Interviews & Reviews

TRANSMISSIONS: nathan’s nook

Welcome to Transmissions, an interview feature in which X-R-A-Y profiles book podcasts and youtubers.Nathan is an aries who spends his time avoiding real life responsibilities with literary fiction and foreign films, having existential crises in dressing rooms, and drinking too much coffee. Hailing from Los Angeles, he currently lives in Korea where he tries to embody Joan Didion by day and Eve Babitz by night. His novella, Adolescence Leaves explores loss and love in memories of a relationship ripped apart between Los Angeles and Tokyo. You can find Nathan on Instagram or Youtube. Or at any of the links here.Rebecca Gransden: How would you describe the channel to someone who is unfamiliar with what you do?Nathan Truong: Tiny bags, big brain books, cold brews, and clubbing.RG: Does the channel have a mission or manifesto?NT: I make it known that: “I read because reading is sexy, and if you’re not reading, you’re not sexy.” I demand you pick up a book.RG: How long has the channel been in existence, and how have you seen it grow over that time?NT: The channel is a little over a year old now heading to year two in March 2024. Growth has been gradual, and it has been such an incredible experience discovering different booktubers. In the lit fic niche, everyone is so kind, smart, and wonderful. I’ve made such incredible friendships that I felt I’ve been missing my entire bookish life.RG: Where did the idea for the channel come from?NT: I originally started the channel because I never had a physical place or person to talk books with. Reading is such a solitary act, but when you come out of it, you desperately want to connect because the world that you encompassed yourself in after however many pages has ended. There is a reaching. So, I reached out online and it’s been incredible to talk about books with so many people now.RG: How did you decide upon a title for the channel?NT: I wanted alliteration out of the channel name with my own. Something easy, something simple. RG: Are there any channels that influenced or encouraged you to start the project?NT: I have to pay thanks to @rebeccaeatsbooks for giving me the jumpstart in starting booktube. She only filmed from her phone and I thought, why not? I also have to thank @cjreads for showing me the lit fic world and allowing myself to find a personal brand within how I wanted to present books and myself.My last thanks goes to @whatpageareyouon for his review of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous for speaking so thoughtfully of the book when I had no one around me to talk to about it. His video appeared first in the Youtube search engine and validated a lot of feelings I had about the book. It also made me realize Youtube as a space to talk about books.RG: Which of your videos would you recommend to someone who is new to what you do?NT: It would have to be the Book Recommendation Tag Video as it’s a pretty good look at some of the books I read if you’re curious about my reading tastes.Another good video is this LA Vlog capturing bits and bobs of Sula, Breasts and Eggs, and my general life and vibe. It’s short, non-committal. So, a very good appetizer to the channel.RG: How do you go about selecting what to feature on each video?NT: I’m in the camp of long-form content, so whatever I have as backlog footage, I try to piece together to make a 30-40 minute video that is somewhat coherent. Otherwise, if there’s a specific book I want to feature, I will do a singular vlog on the book.RG: If your channel features guests, how do you go about finding them?NT: Location location location! I had the chance to meet Modern Ajumma (@yenasung) when I was home in LA because we live quite close to each other. And I had the chance to meet @bibliosophie because she lives in New York and I was there when I was on vacation. Meeting booktubers in person has been such a pleasure and I hope to meet many more in the near future.RG: If you are a writer, has the channel impacted your writing life? and conversely, has a writerly disposition influenced the channel?NT: I am indeed a writer! The books I read for the channel have lent an eye into what kind of fiction I want to create and has helped me with my proofreading and edits. What to keep, what to cut. Naturally, more reading calls for better writing.In the near future, I want to feature more writing/reading vlogs because, whether I like it or not, I’m a brand. And the brand has got to be branding!RG: Do you watch videos about books?NT: Being part of booktube ultimately means involving yourself in the worlds of other booktubers. It’s community I’m after. Watching booktube has also put incredible books on my never-ending tbr.RG: What do you dislike about book videos?NT: Hot Take: I HATE when people read the back of books (though I am sometimes guilty of this) but I don’t care for the synopses of books. I’d rather hear how a booktuber emotionally resonates with the book. The mood, the vibe, what it reminds them of. I think those emotional ties with the book are what connects me a lot better with the video and the book.RG: Who is your dream guest?NT: I hope to feature more casual chit chats with booktubers with Youtube Lives or Zoom calls. Would love to have a fireside chat with @alsopato about books, movies, music, etc.RG: Is there a theme, subject or book you are burning to cover?NT: I’m hoping to do a Clarice Lispector tier list video as I am a Lispector stan. We worship her!RG: Is there a lit channel that doesn’t exist, but you wish did?NT: I love watching vlogs. Combining the everyday with lit fic is something I want to see more of in the booktube-sphere. RG: Is there a lit channel that exists, but you wish didn’t?NT: The lit fic niche is so small. There are so many other genres of fiction that get a lot of love, but lit fic is incredibly important in how we navigate through the world and interlink our lives with others. We need more lit fic stans.RG: For techheads, which single item of kit do you consider essential for the production of the channel, and what would you say are the basics needed for those new to videos?NT: I think the big question is always camera-centric. The channel started out with an iPhone 12 Mini and is now filmed with an iPhone 13 Pro Max. In my opinion, Apple is the best in terms of sound, video, and stabilization for daytime and nighttime filming.RG: If someone would like to support independent creators, what are the best ways to do this?NT: The best way to support is to connect. You can do this with a comment, a follow, a like, a share. Because the booktube community is so interlinked, we’re all bound to be talking of each other, bouncing ideas back and forth, and, essentially, reading the same books.RG: Looking back on the channel, are there favorite videos, videos that stand out to you, or videos that didn’t go as you would’ve liked?NT: Yes, I play favorites. Everything is a work in progress, but I do consider "we just want to make our mistakes" vlog a shift in the way I read books and read a bit closer to the text by the line of life. The video is mostly about Parade by Rachel Cusk, but also about Heti's recent Alphabetical Diaries, and how autofiction is working between the two.Another video that I cherish a lot is my All Fours | Miranda July vlog. It's a special book with special times that capture the whimsy of the entire book. It's who I am.RG: What are your plans for the future?NT: More books, more coffee, more clubbing, and more honest, open, and compelling conversations around books. And I demand there be more sexy readers.RG: If you liked that, you may also like this. Are there any lit channels on a similar wavelength to your own that you would recommend to a viewer who appreciates what you do?NT: The best influencers are your friends. So check out all my friends. Love them as much as I do.@kiranreader @thelefthandedreader6632 @benjaminjournal @soireadthisbook @TheBarandtheBookcase @batumanslittleidiot @MatthewSciarappa @katsfieldnotes @DogEaredMusings @pleasuresofthetext @Grandpasbookclub @rebareads@benreadsgood@TheDiscoKingOfficial @lucyrutherford @nadsluvs2read @noorsbookshelf @jameskatie @savidgereadsnathan’s nook can be found on YouTube. 
Fiction

GO TO HELL by Katherine Plumhoff

I thought I knew what hot was. Humidity I could swallow. The wings of dead fish flies going translucent in the sun. Sprinkles melting off my ice cream cone the second I walk out of the shop. There is no ice cream here. There are plenty of dead things, but they are not stiff and quiet. They buzz. Shake. Scream. If I think about them for too long they’re all I can see. All I can hear. I like to imagine it’s a particularly exotic vacation. A desired hot — one I spent money on and rolled up all my clothes into small balls for.Before, vacations felt like something being done to me. It didn’t matter if I filled every hour with an activity, pinballing from tasting room to walking tour to theater, or if I sprawled on a towel and tried to doze. The time away had the texture, rough and abrasive, of an exfoliating mitt. I never knew what it would reveal in me. My last vacation ruined me.

***

D runs the paddle brush down one side of her hair and then the other. She presses argan oil into each side until it’s a glossy, nutty brown that reminds me of the wood inlays of my dad’s old car. The heat protectant goes on as a spray. The straightener sizzles as D runs it down her hair.D is soft textures and shiny surfaces — thigh-high suede boots, slinky paisley skirt — except for her earrings, two waning moons whose points cut into her rosy cheeks when she turns her head. Her rings glint in the low light and she shrugs on a canvas blazer.  "I've never done this," she says, her dark eyes glancing down as she drags her finger over the thread that keeps the blazer’s pockets shut. "I've been saving it for now."I want her to break it. I want her to mar her smooth lines of her own volition. “Do it,” I whisper. She doesn’t hear me.She rips the pocket open and smiles. “That’s it for now!” she says. “I’ll be going live again from the top of the Duomo later today, so make sure your notifications are on!”I put my phone away. I open up the album I’ve made of screenshots from her Lives, in which I can see different corners of her apartment. I soothe myself with what now looks familiar: the skylight, stamped into the sloping roof above her bed; the once-white enamel hotplate that is her only kitchen appliance; the wardrobe cabinet distinguishable from the storage cabinet by the candy-colored Anthropologie table runner that hangs down it. These wisps of knowledge give structure to the scenes I invent for when I confront her. I will be adult about it, thoughtful. I’ll bring over food that doesn’t have to be heated up. An abundance of cold dips. Baba ganoush, maybe. She served it once when her friends from America came to visit. I scroll to the screenshots from that dinner, see heaps of pallid mush on daisy plates she brought over in one of her five giant duffels when she moved from London to Milan. She’d wrapped them on a Live, swaddling them in wide-legged twill trousers that looked too thin to be effective cushioning. I watched her stack them, one on top of the other, oblivious to how easily they break. 

***

I’ve come to Italy to see D. I’ve followed her since last year, when Paul stopped fucking me in order to fuck her. She moved here six months ago. I held out till now to come, though I put a flight tracker on as soon as she announced the move. Two hours to get to Gatwick, a two-hour flight to Malpensa, a 40-minute bus drive down flat, gray roads papered with flat, gray billboards in front of flat, gray buildings. Five hours of travel and an hour of milling around in the airport, avoiding the food court and swiping £180 eye serums across the patch of skin above my mask and underneath my glasses. Six hours, maybe, in total. Six hours is nothing. I’m used to American distances. I’ve driven that long to saw through thick steak and push it around a plate in a chain restaurant — a neutral place my parents’ and grandparents’ propriety wouldn’t let them scream in — before turning around and driving home. 

***

Paul didn’t tell me her name but I found her easily enough. I told myself I wouldn’t look him up after he told me he didn’t want to be with me anymore, but I got around that by looking up his friends, and I saw her tagged in a poorly-framed shot someone on his rugby team had posted of the team and their various hangers-on at a pub in Camden. She was standing in front of big foggy windows and was the best dressed of anyone present, wearing an embroidered denim Free People suit. She had mussed lips and a red chin I recognized as courtesy of Paul’s beard burn. It looked different on her complexion than it did on mine, but I could tell, and two weeks later, it was confirmed by a video his school friend posted of a gallery opening in Shoreditch, where Paul’s hand, pale and finely scarred like old vellum, rested on the back of her delicate neck. The two of them stood in front of an oil painting of drying laundry strung across a dusty balcony in Andalucia. Their bodies stayed touching from shoulders to hip until the camera panned away. 

***

I started watching D’s get-ready-with-me Lives. I followed her antique shopping. Her trips to poetry readings in members’ clubs where her friends read unstructured pieces about fertility treatments. Sometimes I saw Paul, glowing like he’d been professionally lit, smiling the half-smile he prefers because it hides his small teeth. Then D went dark for an entire month. Nothing new came up, no matter how often I refreshed, and I worried she’d blocked me. I started checking on her from the account I manage for the gallery I work for. She reappeared there a few weeks later, announcing her move to Italy. She’d stream to us as she walked to Pilates, to therapy, to the Italian lessons she was taking to “reconnect with her heritage.” She walked everywhere. I told the gallery I needed to work remotely for health reasons. I watched her in bed, blinds drawn, my phone growing hot in my hand.

***

I get dressed for the Duomo from the top down. Tortoiseshell sunglasses. My thick blue sweater and loose brown corduroys, though little of my outfit will be visible under my coat. When I get the notification that D’s gone live again, this time from the Cathedral’s entrance, I slip on brown Chelsea boots and walk to the elevator, where I tap through Stories as I get sucked down to the lobby. 

***

I want thousands of people to witness every moment of my life and I want those moments to be perfect tableaux of wealth and good taste, each carousel soaked in contentment: hand-thrown pottery in cornflower blues transitioning to a rainy city street strewn with streetlamp light transitioning to me in a billowy blouse, open-mouthed and laughing. I want the people who witness me living well to be famous in their own chosen careers, blue-ticked and beautiful. I want to see and be seen at London Fashion Week and go straight to Milan Fashion Week after having RSVP’d no to New York Fashion Week because I needed some time to rest, some time to nest, some time to walk barefoot over the underfloor heating of my three-story townhouse where I host parties and serve artisanal bread and eight kinds of cheese to people who don’t eat.I want to be the one they all watch. 

***

I thought the shift in the tone of D’s Lives meant Paul had dumped her when she moved. I would still see her one day, I knew, but my daydreams of our time together changed. I’d be magnanimous, the hatchet fully buried, and invite her to aperitivos. We’d sit across a small metal table and our voices would rise with every round, until we’d be walking down a cobblestone road with our arms around each other, laughing at stories about the man who didn’t love us, wrapping ourselves in solidarity.Then Paul posted from Milan. (I’d seen this upon checking his profile a few weeks into sleeping with a man who was in the ensemble of the Oklahoma! revival, when I thought I was over Paul and wanted to confirm that hypothesis. I should have known better. You can only ever get over a man with a better one, and this one shouted “Yee-haw!” in an American accent when he came.) Paul had said he was too busy to go to Paris with me when the gallery sent me to cover the first international show of an Irish artist they’d signed. The artist cross-stitched portraits of male politicians in drag, and I stood in front of them, alone, pouring drinks for the balding would-be buyers and the waifs that accompanied them. While D wasn’t in his pictures from his trip to Milan, he posted a story at the natural wine bar I knew was D’s favorite. In it, a dismembered female hand poured opaque pink wine from a labelless bottle.

***

I’m climbing to the top of the Duomo. I saw in D’s Live that she and the German girl she’s been hanging out with since she moved are sitting on the roof, answering questions from her followers and showing them the view.The roof isn’t as corded-off as I thought it would be. Nothing could be that high and that gothically depressive in America without chin-high fences to discourage jumpers. The Madonnina, gold-leafed and gleaming, is looking up into her crown of stairs, as if she’s already interceding on behalf of the faithful swarming her.On my phone, D is talking into the camera about how this is her first time at the top of the Cathedral even though she’s lived here for months. “We didn’t go to bed until four but we weren’t going to miss this,” she says. “We pre-bought the tickets!”In front of me, D and her friend are sitting atop a marble ledge in the wan winter sun, D’s face tilted down into her front camera. They’re framed between columns capped with gargoyles. It looks like they’re floating between graves. I make my way over to them.Two little kids in puffy jackets dart in front of me and line up behind one of the slats that make up the roof. They climb up it, then scoot down gingerly, half a foot at a time, before scampering back into line to do it again. I close out of D’s Live and watch as a little girl in a toggle-front coat and a fan of dark hair lands at the bottom of the slide. Her shoes thwack against the marble and she waves in my direction. I turn and see, between D and me, a woman sitting against a column. She has a scarf tucked around her face and over the shape of a bun. She’s not encouraging the girl’s fun but she’s not discouraging it, either. On another day, D and I could have laughed at how cute these little European kids and their little European grandmother are, how much joy there is to go around; we could have taken turns on the makeshift slide, inching towards the saw-toothed city below. Today, here, now, on the roof, I open my camera and start filming as I walk closer to D. “Remember to put the 1st of March in your diary,” I hear D say. “I’m going to the season premiere of The Mandalorian and I’m bringing you all with me!”“Did I ever tell you how I gave my first handjob to Star Wars?” the German girl says.“You’re so lucky I just turned off Live,” says D. “Otherwise your DMs would be absolutely flooded with filth.”The girls start laughing and I’m there, I’m right next to them, the sun is shining and we’re all laughing at the joke, and I go up to D and her friend and stick out my hand to introduce myself.“Hello!” I say, already laughing.D squints at me. “Do I know you?” she asks politely. I take off my sunglasses and D’s face goes slack. “Hi, D.”“Shit!” she says. I wait for her to calm down.“This is Paul’s crazy ex,” she says to her friend. She turns back to me. “Why are you here?” she asks, shirking away from where I’m standing.I didn’t think D would recognize me. I follow her, but she doesn’t follow me. She has hundreds of thousands of followers and Paul deleted the two pictures he’d had up of us after he left me. I thought I’d have to explain to her who I was, tell her details about Paul — the acne scars scattered across his shoulders in pencil-eraser pink — for her to believe me.This isn’t how I wanted it to begin. I can hear the kids screaming and I want to start over. “I just—” I start, stammering a bit.“Have you not bothered me enough?” D says. She turns to the German girl. Her cheeks go pallid under her bronzer and her eyes rake across the people behind us, all of whom are consumed in their own moments of communion with the church or with their cameras. “She’s the one who messaged me saying that Paul was cheating on me, who called me 15 times a day until I changed my number.”My stomach starts to roil. I was meant to have the upper hand here. I breathe deep, counting one, two, three. I pitch my voice low: “I only want to talk. I thought you should know—”“Wait, this is the freak who sent copies of your nudes to your house?” asks the German, stepping closer to me.Ever since Paul had left his Google profile logged into my work laptop, I reviewed his emails with my morning coffee. In August, D sent him a series of shots from her vacation in Biarritz. I’d simply printed them out and sent them to the address I found on his Amazon receipt for a women's rash guard. I did write “slut” across them before sending, but considering the content, that seemed irrefutable.“Yes! I literally moved to get away from her!” D’s arm flails between us. “You emailed my mum and told her I was sleeping with my primary school teacher!” “Okay, but—” I say, reaching out to D.D scrambles farther back on the marble ledge. There’s not much space left, and she loses her balance. As she falls backwards, her legs fly up in a tangle of knees. She looks graceful even now, windmilling into nothing. “Jesus fucking Christ!” shouts the German, running to D. “Get the fuck away from us!” she screams at me, her loose blonde hair sparkling in the light. “Aiuto! Aiuto!”It’s all gone wrong. I don’t want D to die, not really; it would get her out of Paul’s life but it wouldn’t get me back in. I run to the ledge, German girl’s imperatives ignored. I see her there, balanced on a thin ledge, centimeters away from a catastrophic fall. The city below her looks tiny, the people too petite to be real.I reach my hand down to where the German girl has already been reaching. My arms are longer, and I’m stronger, and together, we haul D up one fistful of fabric at a time, fishermen bringing in the catch. D’s feet touch the ground and I try to pull her towards me. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—”“Go to hell,” she spits.And so I do. The hallowed ground yawns open and swallows me down, depositing me in a slump at the gates of hell. When I can bear looking upwards, I find the gates’ inscription: Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here. It would make for a good caption, I think. Back on earth, on the roof of the Duomo under a blue-flame sky, my phone clatters onto the slanted marble where I just stood, still recording.
Micros

STUMP REMOVAL by Andrew Graham Martin

I saw a sign for stump removal and found myself wishing I had a stump that needed removing.Or, more exactly, I wished that should I ever have a stump that needed removing I’d see a sign like that one. Or, put yet another way, I wished that in my life I could see the things I need to see right when I need to see them. Not before, and not after.
Micros

DAD FIGHTS by Matt Rowan

“Sometimes dads fight,” Dad says. “It’s just a thing we have to do sometimes.” That’s how Dad explained it to me the first time, and he hasn’t bothered explaining it in any greater depth since. Every spring my dad starts preparing to fight again. He spends long hours in the garage with his misshapen Everlast heavy bag he bought from DICK’S Sporting Goods many years ago. “It does the trick,” he says, bareknuckling it with even more gusto. He’s fighting the same fight he’s been fighting since I was born, something about some kind of disagreement that nobody really remembers the details of, but my dad has never forgotten, and is not willing to let go.  It’s not totally clear who he thinks he’s fighting, either. He only ever referred to them as his “adversaries,” adding that they “need to be taught a lesson,” and “soon we’ll all know who’s the better man.” Then beginning on June 21st at dusk, he sets off to go fight. He might not be home till morning, he tells us. He might be a little bruised when he gets back, but he insists I’m not to worry about him too much. This is all simply what he must do.Mom has said it’s best to let him have this. “Try not to make a big deal out of it,” she has said. “It’ll only fuel his will to fight all the more if you do.” But it’s not as though Dad can be stopped even if we all wanted to stop him. He becomes a living rampage. I just go about hugging him every night, the same as always, wishing him luck. I always remind him I’ll be there to dab his wounds in the morning. 
Creative Nonfiction

DEALBREAKERS by Rachel Dorn

Would you date a dying girl I type in the message box. My thumb hovers over the send button. I hit delete.What are ur dealbreakers I type instead.

****************

We don’t say terminal anymore, Janessa, my support group leader, says on one of our monthly Zoom calls. We say incurable. Because, you know, people can live a long time with this now. What doesn’t need to be said is that not all of us will.

****************

In the months after I find out I have an incurable heart and lung disease, I spend a lot of time thinking about a man. All my journal entries mention him. I spend pages dissecting our FaceTime calls, the look he gives me when I say I have to go, his insistence that I call him right back, trying to mine for proof that he really loves me. That I am still lovable, despite this. 

*****************

When I met T, a few months before I got sick, I Googled his name. The first result was a missing person report from several years earlier, accompanied by a thumbnail photo of him smiling in a black sweatshirt. Last seen in the Pine Bluff area on October 31st, the caption said, anyone with information about his whereabouts please contact the Pine Bluff Police Department. I took a screenshot and sent it to my friend: is this a red flag

*****************

The heat in my apartment went out for three days the winter I met him. It was as cold as a Minnesota February gets; I’d been sleeping in my heavy-duty down coat and two pairs of pants, creating a ring of space heaters around my bed. He lived an hour away, across the Wisconsin state line, but he told me he’d come lift my spirits and he did. It was snowing; we ate takeout tacos in bed, drank bubbly from the bottle, curled together under the covers watching The Sopranos on my broken laptop. My bedroom was all windows—nine of them—and I always said it would be the worst place to be if a tornado struck in the night. It was the best place to be when it snowed.

*****************

T made it clear from the start that he was someone who could never be pinned down. The attraction was undeniable, but it was our conversations that thrilled me–a nonstop game of verbal ping pong. I remember thinking I could banter with him for the rest of my life and never get sick of it. At the end of a weekend together, I found a little baggy of mystery pills in the drawer of my nightstand—Valium, maybe, left there by another man—and offered them to him. He swallowed a handful all at once and left. A couple hours later he called me. I’m fucking floatingggg, he said. And that’s how I felt too. Like I was floating.

*****************

T FaceTimes me from a hotel in Los Angeles. He FaceTimes me from a hotel outside of Ruston, Louisiana. He FaceTimes me while driving a Benz through Cherry Hill, New Jersey. In the wake of a breakup with another man, too sick to do much of anything, I’ve moved in with my retired parents. I answer his calls in my childhood bedroom with its teal walls that my sister and I painted when we were kids and our mom never painted back. I live my entire life between these walls now. You gotta get better, he says, so you can run around with me.

*****************

Out of boredom I download a dating app, then delete, then redownload. I’m swiping past people who are doing everything I can’t do; looking for a woman who can be someone I’ll never be again. An adventure partner, a travel buddy, someone to hike the Pacific Crest Trail with. How do I tell them that the most adventurous thing I’ll ever do with them is meet them in person?

*****************

I match with a cardiologist on one of the apps and when he messages me I say I wish my cardiologist looked as good as you and he says lol do you actually have one and I say yeah and he says oh dang do you have an arrhythmia or something and I say nah, pulmonary hypertension and he unmatches me. Relax, I want to say, it’s not contagious.

*****************

I have to call an ambulance one afternoon in July, after the diagnosis but before the meds start working, because my heart is going berserk. 180 beats per minute and I’m struggling to breathe. Four EMTs show up to my parents’ house and one of them is the hottest man I’ve ever seen. In the back of the ambulance I accidentally flash my tits to all four of them while they’re hooking me up to the heart monitor. It’s SVT, one of them says to the others and then the hot one hands me a syringe and tells me to blow into it. We’re gonna go fast, the driver says, turning on the siren as we bolt through the streets of Saint Paul and I’m on a stretcher, blowing into the syringe, over and over, and the hot one tells me I’m doing great and squeezes my hand and I’m thinking am I going to die in the back of this ambulance and I’m thinking this is the most humiliating moment of my entire life and I’m thinking I wonder if he’s single.

*****************

When I tell the men from the apps that I have pulmonary hypertension, after a perfunctory that sucks, I’m sorry their responses depend on whether or not they’ve heard of the disease. If they have, and they know a little bit about it, they invariably ask if I take Viagra (yes, three times a day) and if it you know…does anything (no, not in women). If they don’t know anything and I explain that it’s a pretty debilitating heart disease, they want to know if I can still engage in, um, activities (maybe, not with you).

*****************

I read a New York Times article about dating with chronic illness and then I read all 277 comments. I’m looking for recognition, some confirmation that I’m not alone. In the midst of people proclaiming that essential oils cured their husband’s chronic Lyme and others arguing over the right time to reveal a disability, a woman with a rare blood cancer shares a story about a date she went on. When she mentioned to her date that sex was risky because an infection could kill her, he was convinced she was exaggerating. He told me he felt so sorry for me that sex could prove problematic, but never mentioned that he felt sorry for me because I had terminal cancer...it soon became apparent that he would rather have incurable cancer than not be able to have sex.

*****************

I wonder if it’s best to play my cards up front, to let them know what they’re getting into before we even match. In my bio I write I have a terminal illness, looking for my A Walk To Remember arc. Then I wonder if this defeats the purpose; anyone who's seen it knows that in that movie Mandy Moore’s character doesn’t reveal she has leukemia until the boy has already professed his love for her. 

*****************

Over text, T and I reminisce about the bad emo music of our youth. He was a star football player in his small Louisiana town, I was a bookish Catholic school girl, shivering in my uniform skirt through long Midwestern winters, but our short-lived emo phases somehow synced up. Remember this one? He sends me a voice note, serenading me, screeching the words to Your Guardian Angel by The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus: I will never let you fall / I’ll stand up with you foreverrr / I’ll be there with you through it allllll

*****************

We all have our baggage, my therapist tells me. I don’t think it makes you undateable. I’ve put on makeup, for the first time in weeks, to meet her in the portal. She starts talking at length about her husband’s struggle with addiction, about how you never really know what you’re getting into with someone anyway, because things change. I look past her, fixating on the unmade bed in the corner of her screen. If you don’t know, you don’t know, but if you do know, you can avoid it, right? 

*****************

I ask the girls in my support group what they do about dating. A lot of them are married and I secretly resent them, but a few of them are single. I don’t, K says with a laugh. She’s the one I relate with most: we’re both in our early 30s, both had to move back in with our parents, both got broken up with by our boyfriends when we got too sick. Maybe it’s possible to have a partner that sticks it out with you, if they love you enough, but getting someone to sign up for this, well, it’s just a whole different thing. Everyone agrees.

*****************

T slipped out of my life as quickly as he slid into it, that first winter. By the time I heard from him again I had a new boyfriend and a mystery illness. I told him about both. Our friendship rekindled, but I kept him at an arm’s length, trying to dim the switch on that light that came on inside me whenever we talked. He was moving out east soon and wanted to see me before he left. I said no, I can’t, I’m with someone. When I started to feel the cracks in my relationship deepen, I told him that too. I don’t think he loves me, I said. Well I love you, he replied.

*****************

In the aftermath of my diagnosis, I tell T that it’s been proven that women who become seriously ill are more likely to be left by their male partners than the other way around. That’s bullshit, he says, most divorces are filed by women. Not in this specific scenario, I say. Men don’t like to be caregivers. I sent him a link to an article about it; there's a picture of the baseball player Albert Pujols, who left his wife after she had brain surgery. That doesn’t count because he’s famous, he says. I say okay and send him another article about women with terminal cancer being left by their partners. You don’t have no cancer man, he says.

*****************

Months earlier, while still searching for answers, I read Meghan O’Rourke’s The Invisible Kingdom, which chronicles her own diagnostic journey with a complex chronic illness. She talked about the shame, as an ill person, of needing other people so much, both in concrete, material ways, and in the need for recognition. I felt a profound sense of betrayal that he did not seem to feel the urgency of my suffering, she wrote of her husband, who rarely accompanied her to doctors’ appointments. It is hard to be the partner of someone ill, at once close to the problem and permanently on the other side of the glass from it. I read these words at night, next to my boyfriend, B, who was trying to understand, but who would always be on the other side of the glass.

*****************

A month and a half before I got diagnosed, when I was too weak to walk up the stairs to my apartment and didn’t know why yet, B dumped me. It sounds bad, to say it like that, because by then I didn’t blame him. It was my idea. I could tell he felt trapped but was afraid to abandon me, so I gave him permission to and he took it. I was already sick when we met a year earlier and had spent a good chunk of our year together searching for answers—in the fluorescent light of dozens of exam rooms, in the test results tab of my MyChart app, in the archives of niche Reddit forums. Our whole relationship felt like a series of things I wanted to do, but couldn’t, while he hung around on the sidelines of my pain feeling helpless. We might have been right for each other if we’d met under different circumstances, if I’d gotten better instead of worse. But we didn’t, I didn’t. I was heartbroken for a week, and then I was too sick to care.

*****************

In the week between when we decided to break up and when he moved all of his things out of my place, we had sex one last time. For closure. The whole time I wondered if it would be the last time I ever would.

*****************

The thing that nobody warns you about having a heart disease is that it makes it impossible to **** ***, I tweet. I consider bringing this up with my cardiologist, but decide I would rather die horny than tell a 75-year-old man what my heart does when I get aroused.

*****************

A popular Instagram fashion brand is advertising a tiny brass pill canister embossed with the word Viagra. The algorithm shows it to me over and over until eventually I buy it. Beautiful women take Viagra has become my little motto, my bit with friends and family whenever I pop one in their presence. If I’m going to be taking it for the rest of my life, I might as well own it.

*****************

T tells me that before we can have sex again he needs to see me run a mile. Or do a power clean. Your choice, he says, but I’d go with the mile. Less blood pressure action. I know he’s joking, but I know there’s a deeper part of him that’s a little serious. Okay coach, I say. I don’t want to tell him that these things still feel so out of reach.

*****************

Maybe, I think, the reason T is so important to me is because he was the last person to meet me when I was still healthy, the last person who would ever get to know the version of me that could pop a bottle of champagne after midnight and drink the rest on a lazy Saturday morning, the version with energy and verve and dreams for the future, that could plan a trip to Palm Springs on a whim, that didn’t have to take supplemental oxygen on the plane, that didn’t have to take pills four times a day just to stay alive. The version that could get high without sending my heart into overdrive, that could fuck without sending my heart into overdrive. That could do a power clean, or run a mile, and not think twice about it.

*****************

By late August, the meds are starting to work. I can go on walks again, slowly, in the sticky heat. Senator Amy Klobuchar tweets a picture of herself at the Minnesota State Fair, posing with four shirtless firefighters. State Fair pro tip: You don’t want to miss the Minnesota firefighters. The post has millions of views. One of the men in the picture is my EMT, the hot one. I send it to my group chat and nobody can agree who the hot one is. I think it’s obvious.

*****************

In the fall, I suggest to T that he visit me. I haven’t seen him in well over a year, but lately we’ve been talking all the time. He hems and haws and eventually gives me a half-hearted excuse about feeling as if I’m only talking to him because I’m bored, because of my situation, and that if my life hadn’t slowed down like this I wouldn’t even look his way anymore. I can see through it, and I press him, until eventually he admits that my lack of mobility isn’t compatible with his lifestyle of spontaneity and constant travel, that we could never be together because of it. I’m gutted, angry, ashamed. Most of all, as much as I want to believe he’s wrong, to change his mind, I know there’s some truth to his words.

*****************

T was there; when I knew I was sick but everyone else was starting to suspect I might just be crazy, he had a plan for me, an investment in my recovery. Stop eating this, start eating this, everything from scratch, spring water only. You don’t have room to slack, he told me. I rolled my eyes. Deep down, though, I was grateful that someone cared enough to want to help, to not just shrug their shoulders like my doctors had been doing for months. And when my MRI report said myocardial fibrosis and right ventricular hypertrophy and I landed in the hospital, when I lied flat on an operating table with a catheter in my heart and saw the grave expressions on my doctors’ faces, when he texted me how did today go lil mama, when he called me immediately after I told him, when he looked like he might cry on my phone screen, I felt it. But there’s a limit, I’m learning, to what some people can bear.

*****************

I long for a love that is not contingent on how well my body is working, one that understands how this illness makes both spontaneity and planning ahead more difficult, that celebrates the wins and grieves the losses alongside me. In one of my pulmonary hypertension groups, a man is posting updates about his wife’s double lung transplant recovery. She’s up walking today! or Well, we had a bit of a setback. I wonder about my future, if I’ll ever need one. I wonder what it would be like to go through it alone.

Fiction

“TORN BETWEEN THE PAST AND THE FUTURE […] UNSURE IF ANY TANGIBLE PRESENT EXISTS”: An Interview with David Leo Rice

The artistic ambition and imagination of David Leo Rice seem to know no bounds. His latest novel, The Berlin Wall (Whiskey Tit, 2024), carries forward investigations and ideas worked out in his earlier books while exploring new landscapes, deeper heresies, and alternate means of storytelling. I’d heard rumblings of this novel’s existence quite a while ago, and was excited to finally get my hands on a presale copy earlier this year: it did not disappoint. David was kind enough to sit down with me for a conversation about the book, its generation, genre, fanaticism, heroism, and various “hatchings” of selves (among many other things).Danny Elfanbaum: The Berlin Wall —an alternate history of 2020 — nevertheless brought up a lot of what I remember from that year and the early days of the pandemic, with resonances about the news, missing- or misinformation, and the memory of a kind of passive, omni-present terror, but I gather that this wasn’t strictly intentional.David Leo Rice: I actually wrote the first draft in 2018, after traveling in Norway. It was written then as a work of near-future speculative fiction about what 2020 might look like, and then just because of the nature of editing and publishing, it ended up coming out in 2024. So it’s become a work of revisionist history instead, which is maybe more fitting because the book itself is so much about revisionist history, driven by people arguing about what did or didn’t happen in the recent past.In terms of how those arguments tell the story, and how that might relate to our real experience of 2020, I wanted YouTube to almost be the narrator, a voice that on the one hand feels neutral — like it will just tell you anything, with no agenda, because it’ll take all comers, a very promiscuous type of narrator, and one that’s not conscious of the meaning of what it’s saying — but also a narrator that you fear does have a hidden agenda, in which all these clips and partial stories are coming together to lead you somewhere. Maybe they’re leading you in an exciting way toward the “truth behind the illusion,” or in a sinister way toward a horrible conclusion that you’ll then be stuck with.Through this lens, I hoped the reader would experience some of the news paranoia that I think everyone experienced during the first Trump years, where you could never be sure if what you’re taking in is converging towards a kernel of what’s actually real, away from nonsense and spin and propaganda, or if it’s all divergent and you’re just going through the wood chipper, spraying your mind across the screen. This is a version of the cosmic question about whether the universe converges if you understand it deeply enough, upon something like God or a singularity, or if true wisdom means overcoming the illusion of convergence and accepting the totality of chaos for what it really is – though what if this acceptance itself is also a kind of convergence? And on and on, maddeningly.I wanted this narrative approach to create the feeling that something horrible was happening offscreen, but so far off that it might not be happening at all, and therefore the horrible thing might be the idea that it’s happening, seeded in your mind by forces seeking to control you. In a series of essays that I wrote at the same time as this book, I called this aspect of the 2010s and 2020s the “Unworkable Equilibrium” — the feeling that we’re always on the edge of total collapse and abject horror, and yet never all the way over that edge (at least not in America and Western Europe), so the fear that we’re on this edge might itself be the root of the problem. Are we pretending things are worse than they are, or denying how bad they’ve become?When you reach the end of your rope with this question, you can admit that you just don’t know — which is in some ways more honorable — or you can latch on to just about any ideology, which can become the root of fanaticism.DE: And there is plenty of fanaticism to contend with in the book! But first I’d like to ask you a little bit about the Wall itself, the “Living Wall,” as its believers call it. Why the Berlin Wall, and what does it mean in this book when characters refer to it as “living” — or in fact literally embody it?DLR: As a central controversy or heresy in this version of 2020, I thought about what if the Berlin Wall had been a living entity and, when it was destroyed in ’89, the pieces wandered off and began to live their own lives on the margins of Europe? What might they be doing in 2020? This is the question that my dubiously omniscient narrator deals with at the start of the book.When I first heard about the Berlin Wall as a kid, I pictured it as an insane medieval monolith that was a thousand feet high — something you would be in awe of if you ever saw it. But that’s not true; the actual Wall was only something like 15 feet high in places. It’s therefore telling that its legend is still so grandiose, because it means that it stood for something beyond itself. How could it supposedly change the whole world when such a small wall was built, or when it fell? I wanted to transpose this disjunct between physical and narrative realities into a science fictional conceit, where an idea becomes a real thing, and then you take it from there.And I wanted this book to be about the present, where all the characters are in a specific moment. The idea was that the year 2020 would be a character in the novel too, asking what it means to be this far beyond the Millennium but still litigating the same things, still fighting between socialism, capitalism, and fascism, and dreaming of the end of history while arguing about whether it’s already come or could ever come. Why doesn’t 2020 feel newer? Is there something in the recent past that still has to be resolved before we can actually move to a new era, or have we reached a kind of temporal wall we can’t see beyond? This has been Germany’s question since the ’40s, right? Is there something in that culture that still has to be resolved, or do they have to admit that they can’t resolve it and find a way to move on anyhow? And if that’s true, are they always going to exist in a haunted state, overcompensating for something they can’t heal from?There’s the actual “Living Wall,” but the book is more about how people would respond if they thought something like that was possible. I like conceits that let you think about real life in a new way, rather than “genre” books that are more about the conceits themselves. I like the way my father put it when he read a draft: he said, “This is a book about people trying to put their lives back together.”DE: The book flirts with various notions of “genre”—sci-fi, horror, video games—but definitely isn’t a “genre” novel. Were you thinking about genre when you were putting it together?DLR: I never think about genre explicitly, and I even try not to think about it as I’m writing, though I’m certainly influenced by it and I let that influence come out however it wants to. I feel like if you’re aiming at a genre, you’re already losing the project — the genre is taking it from you, whereas if you’re trying to make a genre-inflected conceit feel as real as possible, that’s where exciting developments can occur, because you’re swimming against the current.From a marketing point of view, it could be useful to serve fans of a given genre, but I’ve always aspired to “be a genre.” I want people to read my books because they want to read my books, not because they want to read sci-fi or horror per se. When I’m writing, I try to see if I can peer into a nickelodeon or a microscope into a world where these events are what’s actually happened. Rather than trying to make the fantastical aspects seem real, I try to find a realm in my imagination where they already are.DE: “Peering in” feels right, especially in this book. The other novels of yours that I’ve read and that we’ve talked about typically are told or follow a single point of view, but there are a handful of characters we follow throughout The Berlin Wall. What prompted this change?DLR: The goal was to write something more distant from my own experience. There is the geographical distance from where I live in that this book takes place wholly outside America; then there’s the alternate history dimension, which is distant from the things that have actually happened; and then using multiple point of view characters meant that none of them could exactly be me. I felt more like a journalist reporting this story rather than an avatar experiencing it.Still, even though they’re motivated by their own needs, all the characters are dealing with the problem of how to reach terra firma in 2020. They’re all involved with the way that the Berlin Wall exemplifies both of the tendencies we were talking about earlier: On the one hand, the Wall was built as a concrete signal that times had changed — that WWII was over and the Cold War had begun — but on the other hand, a wall is a symbol of stasis. Walls are some of the most static things on earth, both immobile in their own right and designed to arrest the movement of others. So everyone in this book is torn between the past and the future, between racing to move on and fighting to stay put, and unsure if any tangible present exists in between.DE: And while all of what I’ll call the “point of view” characters respond in different ways, there’s one character, György,  who responds with a violent, intense fanaticism, joining up with one of the major (horrific) social movements/undercurrents within the world of the novel.DLR: It’s probably strange to say, but György is kind of the moral center. Everyone in the book has to deal with the lack of grounding in the news they consume and the uncertainty they feel in the world around them, but he’s the one who has the greatest crisis about it. He’s the youngest and least established, and thus the one who, in theory, has the greatest stake in the future, though he can’t find any means of embracing this fact. He can’t deal with the condition of 2020 except by falling into fanaticism, white nationalism, and so on. Which of course doesn’t help him deal with it, but it does provide the illusion of unshakeable grounding in a mythic past that will become a mythic future after enough violence is unleashed upon the zombie present.As a corollary to his conundrum, I wanted the style and structure of the book to create this frustrated yearning for something definitely true in the reader. Almost to draw out the reader’s latent fascism, a desire to force a definite meaning onto the events that are occurring, no matter how much violence that requires. So the question becomes what’s good and what’s bad about this yearning?There’s something natural about wanting to know what’s real and where you stand, and wanting to stand for something that endures throughout time and context, whether that’s honor or community or your word or faith, just as there’s something natural about wanting to understand the book you’re reading, and trusting that all the pieces will fit together in a satisfying way. These things aren’t intrinsically bad, but I wanted to ask, How do they turn bad? Why, in the 2020s, do we fear these desires in ourselves and others?It’s something about the nature of this polarized time period, wherein one facet of society says that to want these certainties at all is evil and you should just be comfortable with pure relativism and fungibility and an infinitude of non-convergent opinions, while the other facet of society that continues to want these things starts to pursue them in a way that is evil. As in any polarized moment, each side eggs the other on to a more extreme and eventually more grotesque version of itself, until no one can act in their own best interest, let alone that of the larger society.And therefore the final question is if there is something in between, a third option whereby you could rehabilitate ideas of the definitely real and the transcendent, something larger than ourselves, and be honest about the fact that this is a legitimate human craving, maybe even a human necessity, while also saying that not every way of trying to reach this is acceptable.DE: For many of the other major characters — here I’m thinking specifically about the Chancellor and Anika, the academic who becomes a kind of propagandist for the status quo — part of the response seems to be a constant donning and shedding of selves, as if identity — ontological or otherwise — is almost a non sequitur.DLR: Maybe one of the central questions in everything I’ve done is to ask what it means to act now, in the world, today. The world that, as a writer, I’m trying to participate in too. For me, it’s too easy to just say, “Well, I can write” as my way of participating. I don’t want to only write about writers, so I’m trying to think about other, more direct forms of participation, even if I can only enact them from a remove.Thinking about characters who are trying to act in the world as it appears today unifies questions about character and about place, and the ontological instability of both. It’s the question of, What world? Where are you mounting your attack from, what are you defending, what are you trying to conquer? Or is that way of thinking about the world just hopelessly antiquated?This relates to my understanding of mysticism, in which individuals try to access eternity not by looking away from the specific times they live in, but by looking through them, hoping to catch a glimpse of Time itself within the messy present tense that happens to bound their lives. In terms of selfhood, the question becomes, How do you come into your own, or how do you find out who you really are, given that part of you is specific and temporal, and (you hope) another part is universal and eternal? And this is related to the question of heroism: What journey do you go on such that your disparate or latent selves get unified or hatched? Many of my characters yearn to become heroes, at least in their own eyes — as all mystics do, and as I do by completing the lifelong writing project that I’ve embarked upon — but they also doubt that heroism is possible and fear that it’s a childish yearning they need to overcome. Perhaps overcoming this yearning is the route to heroism.DE: And depending on which iteration of self the characters in the novel are in, the answers to these questions change dramatically. What was interesting though was that these iterations are not progressive, in the sense that the identity that comes next might not be as good, or as useful, or as stable as the identity that had been assumed before.DLR: Absolutely. Once you start asking the book, or the universe, to “swap you out,” all bets are off. You have to view change as a good, or a necessity, unto itself. You can’t hope for what the prior identity would have viewed as an improvement. I’m drawn to characters who reach the point of total necessity, where it’s not a matter of hoping for a good change, but rather a matter of needing any change at all in order to go on living. I made an animation in college that ends with a title card reading, “Then we reached the point where we could go no further as ourselves,” and I’ve kept that sentiment as a kind of mission statement ever since.There’s a lot of hatching imagery in The Berlin Wall, which goes back to Dodge City 2, where there was the question of how do you really get born? In that book, people are always being born but then aborted, or aborted but then born, and there’s an underlying question about whether you’re ever born for real, or if you’re always living in an on-deck situation where you’re waiting to be made real by forces you can’t call upon. How do you actually get deployed? This is a strange thought, but sometimes I feel that my characters aren’t really the characters they seem to be, like they’re waiting for the actual characters they’re supposed to play to get called onto the field of action, which the book may or may not allow to happen. In the meantime, as you say, there’s a constant donning and shedding of selves.So the question then is if not through violence — which would be the traditional meaning of the word “deployed” — then how? It can’t be just sifting through endless screens and feeling like you’re acting in the world from this peripheral, meta position. And so if it’s not that, and also not the fanatical response of killing a bunch of people on the orders of some figurehead, then what other way is there? Everyone in The Berlin Wall grapples with this question.We’ve talked before about the idea of a post-postmodernism, where postmodernism mocked the idea of heroism, because when everyone in the modernist era tried to be heroes they ended up destroying themselves. So the postmoderns sort of sat back and patted themselves on the back, showing why it was ridiculous to yearn for this kind of direct, unironic relation to reality.But irony was its own dead end. Maybe it’s a curse and a blessing, but I think there’s something good about the fact that we were born after this work in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s was already done. We don’t have to reveal what was ridiculous and dangerous about modernism anymore. Therefore the burden of writers today is the question of what else can we do, or what does a new kind of heroism look like that is not just a return to the ideas of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and such, which led to fascism, nor a debunking of those ideas? Speaking again of a third option, how can we accept the work that those generations did and evolve the conversation forward again?DE: And how might you come to any kind of conclusion when there’s no real stable ground or reality upon which to build up some kind of edifice, or a metaphysics of heroism?DLR: Part of what the post-postmodern means to me is that the grounding no longer matters. It’s no longer salient whether you can prove that everything is a simulation or prove that supernatural phenomena are genuinely occurring. Some characters in The Berlin Wall claim they’re acting within a gigantic video game, but I wanted the world of the book to function in a way that makes this claim irrelevant – it doesn’t matter whether it’s true. I think we’ve moved past the point where it feels productive to do something like point out in a novel that “this isn’t really a character, it’s just words on a page,” the same way the claim that “Twitter isn’t real life” is kind of moot as well. It may be true, but if Twitter functions like real life for enough people, then something about its reality has to be recognized. The 2020s feels like a time where disparate worlds have bled together into a mishmash, and the work of separating them back out is a recipe for madness.So when it came to this book, speaking of continuity of character, I didn’t want that to be an easy out. A character might say, “Oh, I’m just a part of some propaganda machine,” or “All of this is a simulation,” or “I’m not my real self yet,” but the operative theme is not whether any of that is true. It’s “You still have to live and act in the world, so what do you do?”To take an example from the slew of movies that came out right before the Millennium, which I’ll group under the heading of “The Matrix,” The Berlin Wall is considering something like, What if inside The Truman Show and outside the show are the same? There’s the “real world,” and there’s the “fake world,” but all those worlds have leaked into each other. It’s no longer cathartic to picture Jim Carrey going through a door between them.So how do people respond? Extreme neofascism is one way, and extreme neoliberalism is another, but what if you could just enjoy this fact as it is rather than trying to solve for what is true or suffer from being unable to? Maybe heroism for my characters comes from finding a way to play within the perverted realms they’re stuck in, rather than escaping or redeeming them. It’s not a means of finding stable ground, but rather of surfing the instability.DE: And the book itself, structurally, sort of refuses to try and solve for it. I laughed out loud when I realized that you’d stuck a 50-page epilogue on there. If that’s not taking pleasure in a kind of indeterminacy…​DLR: Yeah, definitely! I wanted it to be so that you could read the book without the epilogue — the book really does end. And I was trying to have the most grandiose, lyrical, operatic moment be the end of that last main part. Then the epilogue is a return to a kind of banal reality, and I think that’s a large part of what the book is going for — this question of how do we normalize the most extreme events? What does it mean that everyone survived the apocalypse that the book seems to point to, and survived it so easily that many won’t believe it even occurred?If you think of this book as an outsider’s testament to contemporary Europe, and you think about the continuity of people and place that the epilogue lays out, that to me is the fundamental uncanniness and uneasiness about Europe: how could it have proven to be so resilient? How could WWII and the Holocaust, the worst thing that’s ever happened — at least as we’re taught it — have happened there, and happened recently, in living memory, and yet Europe has still turned into the most normal place in the world?It makes you think either that the things that happened there weren’t so bad, or today’s Europe is not as normal as it appears. And neither of those options are very comfortable to consider, right?

by Benjamin Niespodziany

Perfect bound | 100 pages
Paperback | Die-cut matte cover | 6×6″

Read a page before sleep and thou shalt dream insanely.

–Alex van Warmerdam
Director of Palme d’Or nominated film ‘Borgman’