The Unprofessionals: New American Writing From The Paris Review

Paperback | November 17, 2015

byThe Paris ReviewEditorLorin Stein

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"A dispatch from the front lines of literature." The Atlantic

The Unprofessionals is an energetic collection celebrating the bold writers at the forefront of today’s literary world—featuring stories, essays, and poems from “America’s greatest literary journal” (Time)

 
For more than half a century, the Paris Review has launched some of the most exciting new literary voices, from Philip Roth to David Foster Wallace. But rather than trading on nostalgia, the storied journal—reconceived in 2010 by editor Lorin Stein—continues to search outside the mainstream for the most exciting emerging writers. Harmonizing a timeless literary feel with impeccable modern taste, its pages are vivid proof that the best of today’s writing more than upholds the lofty standards that built the magazine’s reputation.

The Unprofessionals collects pieces from the new iteration of the Paris Review by contemporary writers who treat their art not as a profession, but as a calling. Some, like Zadie Smith, Ben Lerner, and John Jeremiah Sullivan, are already major literary presences, while others, like Emma Cline, Benjamin Nugent, and Ottessa Moshfegh, will soon be household names. A master class in contemporary writing across genres, this collection introduces the must-know voices in the modern literary scene.

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"A dispatch from the front lines of literature." —The AtlanticThe Unprofessionals is an energetic collection celebrating the bold writers at the forefront of today’s literary world—featuring stories, essays, and poems from “America’s greatest literary journal” (Time) For more than half a century, the Paris Review has launched some of t...

Since its founding in 1953, The Paris Review has been America’s preeminent literary quarterly. The magazine introduced readers to the earliest writings of Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth, T. C. Boyle, V. S. Naipaul, Ha Jin, Jay McInerney, and Mona Simpson, among many others. The Paris Review was edited by George Plimpton until his death in S...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:304 pages, 8.01 × 5.29 × 0.76 inPublished:November 17, 2015Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

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ISBN - 10:0143128477

ISBN - 13:9780143128472

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Praise for The Paris ReviewAbout the AuthorTitle PageCopyrightPreface by LORIN STEINFICTIONOttessa Moshfegh, A Dark and Winding RoadAngela Flournoy, LelahBen Lerner, False SpringAmie Barrodale, William WeiPeter Orner, Foley’s PondEmma Cline, MarionApril Ayers Lawson, VirginAtticus Lish, JimmyMatt Sumell, ToastBenjamin Nugent, GodGarth Greenwell, GospodarZadie Smith, Miss Adele Amidst the CorsetsPOETRYBen Lerner, No ArtNick Laird, XYBrenda Shaughnessy, Life’s WorkRowan Ricardo Phillips, Over the Counties of Kings and Queens Came the Second IdeaJana Prikryl, A Place as Good as AnyMonica Youn, March of the Hanged MenIshion Hutchinson, The DifferenceBrian Blanchfield, Smalltown LiftDorothea Lasky, PornCathy Park Hong, Trouble in MindDan Chiasson, BicentennialKevin Young, from WinehouseCraig Morgan Teicher, Why Poetry: A Partial AutobiographySylvie Baumgartel, Gramercy ParkNONFICTIONJohn Jeremiah Sullivan, Mister Lytle: An EssaySarah Manguso, Short DaysDavy Rothbart, Human SnowballKristin Dombek, Letter from WilliamsburgJ. D. Daniels, Letter from KentuckyCONTRIBUTORSThe Paris Review StaffPREFACESince 1953, The Paris Review has been known for discovering new writers. No little magazine has a better record of spotting original talent, from Philip Roth and Adrienne Rich to David Foster Wallace. That record of discovery is what first drew me to the Review as a reader, and it’s why I joined the magazine as editor in 2010. The same is true for my colleagues. We relaunched the Review five years ago because we thought it had an important job to do—one more important now than ever before.Why more important now? Because the other literary magazines we’d grown up on had folded, or else had faded from the scene (nobody forced them on you, nobody argued about them). The most adventurous new journals specialized in politics, criticism, history, humor, design—all kinds of things but fiction and poetry. The few glossies that still published stories stuck mainly to familiar voices, with very little space for unknowns. The book business was in crisis, having lost the local reviewers and booksellers who once paved the way for new work. Social media—often held up as a new kind of literary community—had in fact turned young writers into publicists, creating an echo chamber of empty praise. As Sarah Manguso writes in “Short Days,” “The difference between today’s under-thirty writers and its over-forty writers is that the former, like everyone their age, already know how to act like famous people: people whose job it is to be photographed.” In many MFA programs, the novel had largely displaced short stories and poetry, reflecting the demands of a diminished marketplace. Where this happened, it often meant less close reading, less real criticism, lower standards, and less regard for artistic, as opposed to commercial, success. In the eyes of many students, and their teachers, success meant leaving school with a six-figure advance.Young writers, in other words, were encouraged to think of themselves as professionals: to write long and network hard. And yet, with a few exceptions (which we excerpted in the Review, when we could), the new work that interested us most was in the short forms—stories, essays, poems—where every sentence, every hesitation counts. These pieces gave us that sense of interiority overheard that we miss in so much contemporary writing. And they made sense of the world we knew. Their narrators were at home in prose or verse as if in a native language. They didn’t turn away from “inappropriate” feelings or refuse to face the changes that technology and corporate surveillance, for example, have made in our everyday lives. Rejecting the idea of literature as a specialized and inauthentic realm—an historic district of the mind—these writers attended to the landscape the way they found it. They spoke the vernacular of our time.And they gave the Review new life. In the last decade, our circulation has tripled: the Review has more readers now than ever before in its sixty-year history. Clearly, there is a demand for the intensity and perfection found only in small things. As Ottessa Moshfegh put it in a recent interview: “A good short story can break my heart in a way a novel just can’t. Novels require so much human tinkering. The author’s fingerprints are all over the place. When I read a short story, a good one, the author disappears for me. Short stories are spiritual in that sense. As though out of thin air, they appear.”The writers in this volume range in age from their late twenties to their early forties. A few are famous; a few have become well known in the last five years; most will be new to you, as they were to us. They come from all over the country; a few are recent arrivals on our shores. Yet for all their differences, they share a commitment to realism c.2015, when one of the hardest things to represent believably is a voice that speaks on the page, one individual to another. That commitment, that complicity, has little to do with the writing profession as it’s generally taught and practiced, and everything to do with why we read.LORIN STEINA DARK AND WINDING ROADOttessa MoshfeghMy parents kept a small cabin in the mountains. It was a simple thing, just four walls, and very dark inside. A heavy felt curtain blotted out whatever light made it through the canopy of huge pines and down into the cabin’s only window. There was a queen-size bed in there, an armchair, and a wood-burning stove. It wasn’t an old cabin. I think my parents built it in the seventies from a kit. In a few spots the wood beams were branded with the word HOME-RITE. But the spirit of the place made me think of simpler times, olden days, yore, or whenever it was that people rarely spoke except to say there was a storm coming or the berries were poisonous or whatnot, the bare essentials. It was deadly quiet up there. You could hear your own heart beating if you listened. I loved it, or at least I thought I ought to love it—I’ve never been very clear on that distinction. I retreated to the cabin that weekend in early spring after a fight with my wife. She was pregnant at the time, and I suppose she felt entitled to treat me terribly. So I went up there to spite her, yes, and in hopes that she would come to appreciate me in my absence, but also to have one last weekend to myself before the baby was born and my life as I’d known it was forever ruined.The drive to the cabin is easy to imagine. It was a drive like any drive to any cabin. It was up a dark and winding road. The last half mile or so was badly paved. With snow on the ground, I would have had to park in a clearing and walk the rest on foot. But the snow had melted by the time I got there. This was April. It was still cold, but everything had thawed. Everything was beautiful and dark and powerful the way nature is. I brought all my favorite things to eat and ate them almost immediately upon arrival: cornichons, smoked trout, rye crackers, sheep feta, cured olives, dried cherries, coconut-covered dates, Toblerone. I also brought up a nice bottle of Château Cheval Blanc, a wedding gift I’d hidden and saved for three years. But I found no corkscrew, so I resorted to the remnants of a bottle of cheap Scotch which I was surprised and relieved to discover on a shelf in the closet next to a dried-out roll of fly tape. Later, after dozing in the armchair for quite a while, I went outside in search of firewood and kindling. Night had fallen by then and I had no flashlight, hadn’t even thought to bring one, so I sort of grappled around for sticks in the glare from my headlights. My efforts amounted to a very brief but effective little fire.I’ve never been outdoorsy. My parents rarely brought us up to the cabin as children. There was barely room enough for a young couple, let alone bickering parents and two bickering sons. My brother was younger than me by just three years, but those three years seemed to stretch to a wide chasm of estrangement the older we got. Sometimes I wondered if my mother had strayed, we were that different. It wouldn’t be fair to call me a snob and my brother trash, but it wouldn’t be far from accurate. He called himself MJ, and I went by Charles. As a child I played clarinet, chess. Our parents bought MJ a drum set, but he wasn’t interested. He played video games, made messes. At recess I’d watch him throw fake punches at the smaller kids and wipe his snot on his sleeve. We didn’t sit together on the bus. In seventh grade I won a scholarship to an elite private high school, started wearing ties, played rugby, read newspapers, and spent all my time at home in my room with my books. I turned out successful, but nothing special. I became a real-estate lawyer, married my law-school girlfriend, bought a pricey condo in Murray Hill, nothing close to what I hoped I’d do.MJ was a different type of man. He had zero ambition. His friends lived in actual trailer parks. He dropped out of the public high school his junior year, shot dope, got a job in the warehouse of an outlet store, I think, unpacking boxes all day. I’m not quite sure how or if he makes a living now. He used to show up at Christmases unshowered in a ratty hooded sweatshirt, would pass out on the couch, wake up and eat like a wild boar, burping and laughing, then disappear at night. He was talented physically, could easily lift me up and spin me around, which he did often just to taunt me when we were teenagers. He had terrible cystic acne in high school—big red boils of pus that he squished mindlessly in front of the television. He didn’t care how he looked. He was a real guy’s guy. And I was always more my mother’s type. We shared a certain refinement which I’m sure was annoying to my brother, since he called me a faggot every chance he got. In any case, I hadn’t seen him in several years, since my wedding, and I hadn’t been up to the cabin since my wife and I first started dating. We’d spent an awkward night up there together one spring, a lifetime ago, but that’s not a very interesting story.I rolled a joint in my car with the lights on and smoked it sitting in the armchair, in the dark. There was no cell-phone service up there, which made me nervous. I don’t know why I continued to smoke marijuana as long as I did. It almost always sent me into an existential panic. When I smoked with my wife, I had to feign complete exhaustion just to excuse myself from going out for a walk, which she liked to do. I was so paranoid, so deeply anxious. When I got high I felt as though a dark curtain had been pulled across the world and I was left there alone to waver in its cold, dark shadows. I never dared to smoke by myself at home, lest I throw myself from our twelfth-story window. But when I smoked that night at the cabin, I felt fine. I whistled some songs, tapped my feet. I whistled one difficult tune in particular, a Stevie Wonder song which is melodically complicated, and after a few rounds I could really whistle it beautifully. I remembered what it was like to practice and get good at something. I thought of how great a dad I would be. “Practice makes perfect,” I’d tell my child, a truism, maybe, but it now seemed suddenly endowed with great depth and wisdom. And so I felt wonderful about myself, forgetting the strange world outside. I even thought that after my child was born, I’d still come up to the cabin once or twice a month, just to keep the secret of how great I am. I whistled some more.Around nine o’clock, I pulled my sleeping bag out and unrolled it on the bed which was covered in old blankets and dust and mouse poop, and slept with no trouble at all. In the morning I guzzled a liter of mineral water and drove on the dark and winding road back to Route 11, where there was a Burger King. I ate breakfast there. In addition to my breakfast sandwich and coffee, I purchased several Whoppers which I figured I could heat on the wood-burning stove for lunch and dinner, should I decide to stay another night. I also bought a six-pack of beer, a family-size bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, and a pound of Twizzlers from the gas station. And I bought the local newspapers and a magazine called Fly Tyer to stare at while I chewed. On my cell phone I found one missed call from my wife. I ignored it.Back at the cabin I shook the dust off the blankets covering the bed because I wanted to lie down in the light from the window and read Fly Tyer and eat Twizzlers. Something flesh colored caught my eye amid the blankets. At first I thought what I’d seen was my wife’s old diaphragm—a Band-Aid–colored thing which I’d always hated looking at. Then I thought it might be an old prosthetic arm, or a doll. But when I pulled another blanket back, I saw it was a dildo. A large, curved, Band-Aid–colored, rubber dildo. My first instinct of course was to pick it up and smell it, which I did. It only smelled faintly of rubber, anonymous. I set it on the sill of the window and went outside to collect more firewood. I was determined to start a real fire. Was I perturbed to find the dildo? It only peeved me the way one is peeved when one hears his neighbors banging pots through the walls. And it seemed at the time more like vandalism than evidence of any kind of sexual activity. It seemed like a prank. Outside I was happily surprised to find a large store of dry logs in the crawl space under the cabin.Once I’d gotten the fire roaring, I sat down and cursed myself for having forgotten to buy a corkscrew from the gas station, since late morning by the fire seemed like the perfect time to sip my wine. I swore aloud. The friend who had given me that bottle was an old college classmate. I’d slept with his girlfriend one weekend senior year while he was visiting his parents, and I never told him. His girlfriend’s name was Cindy and she was half Pakistani and liked poppers and farted in her sleep. She was the last girl I slept with before my wife. So that bottle to me meant more than good wine. There was no way I was sharing it with my wife. I considered driving back down to the gas station, but there was no guarantee they’d have a corkscrew. Plus I was too scared to leave the fire burning unattended. There was no fire extinguisher, and the plumbing was shot. Not being able to wash my hands was the only real drawback to the place. I relieved myself outdoors, watching the smoke tuft out of the metal chimney like a choo-choo train. Afterward I used sanitizing gel on my hands and sat in the armchair again.I’d gotten lucky the night before, but after I smoked that joint that morning and saw my fire burning, heart still banging with fury about the impenetrable wine, Cindy’s brown legs hanging off the bed, I knew I was in trouble. My thoughts turned to the primitive longings of early man, and I searched in my heart for some remnant of primal wantonness, and since I was looking, I found it. I rolled another joint and smoked it and removed my shirt and fed the fire apprehensively and sat on the bare floor of the cabin and growled and rocked like a baby and crawled around on my hands and knees. But the floor of the cabin was filthy. I found a broom and swept. Whoever was going up there and doing the dildoing had no regard for cleanliness, I thought to myself. I cleaned until I was hungry, and fed the fire again and put one of the Whoppers on the iron stove. The special sauce melted and the bun burned on the bottom, but when I bit into it, it was all just chewy and lukewarm and reminded me of my elementary-school cafeteria and that low-quality food that I so desperately wanted to comfort me, but didn’t.The cabin hardly looked any cleaner after all that sweeping. In fact, I probably stirred up more dust than I swept out the door. I sneezed and drank a few beers and relieved myself again and used more hand-sanitizing gel and sat in the armchair. I smoked another joint. That last one was a mistake, since after just a few minutes I was picturing my unborn son crying over my grave fifty years into the future, and I felt the gravity of his woe and resentment toward me, and I despised him. Then I imagined everything bad he’d say about me to his own children after my death. I imagined my grandchildren’s bitchy faces. I hated them for not worshipping me. Had they no idea of my sacrifice? There I was, perfectly wonderful, and nobody would see that. I looked up and saw a bat hanging from the rafters. I went to a very dark place. The oceanic emptiness in my gut churned. I pictured my old body rotting in my coffin. I pictured my skin wrinkling and turning black and falling off my bones. I pictured my rotting genitals. I pictured my pubic hair filling with larvae. And after all that, there was infinite darkness. There was nothing.Just as I considered hanging myself with my belt, there was a knock on the door of the cabin, and a girl’s voice called out, “MJ?”The only girlfriend of MJ’s I’d ever met had the odd name of Carrie Mary. I always thought Carrie Mary must have been slightly retarded because she had that kind of fat double chin and weak smile and the sort of waddle that some retarded people have, and she wore her hair in small pigtails all over her head, fixed with childish bows. I think my parents were too polite to question the relationship, but when MJ brought her home one Thanksgiving, I confronted him. “Are you taking advantage of Carrie Mary because she’s mentally disabled?” My brother did not answer me. He simply took the log of goat cheese I was spreading on melba toast and threw it at the floor and stepped in it with his dirty tennis shoe. He tracked that goat cheese all around the house, and later that night I heard my brother fucking Carrie Mary. He sounded like a growling bear when he fucked her. I’d never heard anyone grunt like that before. It was so authentic. It scared me. I couldn’t look him in the eye for days.But the woman at the door was not Carrie Mary. I composed myself and received her in a manner I thought was perfectly casual. “How do you do? I’m Charles.” I was very high. Shirtless, I folded my arms across my belly like a straightjacket.“He here?” she asked, seeming to notice neither my greatness nor my awkwardness. She was a local—long, dyed, purplish hair, big gray sweatshirt, tight jeans, dark lipstick, no coat on. She looked like the kind of girl who works at a Store 24 or some pizza parlor or bowling alley, takes a lot of flak from the patrons, eleventh-grade education. “Is MJ around?” she asked, sniffling from the cold. A chilling perfume, like vodka and honey, cut through the air. I thought I’d die.“No,” I said. It seemed imperative that I come off casual. “Haven’t seen him.”She bit her lips in disappointment, rubbed her hands together. I could see she was wearing a full face of makeup. Chalky powder caked over her cheeks, rouge, blue eye shadow. She looked young, twenty maybe. I tried to ask for her name.“And to whom do I have the pleasure?” is what I said, and immediately I heard my voice echo through the trees like some nervous pervert or dweeb, like someone who’s never had a conversation before.“Is he coming back soon?” she asked. “MJ?”“Yes, MJ,” I said before I could even understand her question.“Cool if I wait for him? My brother can’t pick me up till four.”I nodded. She stepped closer to me, and for a moment I thought she wanted me to embrace her, so I lifted my arms awkwardly, then put them down. She was generous not to stare at my gut, my nipples.“Can I come inside?” she asked.“Sorry,” I said, and turned to give her room to walk through the doorway.I don’t know why I kept up the lie about MJ. I certainly wasn’t in the mood to entertain this young woman, whose name I soon learned was Michelle, but spelled somehow with an x because, as she put it, her family was European. Perhaps somewhere in me I felt that keeping her company would be a further affront to my wife, which was the entire point of my trip, after all. I admit I was grateful to have something come in and disturb the journey of my thinking. The first thing she did was light a cigarette and pace around and point to the dildo and blow a ring of smoke and say to me, as though she were asking me the time of day, “You a fag?”“No,” I replied, disgusted. And then for some reason—maybe I wanted to school her, blow her mind—I said, “I’m not a fag—I’m a homosexual.” I pronounced the word very carefully, elongating the vowels and punctuating the u, which I thought was a pretension quite in keeping with my statement.“For real?” she said, flicking her cigarette and gazing down at my crotch. “How do you know MJ?” she asked. I put my shirt back on.“A friend,” I said.“What kind of friend?” she asked.“A very dear friend,” I replied. The words just came out of me. I sat in the armchair and crossed my legs. Michelle seemed to read my mind and offered me a cigarette. She looked at me suspiciously. I smoked as faggily as I could, bringing the cigarette to my puckered lips, sucking my cheeks in, then flinging my arm out, hyperextending the elbow as I exhaled to the side. I had her fooled, I knew. I was like a purring cat.“You come up here a lot?” she asked. “To see MJ?”“From time to time,” I replied, swinging my foot. “When we can both get away.”The girl kept sniffling. She threw her cigarette out the open door and closed it, went and knelt by the fire, warmed her hands.“Where’d he go?” she asked. She was uneasy, but she wasn’t the type of girl to get offended. I was familiar with girls like her—tough, blue-collar teenagers. They were around when I was an undergrad, off campus. There was one like Michelle who worked as a bartender in a small pool hall my friends and I went to because we thought it was quaint. That girl was beautiful, could have been a movie star if she’d wanted to, but she just chewed gum and had dead eyes and seemed immune to all manner of flattery or abuse. That’s what Michelle was like. She seemed immune. And for that reason, I felt impelled to hurt her.“He went out,” I said, “to buy a corkscrew.” I pointed to the Château Cheval Blanc on the floor next to my overnight bag.She picked up the bottle, smeared her nose on her sleeve. She was pretty. A cold face with small features like a child’s, no wrinkles, no expression. She held the bottle by its neck and swung it around, squinted at the label. “You like wine?” she asked. She was being polite, making conversation. I was afraid she’d drop the bottle and break it. I tried to sound relaxed.“I love wine. Red, white,” I said, “rosé.” I tried another word. “Blush.”“MJ didn’t tell me you were going to be here,” she said, putting the wine down. “We’d had a time set and everything,” she shrugged, flipped her hair.“He’ll be back,” I said. “We’ll sort it out.”She nodded and sniffed and crossed her arms and looked down.“Are you hungry?” I asked her. The second Whopper was still in the bag on the counter by the sink. I pointed.“No thanks,” she said.“I’m a vegetarian myself,” I said. “MJ likes that kind of food.” I was feeling very clever, very bold. “That’s what I love about him—childish tastes.” With this statement I felt I had surpassed a misrepresentation and graduated to fraud, from novice to expert. “He just likes to play. Play and play. I suppose that’s what you two do together?”She sat on the bed, folded her legs up Indian style. “We smoke,” she said. “Crystal?” She pulled a small glass pipe from her pocket, a crumpled ball of foil, displayed them to me on the palm of her hand like a fortune teller or a blackjack dealer, then laid them on the blanket beside her.“Aha,” I said. I must have looked like a grandfather to her. She was perched on the bed there like a bird, hair flipping magically with a flick of the wrist in the quivering light from the small window. We passed a minute or two of long, dramatic silence. I felt I was in the presence of some great power. Then it suddenly occurred to me that MJ might show up.“Maybe I should go,” I said. “Leave you two to it.” She didn’t try to stop me. I collected my things. I put my boots on. But I couldn’t leave the girl in there alone. This was my cabin, after all. I sat back down. She looked at her phone for a while.“No reception,” she mumbled, biting her lips. She yawned.There was one thing about my brother I loved. He was loyal. He would punch me, and he would insult me, but he would not betray me. Despite all our differences, I believe he understood me. When we were younger, seven and ten, I suppose, our mother worked at an after-school daycare at a church and would let us play in the backyard where there was a swing set and a sandbox and a bush with berries on it we were warned not to touch. But I liked to collect the berries. I filled my pockets with them and flushed them down the toilet when I got home. MJ and I barely spoke all afternoon. He was a little kid. He dug in the sand and pissed in it, spat, threw rocks at squirrels, shimmied up the posts of the swing set, threatened to throw a shoe at my head. I mostly sat on a swing or under a tree. I was too smart to play any games.As the weeks passed, we got bored and started taking walks through the neighborhood. It was a wealthy suburb—pretty Dutch Colonials, some big Victorians. Those houses are worth in the millions now. We just strolled around, peering into windows. MJ liked to rifle through mailboxes, or ring doorbells, then run away, leaving me standing there with my hands in my pockets. But nobody ever came out of those houses. MJ must have known nobody would. He dared me to do things, stupid things, but I was a coward. “Pussy brains” is what MJ called me. I barely cared. He could say what he liked. He could do whatever he wanted to me. I knew, when the time was right, I would get back at him.One afternoon we found an empty house and hoisted each other in through an open window. MJ went straight to the basement, but I just stood frozen in the kitchen, waiting, afraid to call out to him, heart tearing through my chest. When MJ came back up he had a hammer in his hands. “For squirrels,” he said. He opened the refrigerator. Inside it were the most delicious foods I’d ever seen. There was a roasted ham in there, an assortment of cheeses, and there was a pie—blueberry, I think. Something came over me in that moment. I pulled the poisonous berries from my pocket and smushed them inside the pie, up under the crust. MJ gave me the thumbs up. That was the first time we broke into a house together. I stole a chip of Roquefort that day. We went back the next day and I stole the rest of it. This went on, I think, for months until our mother enrolled us in the aftercare. I still have a Buffalo nickel that I stole from inside an old rolltop desk in one of those houses. Many other things we stole and threw away—scribbled notes, address books, a fork, a pack of cards, a toothbrush, things like that. Sometimes I’d sit at one woman’s vanity, smell all her perfumes and lotions, stare at my face in the mirror while MJ mucked around in the kid’s room. I’d douse my cheeks with a powder puff. I’d lie on the unwieldy water bed. I’d sniff things, lick things, put everything back in its place.Twenty years later, I still felt that the good things, the things I wanted, belonged to somebody else. I watched the waning light play in Michelle’s somber eyes. She returned my gaze for a moment. It was clear the curtain had fallen for her, too. We shared a moment of recognition, I think, alone there in the darkening cabin.“I don’t think MJ’s coming,” she said finally. She looked at me straight in the face, shrugging. “If he does come—” she began.“We’ll say we couldn’t wait. We’ll say ‘you snooze you lose,’” I agreed, as she uncrinkled the foil.We shared a wonderful afternoon together. We seemed to be playing our roles, the two scorned lovers. When she picked it up off the windowsill, I had the sense we were accomplishing great things. I let her do whatever she wanted to do to me that day in the cabin. It wasn’t painful, nor was it terrifying, but it was disgusting—just as I’d always hoped it would be.NO ARTBen LernerTonight I can’t remember whyeverything is permitted or,what amounts to the same thing,forbidden. No art is total, eventheirs, even though it raisestowers or kills from the air,there’s too much piety in despair,as if the silver leaves behindthe glass were politicsand the wind they move inand the chance of scatteredstorms. Those are stillmy ways of making andI know that I can call on youuntil you’re real enoughto turn from. Maybe I have fallenbehind, am falling, butI think of myself as havingpeople, a small peoplein a failed state, and lovemore avant-garde than shameor the easy distances.All my people are with me nowthe way the light is.MISTER LYTLE: AN ESSAYJohn Jeremiah SullivanWhen I was twenty years old, I became a kind of apprentice to a man named Andrew Lytle, whom pretty much no one apart from his negligibly less ancient sister, Polly, had addressed except as Mister Lytle in at least a decade. She called him Brother. Or Brutha—I don’t suppose either of them had ever voiced a terminal r. His two grown daughters did call him Daddy. Certainly I never felt even the most obscure impulse to call him Andrew, or “old man,” or any other familiarism, though he frequently gave me to know it would be all right if I were to call him mon vieux. He, for his part, called me boy, and beloved, and once, in a letter, “Breath of My Nostrils.” He was about to turn ninety-two when I moved into his basement, and he had not yet quite reached ninety-three when they buried him the next winter, in a coffin I had helped to make—a cedar coffin, because it would smell good, he said. I wasn’t that helpful. I sat up a couple of nights in a freezing, starkly lit workshop rubbing beeswax into the boards. The other, older men—we were four altogether—absorbedly sawed and planed. They chiseled dovetail joints. My experience in woodworking hadn’t gone past feeding planks through a band saw for shop class, and there’d be no time to redo anything I might botch, so I followed instructions and with rags cut from an undershirt worked coats of wax into the cedar until its ashen whorls glowed purple, as if with remembered life.The man overseeing this vigil was a luthier named Roehm whose house stood back in the woods on the edge of the plateau. He was about six and a half feet tall with floppy bangs and a deep, grizzled mustache. He wore huge glasses. I believe I have never seen a person more tense than Roehm was during those few days. The cedar was “green”—it hadn’t been properly cured. He groaned that it wouldn’t behave. On some level he must have resented the haste. Lytle had lain dying for weeks; he endured a series of disorienting pin strokes. By the end they were giving him less water than morphine. He kept saying, “Time to go home,” which at first meant he wanted us to take him back to his house, his real house, that he was tired of the terrible simulacrum we’d smuggled him to, in his delirium. Later, as those fevers drew together into what seemed an unbearable clarity, like a blue flame behind the eyes, the phrase came to mean what one would assume.He had a deathbed, in other words. He didn’t go suddenly. Yet although his family and friends had known for years about his wish to lie in cedar, which required that a coffin be custom made, no one had so much as played with the question of who in those mountains could do such a thing or how much time the job would take. I don’t hold it against them—against us—the avoidance of duty, owing as it did to fundamental incredulity. Lytle’s whole existence had for so long been essentially posthumous, he’d never risk seeming so ridiculous as to go actually dying now. My grandfather had told me once that when he’d been at Sewanee, in the thirties, people had looked at Lytle as something of an old man, a full sixty years before I met him. And he nursed this impression, with his talk of coming “to live in the sense of eternity,” and of the world he grew up in—Middle Tennessee at the crack of the twentieth century—having more in common with Europe in the Middle Ages than with the South he lived to see. All of his peers and enemies were dead. A middle daughter he had buried long before. His only wife had been dead for thirty-four years, and now Mister Lytle was dead, and we had no cedar coffin.But someone knew Roehm, or knew about him; and it turned out Roehm knew Lytle’s books; and when they told Roehm he’d have just a few days to finish the work, he set to, without hesitation and even with a certain impatience, as if he feared to displease some unforgiving master. I see him there in the little space, repeatedly microwaving Tupperware containers full of burnt black coffee and downing them like Coca-Colas. He loomed. He was so large there hardly seemed room for the rest of us, and already the coffin lid lay on sawhorses in the center of the floor, making us sidle along the walls. At least a couple of times a night Roehm, who was used to agonizing for months over tiny, delicate instruments, would suffer a collapse, would hunch on his stool and bury his face in his hands and bellow “It’s all wrong!” into the mute of his palms. My friend Sanford and I stared on. But the fourth, smaller man, a person named Hal, who’d been staying upstairs with Lytle toward the end and acting as a nurse, he knew Roehm better—now that I think of it, Hal must have been the one to tell the family about him in the first place—and Hal would put his hands on Roehm’s shoulders and whisper to him to be calm, remind him how everyone understood he’d been allowed too little time, that if he wanted we could take a break. Then Roehm would smoke. I remember he gripped each cigarette with two fingertips on top, snapping it in and out of his lips the way toughs in old movies do. Sanford and I sat outside in his truck with the heater on and drank vodka from a flask he’d brought, gazing on the shed with its small bright window, barely saying a word.Weeks later he told me a story that Hal had told him, that at seven o’clock in the morning on the day of Lytle’s funeral—which strangely Roehm did not attend—Hal woke to find Roehm sitting at the foot of his and his wife’s bed, repeating the words “It works,” apparently to himself. I never saw him again. The coffin was art. Hardly anyone got to see it. All through the service and down the street to the cemetery it wore a pall, and when people lined up at the graveside to take turns shoveling dirt back into the pit, the hexagonal lid—where inexplicably Roehm had found a spare hour to do scrollwork—grew invisible after just a few seconds. • • • There had been different boys living at Lytle’s since not long after he lost his wife, maybe before—in any case it was a recognized if unofficial institution when I entered the college at seventeen. In former days these were mainly students whose writing showed promise, as judged by a certain well-loved, prematurely white-haired literature professor, himself a former protégé and all but a son during Lytle’s long widowerhood. As years passed and Lytle declined, the arrangement came to be more about making sure someone was there all the time, someone to drive him and chop wood for him and hear him if he were to break a hip.There were enough of us who saw it as a privilege, especially among the English majors. We were students at the University of the South, and Lytle was the South, the last Agrarian, the last of the famous “Twelve Southerners” behind I’ll Take My Stand, a comrade to the Fugitive Poets, a friend since youth of Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren; a mentor to Flannery O’Connor and James Dickey and Harry Crews and, as the editor of The Sewanee Review in the sixties, one of the first to publish Cormac McCarthy’s fiction. Bear in mind that by the mid-nineties, when I knew him, the so-called Southern Renascence in letters had mostly dwindled to a tired professional regionalism. That Lytle hung on somehow, in however reduced a condition, represented a flaw in time, to be exploited.Not everyone felt that way. I remember sitting on the floor one night with my freshman-year suitemate, a ninety-five-pound blond boy from Atlanta called Smitty who’d just spent a miserable four years at some private academy trying to convince the drama teacher to let them do a Beckett play. His best friend had been a boy they called Tweety Bird, whose voice resembled a tiny reed flute. When I met Smitty, I asked what music he liked, and he shot back, “Trumpets.” That night he went on about Lytle, what a grotesquerie and a fascist he was. “You know what Andrew Lytle said?” Smitty waggled his cigarette lighter. “Listen to this: ‘Life is melodrama. Only art is real.’”I nodded in anticipation.“Don’t you think that’s horrifying?”I didn’t, though. Or I did and didn’t care. Or I didn’t know what I thought. I was under the tragic spell of the South, which you’ve either felt or haven’t. In my case it was acute because, having grown up in Indiana with a Yankee father, a child exile from Kentucky roots of which I was overly proud, I’d long been aware of a nowhereness to my life. Others wouldn’t have sensed it, wouldn’t have minded. I felt it as a physical ache. Finally I was somewhere, there. The South . . . I loved it as only one who will always be outside it can. Merely to hear the word Faulkner at night brought gusty emotions. A few months after I’d arrived at the school, Shelby Foote came and read from his Civil War history. When he’d finished, a local geezer with long greasy white hair wearing a white suit with a cane stood up in the third row and asked if, in Foote’s opinion, the South could have won, had such and such a general done such and such. Foote replied that the North had won “that war” with one hand behind its back. In the crowd there were gasps. It thrilled me that they cared. How could I help wondering about Lytle, out there beyond campus in his ancestral cabin, rocking before the blazing logs, drinking bourbon from heirloom silver cups and brooding on something Eudora Welty had said to him once. Whenever famous writers came to visit the school they’d ask to see him. He was from another world. I tried to read his novels, but my mind just ricocheted; they seemed impenetrably mannered. Even so, I hoped to be taken to meet him. One of my uncles had received such an invitation, in the seventies, and told me how the experience changed him, put him in touch with what’s real.The way it happened was so odd as to suggest either the involvement or the nonexistence of fate. I wasn’t even a student at the time. I’d dropped out after my sophomore year, essentially in order to preempt failing out, and was living in Ireland with a friend, working in a restaurant and failing to save money. But before my departure certain things had taken place. I’d become friends with the man called Sanford, a puckish, unregenerate back-to-nature person nearing fifty, who lived alone, off the electric grid, on a nearby communal farm. His house was like something Jefferson could have invented. Spring water flowed down from an old dairy tank in a tower on top; the refrigerator had been retrofitted to work with propane canisters that he salvaged from trailers. He had first-generation solar panels on the roof, a dirt-walled root cellar, a woodstove. He showered in a waterfall. We had many memorable hallucinogenic times that did not help my grades. Sanford needed very little money, but that he made doing therapeutic massage in town, and one of his clients was none other than Andrew Lytle, who drove himself in once a week, in his yacht-sized chocolate Eldorado, sometimes in the right lane, sometimes the left, as he fancied. The cops all knew to follow him but would do so at a distance, purely to ensure he was safe. Often he arrived at Sanford’s studio hours early, and anxiously waited in the car. He loved the feeling of human hands on his flesh, he said, and believed it was keeping him alive.One day, during their session, Lytle mentioned that his current boy was about to be graduated. Sanford, who didn’t know yet how badly I’d blown it at the school, or that I was leaving, told Lytle about me and gave him some stories I’d written. Or poems? Doubtless dreadful stuff—but perhaps it “showed promise.” Toward the end of summer airmail letters started to flash in under the door of our hilltop apartment in Cork, their envelopes, I remember, still faintly curled from having been rolled through the heavy typewriter. The first one was dated, “Now that I have come to live in the sense of eternity, I rarely know the correct date, and the weather informs me of the day’s advance, but I believe it is late August,” and went on to say, “I’m presuming you will live with me here.”That’s how it happened, he just asked. Actually, he didn’t even ask. The fact that he was ignoring the proper channels eventually caused some awkwardness with the school. But at the time, none of that mattered. I felt an exhilaration, the unsettling thrum of a great man’s regard, and somewhere behind that the distant onrushing of fame. His letters came once, then twice a week. They were brilliantly senile, moving in and out of coherence and between tenses, between centuries. Often his typos, his poor eyesight, would produce the finest sentences, as when he wrote the affectingly commaless “This is how I protest absolutely futilely.” He told me I was a writer but that I had no idea what I was doing. “This is where the older artist comes in.” He wrote about the Muse, how she tests us when we’re young. As our tone grew more intimate, his grew more urgent too. I must come back soon. Who knew how much longer he’d live? “No man can forestall or evade what lies in wait.” There were things he wanted to pass on, things that had taken him, he said, “too long to learn.” Now he’d been surprised to discover a burst of intensity left. He said not to worry about the school. “College is perhaps not the best preparation for a writer.” I’d live in the basement, a guest. We’d see to our work.It took me several months to make it back, and he grew annoyed. When I finally let myself in through the front door, he didn’t get up from his chair. His form sagged so exaggeratedly into the sofa, it was as if thieves had crept through and stolen his bones and left him there. He gestured at the smoky stone fireplace with its enormous black andirons and said, “Boy, I’m sorry the wood’s so poor. I had no idea I’d be alive in November.” He watched as though paralyzed while I worked at building back up the fire. He spoke only to critique my form. The heavier logs at the back, to project the heat. Not too much flame. “Young men always make that mistake.” He asked me to pour him some whiskey and announced flatly his intention to nap. He lay back and draped across his eyes the velvet bag the bottle had come tied in, and I sat across from him for half an hour, forty minutes. At first he talked in his sleep, then to me—the pivots of his turn to consciousness were undetectably slight, with frequent slippages. His speech was full of mutterings, warnings. The artist’s life is strewn with traps. Beware “the machinations of the enemy.”“Mr. Lytle,” I whispered, “who is the enemy?”He sat up. His unfocused eyes were an icy blue. “Why, boy,” he said, “the bourgeoisie!” Then he peered at me for a second as if he’d forgotten who I was. “Of course,” he said. “You’re only a baby.”I’d poured myself two bourbons during nap time and felt them somewhat. He lifted his own cup and said, “Confusion to the enemy.” We drank. • • • It was idyllic, where he lived, on the grounds of an old Chautauqua called the Assembly, one of those rustic resorts—deliberately placed up north, or at a higher altitude—which began as escapes from the plagues of yellow fever that used to harrow the mid-Southern states. Lytle could remember coming there as a child. An old judge, they said, had transported the cabin entire up from a cove somewhere in the nineteenth century. You could still see the logs in the walls, although otherwise the house had been made rather elegant over the years. The porch went all the way around. It was usually silent, except for the wind in the pines. Besides guests, you never saw anyone. A summer place, except Lytle didn’t leave.He slept in a wide carved bed in a corner room. His life was an incessant whispery passage on plush beige slippers from bed to sideboard to seat by the fire, tracing that perimeter, marking each line with light plantings of his cane. He’d sing to himself. The Appalachian one that goes, “A haunt can’t haunt a haunt, my good old man.” Or songs that he’d picked up in Paris at my age or younger—“Sous les Ponts de Paris” and “Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde.” His French was superb, but his accent in English was best—that extinct mid-Southern, land-grant pioneer speech, with its tinges of the abandoned Celtic urban Northeast (“boyned” for burned) and its raw gentility.From downstairs I could hear him move and knew where he was in the house at all times. My apartment had once been the kitchen—servants went up and down the back steps. The floor was all bare stone, and damp. And never really warm, until overnight it became unbearably humid. Cave crickets popped around as you tried to sleep, touching down with little clicks. Lots of mornings I woke with him standing over me, cane in one hand, coffee in the other, and he’d say, “Well, my lord, shall we rise and entreat Her Ladyship?” Her ladyship was the Muse. He had all manner of greetings.For half a year we worked steadily, during his window of greatest coherence, late morning to early afternoon. We read Flaubert, Joyce, a little James, the more famous Russians, all the books he’d written about as an essayist. He tried to make me read Jung. He chopped at my stories till nothing was left but the endings, which he claimed to admire. A too-easy eloquence, was his overall diagnosis. I tried to apply his criticisms, but they were sophisticated to a degree my efforts couldn’t repay. He was trying to show me how to solve problems I hadn’t learned existed.

Table of Contents

FICTION

Ottessa Moshfegh, A Dark and Winding Road
Angela Flournoy, Lelah
Ben Lerner, False Spring
Amie Barrodale, William Wei
Peter Orner, Foley’s Pond
Emma Cline, Marion
April Ayers Lawson, Virgin
Atticus Lish, Jimmy
Matt Sumell, Toast
Benjamin Nugent, God
Garth Greenwell, Gospodar
Zadie Smith, Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets

POETRY
Ben Lerner, No Art
Nick Laird, XY
Brenda Shaughnessy, Life’s Work
Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Over the Counties of Kings and Queens Came the Second Idea
Jana Prikryl, A Place as Good as Any
Monica Youn, March of the Hanged Men
Ishion Hutchinson, The Difference
Brian Blanchfield, Smalltown Lift
Dorothea Lasky, Porn
Cathy Park Hong, Trouble in Mind
Dan Chiasson, Bicentennial
Kevin Young, from Winehouse
Craig Teicher, Why Poetry: A Partial Autobiography
Sylvie Baumgartel, Gramercy Park

NONFICTION

John Jeremiah Sullivan, Mr Lytle: An Essay
Sarah Manguso, Short Days
Davy Rothbart, Human Snowball
Kristin Dombek, Letter from Williamsburg
J. D. Daniels, Letter from Kentucky

Editorial Reviews

"A dispatch from the front lines of literature."-The Atlantic"A new generation of writers is not only keeping American literature alive but restoring the excitement of it - pushing it forward, rediscovering and rethinking the world we live in - and the Paris Review, despite its age and pedigree, is at the forefront of the renaissance." -Jonathan Franzen “This book is electric. I got to encounter voices I already loved and fall in love with writers I’d never read, got to realize this would be the day I’d always remember as the day I read them first.” -Leslie Jamison"Lesser-known writers manage startling feats in the array of stories, poems, and nonfiction pieces collected in this anthology. But don’t be surprised—or disappointed—to encounter the work of very successful pros, too, from Zadie Smith and Ben Lerner to Dan Chiasson and John Jeremiah Sullivan."-The Atlantic"In presenting writing like this, The Paris Review has fashioned a valuable correction to the prevailing notion that a writer's success can only be gauged by megabucks contracts, media attention, and multiple printings."-Elle"Like a beautifully unified concept album...The Unprofessionals lulls readers away from the conventional and everyday with its limpid prose and toward the edge of some psychological abyss."-Sam Sacks, The New Republic"Good writers are always beginners, unprofessionals, driven by desire: ears open, vision wiped clean. They find their home in The Paris Review."-Hilary Mantel   "The best possible introduction to the best literary magazine we have." -Akhil Sharma"There’s a searing reality present in the collection that feels wholly different from the kind of writing we all consume on a daily basis...In the absence of morality and self-consciousness, the collection almost shakes its way off the page, so buzzing is it with life and shame and voice."-Kirkus