s work in general. I know I’m not alone in this. One of our instructors at Pacific, Pete Fromm, went so far as to confide to me that his semester of “advising” Dennis Ginoza basically consisted of him pretending that he knew something, anything, that Dennis didn’t.

I’ve enjoyed Dennis’s work in various journals since we graduated, but reading his story in the most recent issue of Phantom Drift, in particular, felt like a blow to the head–I’m not at all surprised it was nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize. And because I take as much pleasure these days in discussing the work of writers I admire as I do in sharing my own work (maybe more), I asked Dennis if he might answer a few questions for us–his current and future fans.

1. In “Word and Flesh” and “Other Names, Other Histories,” both Christianity and the mutilation of the body play a key part in the dystopian worlds you have created. Can you speak to these themes in your work?

Although they were published as short stories, “Word and Flesh” and “Other Names, Other Histories,” are actually two chapters from a novel I am working on. The novel is set in a secondary world that mirrors many aspects of our own, including Roman Catholicism. I’ve long been fascinated by the Catholic intellectual tradition and the fact that the Catholic Church is the oldest continuously existing instiution in the world. How has it endured when so many other institutions have crumbled? And how would it evolve in a world whose physical laws were radically different from our own?

On a deeper level, I’m interested in faith. One of the paradoxes of Chistianity is the redemption of mankind through the crucifixtion of Jesus. Through His suffering and death, the transcendent is secured through the material, the spiritual is made manifest in the physical. I’m not a religous person, but to me this notion seems an apt metaphor for the human condition (or at least that aspect of the human condition which informs my work)– our bodies are meat and bones and blood, yet through them we are capable of imagining the infinite. Does the malleability of flesh mean that faith is also malleable? I think it does, it must. So what fills the space between the ineffable and the carnal? For me, the answer is yearning, maybe even grace. And that seems like something worth writing about.

2. Much of your published work touches on the transgressive in terms of sex and violence, but does so in a way that never feels cheap or merely graphic. What do you strive for in touching the dark, so to speak?

I think transgression is a tool that allows a writer to peel away the layers that encase situations and characters. Intent is key– to expose a beating heart, one has to cut through skin, muscle, bone. It’s a tricky line to walk, however. Transgression for its own sake is just pornography, whether it be sexual porn or violence porn. I’ve got nothing against porn, but it’s not something I want to write.

3. Who would you credit as your greatest influences?

Craft-wise, I’m drawn to writers who assert themselves through their prose– the lyricism of Michael Ondaatje and Peter Carey, the circularity of Kazuo Ishiguro and Jose Saramago, the dark beauty of Cormac McCarthy. The notion of authors “fading into the background” and being “invisible” troubles me. Writing that has a strong individual voice affirms itself in a way that dispels ingratiation or worse, the reek of authorial supplication.

Thematically, I like books that grapple with large things– Moby Dick, The Brother Karamazov, Shusaku Endo’s Silence. That’s not to say the small epiphany or domestic drama is unappealing, just that such novels tend not to linger in my mind. Ambition is often its own justification.

4. What are you working on at the moment? 

I stopped writing short stories to focus on my novel, but the damn things keep getting embedded in my head, lodging up there like splinters. The only way to tweeze them out seems to be writing them– my story “The Widower” will be published soon in Per Contra’s Spring Edition (www.percontra.net). I also occasionally post stuff to my website, akopos.net.

More Dennis Y. Ginoza:

“Other Names, Other Histories”, Short Story, Phantom Drift (Nominated for the 2012 Pushcart Prize)

“Word and Flesh”, Short Story, Shimmer Magazine

“The Widower”, Short Story, Per Contra (forthcoming)

“Daughter of Pierus”, Short Story, Underground Voices

“Euler’s Identity”, Short Story, Prime Number MagazinePrime Number Magazine, Editors’ Selections, Volume 1

“City of Desert Rain”, Short Story, Present Tense Writer’s Journal

“Chael”, Flash Fiction, Life With Objects

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This is Dennis Y. Ginoza.

George Saunders: My Strange Affliction

George Saunders, Jackson Free Press

Please, please do not tell George Saunders I have a boner for him. I would die. Seriously. Also, this picture is from the Jackson Free Press.

In his recent talk at Powell’s here in Portland, author George Saunders admitted that he, as a young man, was afflicted by a serious condition (which he believes also afflicts young women): a Hemmingway Boner.

Well, god help me. I’ve been reading Saunders pretty much nonstop for the past week, and seem to have contracted what I can only characterize as a Saunders Boner.

Saunders strikes me as the gloriously impossible lovechild of the only two other authors whose entire oeuvre I have devoured so quickly: Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan.

In his essay “Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra,” Mr. Saunders all but admits it, at least as far as the former goes. In this essay, which appears in Braindead Megaphone, Saunders runs down how he–a young engineer, Ayn-Rand-Republican, and sufferer of the afore-mentioned affliction–discovered Vonnegut’s classic Slaughterhouse Five while working for the oil industry in Southeast Asia.

In this essay, Saunders touches on a number of things that struck him about Vonnegut’s work that also strike me about his (and which, by the way, cured him of that accursed hard on for Papa). The sense of humor, for one. The clear-eyed look at capitalism and its perhaps-accidental cruelties. The deep sense of empathy, and of our basic goodness as human beings. Both writers have masterfully skewered the dumb optimism and thoughtless brutality of that conundrum known as the United States of America. Both have embodied its beauty.

As a hypersenstive adolescent, allergic to cruelty and injustice in all forms–be it the sweatshop labor behind that shirt from the Gap or the nationwide war on dandelions–I felt as if I could barely breathe the air of my native land. Vonnegut changed that for me. Vonnegut is a writer who has changed as many lives, I believe, as AA, for a variety of reasons, but mine was this: He gave me an America I could believe in.

But Vonnegut, even when I was young, was old. Real old. Also, dead. And America, like the world itself, has changed in nearly unimaginable ways since what now seem the near-halcyon (!) days of Clinton. Discovering George Saunders has been like discovering that America all over again.

Saunders sees our crappy theme-park kitsch, our motivational Happy Speak disguising deep dysfunction, our desperate desire to become rich, even as we dig ourselves deeper in debt. He sees the way the near-constant stream of advertising we’re subjected to on a daily basis to is slowly rotting our brains.

He sees how easily we find a way to blame others for their own misfortunes, and believe ourselves somehow more worthy, more loved by god, if we happen to have been born with–or raised in a way that served us up–a bigger piece of the pie. He sees the way we cling to jobs that deeply degrade us, out of a potent mixture of fear and love for our families.

He has seen the darkness that lives in the unspeakable corners our sweet, stupid hearts, and holy shit, he loves us. In a way, maybe, that allows those of us hoarse from calling bullshit on the bullshit that we essentially also are to love ourselves.

In this essay, Saunders also notes that Slaughterhouse Five was a revelation to him in that it was fantastic. Which is to say, it’s a novel about World War II, and war in general, that is also about some aliens from Trafalmadore. Saunders says he was uncomfortable with this at first. “Aliens were great; I loved aliens in movies, but I did not want them in my Literature.” [sic] But over the course of the book, he realized that “Your real story may have nothing to do with actual experience.”

All of which is well and good. But the aliens of Trafalmadore aside–and The Sirens of Titan too–there seems a deep vein of outrageous absurdity coupled with formal innovation in Saunders’s work that I have heretofore only encountered in the work of Richard Brautigan.

Like Vonnegut, Brautigan was an old guy I discovered young. I read The Abortion: An Historical Romance, 1966 as a teenager and thought it was a hoot. I read Trout Fishing in America stoned on that terrifically nasty dirtweed trucked up from Texas by our local migrant workers that my buddies and I smoked like cigarettes in high school and understood not a word of it, but was so fascinated I read it again and again.

But it wasn’t until I worked my way through the rest of Brautigan’s work after undergrad that I began to see how deeply, inscrutably weird it is. On the one hand, you have a novel like A Confederate General from Big Sur, that’s essentially a funny story about a down-and-out dude whose friend may or may not have had an ancestor who was a Confederate general. On the other, you have a book like In Watermelon Sugar.

In Watermelon Sugar is a novella, if you can call it that, set in a world where the sun shines a different color every day, everyone worships at a temple called iDEATH, the narrator’s former lover has taken up with a person named inBOIL, and pretty much most things are made of some form of watermelon sugar. As a work of art, it is so seriously far out that it’s hilarious to me to see what the hive mind at Wikipedia has to come up with to say about it in terms of content and plot.

In this way, it’s not unlike Saunders’s bizarro novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. In this tale, the residents of Inner and Outer Horner–the country of Horner is home to around six people–become involved in a border dispute. Outer Horner, having a larger population than Inner Horner, and substantially more space, under the influence of a petty tyrant who rises to power, named Phil, at first relegates the residents of Inner Horner to a kind of refugee camp, then requisitions their natural resources (some dirt, a stream, and a single apple tree), then finishes off with an attempt at genocide.

While it’s clear that this story has some real political parallels–to the point where you could easily call it a parable–it’s also about characters who, as Eric Weinberger at the New York Times puts it, “have three legs or arms…plus further unique mechanical parts and foliage, whether tails, antlers, an ‘octagonal shovel-like receptacle’ or, in the case of one boy, two brains, ‘one on the side of his neck and the other on his hip.'”

I’m struck by a number of similarities between the work of Saunders and Brautigan. First, by their foregrounding of aesthetics. Saunders stories are set famously in various kinds of theme parks and captive audience arenas (seminars, workplaces, driving school) that create their own weird worlds. Second, both fearlessly embrace the absurd. (In “Semplica Girls,” a story in Saunders’s new collection, The Tenth of December, poor women from Third World countries serve as lawn ornaments for wealthy families, hung from a line strung–painlessly!–through their brains.) And third, both writers exhibit a relentless focus on diction.

In The Hawkline Monster, for instance, Brautigan mashes up the tropes of the gothic novel and the Western; in Saunders’s “My Chivalric Fiasco” (also from The Tenth of December), the noble sentiments and Extreme Capitalization of Olde English get mashed up with modern workspeak (“killer work ethic”). Brautigan wrote what is ostensibly a detective novel (Dreaming of Babylonabout a gumshoe who maintains an alternate existence in a cheesy version of ancient Babylon. In a similar vein, Saunders has penned the caveman version of Office Space (“Pastoralia”). The list goes on.

All of which is to say, if you’ve ever had a thing for either Vonnegut or Brautigan, you need to read George Saunders.

And even if you haven’t, you should read George Saunders.

And if you’ve read some George Saunders, hey, maybe you should read some more George Saunders.

More George Saunders:

Interview, PBS: http://video.pbs.org/video/2327040417 

New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/06/magazine/george-saunders-just-wrote-the-best-book-youll-read-this-year.html?pagewanted=all

Gawker, to Saunders: Write a Goddamn Novel Already: http://gawker.com/5978325/writer-of-our-time-george-saunders-needs-to-write-a-goddamn-novel-already

The Rumpus Book Club Discussion with Saunders: http://therumpus.net/2013/02/the-rumpus-book-club-discussion-with-george-saunders/

The Powells interview: http://www.powells.com/blog/interviews/george-saunders-the-powells-com-interview-by-jill/

Science/Fictional Inspiration: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

image via Amazon

As I noted in my first post, I’m interested in bridging the gap between the scientific view of the world and the messily fabulous, oh-so-irrational realms of the human heart. Towards that end, part of what I aim to do on this blog over the course of the coming year is to explore books that do just that, which is why I really must start off with a tribute to one of the most inventive, imaginative, heartfelt and heady books I’ve read in recent years, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu.

I picked up this novel at Portland’s bacchanal of bibliophilia, Wordstock–sucked in, first, by the title, and second, by the rave reveiws adorning its jacket. “This book is cool as hell,” said Colson Whitehead. “If I could go back in time and reader it earlier, I would.” Annalee Newitz, my all-time she-ro of girl-geekery, concurred, saying, “Like watching an episode of Doctor Who as written by the young Phillip Roth.” She goes on to note that the book is “one of the most clear-eyed descriptions of consciousness I’ve seen in literature.”

This book, in my opinion, really does live up to the hype. In it, the protagonist (who just happens to bear the same name as the author) lives in Minor Universe 31, a place composed of unfinished computer code, and plagued by glitches as a consequence. In this version of the future, time travel is commonplace, due in part to technology developed by the protagonist’s father, an amateur inventor who worked for most of his life in a garage lab, failed in the race to commercialize the tech before the next guy, and promptly disappeared. Our protagonist, a time-travel repair man–whose main source of business, it seems, is keeping people who’ve gone back in time from shooting themselves, or their relatives–has been looking for his father ever since.

I expected this story to be funny and smart, which it is. The protagonist’s closest friends in this story are programs governed by artificial intelligence software, one of which is TAMMY, who clearly functions as a kind of girlfriend surrogate, the other of which is his manager, Phil, who has no idea that he’s actually an old copy of Microsoft Middle Manager 3.0. (“His passive-aggressive is set to low. Whoever configured him did me a solid.”)

What I didn’t expect was the degree to which this novel, as Newitz noted, is focused on the nature of human consciousness, from what I would characterize as a distinctly Buddhist perspective. Sure, all the bells and whistles of time travel are here, but time travel in this novel seems to function as a kind of metaphor for the ways that we all tend to live in the past or the future, rather than ever truly inhabiting the present. Trapped as our protagonist is of his own free will in the limbo of his own time machine–clearly doing himself harm, without allowing anything, harmful or otherwise, to ever actually happen to him–he takes us deep into the murkiest depths of the human heart.

As far as the title goes, it was the ‘science fictional’ that got me, but as the story went on, I began to feel that the story was more about living in general, and the impossible notion of living ‘safely,’ without feeling our most difficult emotions, in particular.

Something else that really impressed me was the metaphysical trick this novel pulls off by being a book about a book–called, as you might have guessed, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe–discovered by the protagonist in his time machine, written by a previous version of himself. In this, the novel has some fascinating things to say about the mysteries of the creative process, and invoking, for me, the strange loop (as per Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstader, which the author lists as one of his chief inspirations for the book) formed by one of my other favorite books-about-a-book, Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan.

The novel itself, it turns out, is a time machine, composed of a programming language and a grammar drive–that simplest of time machines, according to science fictional physics: a sheet of paper printed with symbols arranged according to different tenses, which can send both the writer and reader into the past or the future. But never deeper into the present moment, and that’s the sticker–because the present moment is the only place where more time is ever truly available to us.

This is a brilliant, lucid, funny book, with heartache at its core–as clear a connection between science (albeit science fictional) and the human heart as anyone could hope to come by. While I read it, I was absolutely enthralled. And yet, in the weeks that followed, I found that its impression wore off faster than, say, Daniyal Mueedin’s collection of stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, which I had finished around the same time.

Why? I’m thinking maybe it’s because novels that invoke both specific human cultures and a sense of place achieve some kind of deeper resonance–we’re more able to fill in the gaps with our own experiences–while a more intellectual book such as this, however heartfelt, set in an unfamiliar world, tends to burn off in the mind, like fog in the sun.

Do I recommend How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe? Absolutely–particularly for anyone who writes, likes science fiction, has a relationship to computer programming, or any combination thereof. However, I’m interested in any thoughts any of you may have on any of this, whether you’ve read the book or not. Do you know of any other books that touch on these themes? Any you’d recommend?