Evan Bauer, BFR Editor

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Design and Illustration by Sunra Thompson, Courtesy of McSweeny’s Publishing

If you’re fortunate enough to have been one of my victims over the past few months, you’ll already be aware that I’ve been occupying my time with an incessant rampage of recommending All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews to anything with eyeballs and a pulse.

Every now and then, I’ll read a book so magnificently heartbreaking that it seems like the only logical response is to—with tears of hope in my eyes—vehemently campaign for its author’s ascendance to the presidency. And given the current political climate in the US, electing Toews president seems like just the kind of radical intervention we need. (Toews—pronounced “Taves”—is, to the detriment of my cause, Canadian, but I’m sure we can work something out.)

My infatuation with All My Puny Sorrows began (apropos to BFR Managing Editor Clare Suffern’s recent blog post) with the cover. Upon completing an internship with McSweeney’s Publishing in San Francisco last spring, I was given free rein to choose a stack of their titles from the bookshelves—titles I had eyed covetously each time I walked through the office. If I were to take the liberty of claiming the existence of a core tenet for some sort of underlying philosophy universal to the team at McSweeney’s, it would be that books, with all their potential to be beautiful, should invariably be just that: beautiful, in everything from content to cover design, typography to spine width, and even the type of paper used in printing. And to me, the paperback edition of All My Puny Sorrows represents the pinnacle of McSweeney’s adherence to beautiful design, so last spring, I knew exactly which book to pull off the shelf first.

The cover—designed by the brilliant Sunra Thompson—depicts a bird’s-eye view of a landscape composed of pastel oranges, purples, and metallic gold accents. Scattered throughout this landscape are tiny, stylized humans going about their various enterprises. Closer inspection reveals that this landscape transcends temporal boundaries, for each orange-skinned figure represents a character from the novel; those two boys carrying a golden kayak, those imposing men in suits and ties standing outside their cars, the two old women arm-in-arm looking out over the river—all of these human miniatures receive hands and facial features over the course of the novel.

Thompson depicts the novel’s two main characters, sisters Yolandi (striped shirt, light hair) and Elfrieda (white shirt, dark hair), multiple times on the cover. Elf is depicted in various positions with slouched posture, hiding, it seems, underneath her cascade of dark hair, and she never has anything in her hands. Yoli, by contrast, is drawn in motion, holding a grocery bag or riding a bicycle. The one instance of Yoli standing still with nothing in her hands features her in the lower left corner, arms slung straight at her sides, looking back on the title of the book and the surrounding landscape. Something about the squiggly font of the title, the scraggly branches of the purple trees dotting the landscape, these handless orange humans all enmeshed in their own toils and ruminations—it all betrays an undercurrent of melancholy and existential dread, yet simultaneously communicates an air of bewilderment. So as viewers, before even acquiring an inkling of what the novel is about, we are inclined to empathize with Yoli in the lower left corner as she looks back and tries to make sense of this beautiful, forlorn landscape and her slouched, despondent sister sitting in the center of the title. By nailing this balance between absurdity and despair, the cover serves as a visual taste-test of the most striking aspect of Toews’ fiction: her use of humor as a gateway into difficult material.

At this point, it would be useful for readers to acquire the aforementioned inkling of what this book is about, so I’ll steal from the back cover: “When Elf, a world-renowned concert pianist, attempts suicide just before an international tour, her sister Yoli must keep their family from falling apart while facing a profound question: what do you do for a loved one who truly wants to die?”

With what wisp of a plot there is revolving around a hospital bed and a family member’s sincere wish to die, it’s easy to wonder how this book could be anything but depressing. But thanks to Toews’ keen imagination and knack for self-deprecation, the novel’s frequent bouts of humor serve as a kind of old-fashioned scuba suit for readers to slip on before diving into subject matter perhaps otherwise too suffocatingly tragic.

One instance of such humor (taken from a long list in my phone of page numbers on which this book made me laugh or cry) comes at a point in the novel when Yoli is visiting Elf in the hospital, away from her kids in Toronto, and grappling with the question of whether or not to help her sister access legally assisted suicide in Switzerland. She receives a call from a man with whom she is loosely romantically involved back in Toronto. He asks if there is anything he can do for her. Yoli replies: “I asked him to drive past my apartment in Toronto and see if there were signs of life from Nora and Will and maybe he could knock on the door and ask them if they were okay and why Nora wasn’t answering her phone. Although I already knew why. It was because she had poisoned Will and dragged his body into a closet and was having unprotected sex all over the house with her fifteen-year-old Swedish dancer boyfriend and she didn’t have the time or inclination to talk to her sad old disapproving mother in the midst of it all. Consider it done, he said.”

In an interview for The Guardian, Toews said of her choice to bring so much humor into the equation: “I wanted people to not be afraid of the subject matter, to get the tone right, right off the top, and get the readers’ trust, so we could come out together in some other, less dark place.”

A natural concern with such a strategy is that the comedic moments might, in some way, diminish the legitimacy or forcefulness of a story’s sorrow. In my own writing, I know that a particular sadness can feel so precious that to juxtapose it with humor would be to fail in giving it a faithful representation. However, when done well (and it is hard to do well—thank god we have writers like Miriam Toews), moments of comic relief can, curiously, have the opposite effect. Rather than diminish it, these moments can actually amplify the reader’s experience of a story’s sadness. In reading All My Puny Sorrows, we get the sense that the characters—particularly Yoli—are utilizing humor as a defense against tragedy; by surrendering themselves to the bafflement of navigating human sorrow, they refuse to let it break them. The characters then feel more human and relatable, which makes us feel the weight of their grief all the more.

Another writer (featured in our most recent issue of BFR) who toes this line between tragedy and comedy well is Jonathan Plombon in his gloriously titled short story “Dismantling Modern Residential Architecture Inside the Patriarchal Family Structure: A Proper, Expedited Disposal Technique of a Broken Home and Its Contents, for Fathers Who Have Somewhere Better to Be and Couldn’t Give a Damn, Anyway.” Across twenty-six short (and equally gloriously) individually-titled segments, Plombon’s narrator details a childhood spent in a broken home and a subsequent encounter with a mysterious plant-woman. Unlike Toews, however, Plombon’s humor relies largely on surrealist exaggerations and clever twists on familiar phrases. In section seventeen— “Babies and Ladders Don’t Come with Instruction Manuals”—the narrator exclaims: “I wanted my mother to use me as a crutch… She never clung to my arm, but I detached mine anyway, tying it together with crutches, bars, stools, and a strange man’s shoulders.” The tone of the story is removed from the narrator’s internal strife—emotionless, almost—so somehow this image of him taking off his arm and tying it up in an absurd contraption to prop up his mother impacts the reader even more (and by “the reader,” I mean me).

So what to do with all this? Pick up a copy of All My Puny Sorrows. Pick up a copy of BFR. Let Toews and Plombon slice you open then stitch you back together. Write your own magical-realist tragicomic story about a country-bumpkin-turned-city-slicker old man who wants only to look upon his childhood farm once more but can’t, for the life of him, remember where he misplaced the cord to his rechargeable eyeballs. The world is your miserable, hysterically laughing oyster.

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Clare Suffern, BFR Managing Editor 

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Illustration by Charles Ellik, Berkeley Fiction Review, Issue 16

Months before I opened Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001), I admired Lynn Buckley’s cover design. On the lower third of the cover – beneath the author’s name in bold, white caps and the title’s textured, orange lettering – a Rockwell inspired scene depicts two boys and the lower half of a woman, whose red nailed fingers grip a serving plate on which squats a fat-glossed turkey. Clad in a windowpane plaid jacket, the younger boy in the lower left purses his lips and furrows his brow to suggest (I imagine) defiance, hunger, sleepiness, or any number of discomforts we have all felt at one dinner party or another while sitting ignored at the end of the table, waiting for the gnashing to commence.

In his discussion about the cover art of Freedom (2010) in Talking Covers, a website that explores the production and importance of book covers through interviews with the authors, artists, and designers, Franzen describes a successful cover as “visually arresting and true to the feel and content of the book; it should also, ideally, look like nothing else.”[1] Franzen’s conclusions speak to the complex aesthetic, thematic, and commercial functions of art in literature, related to but different from the concerns of art in galleries or museums. Just as it is to the novel (albums, textbooks, sheet music, etc.), visual art is integral to the sale and production of literary magazines, e.g. Berkeley Fiction Review.

Quite simply, good cover art and design help our journal stand out in bookstores and attract buyers. (Note to fellow small-time editors and publishers: In Talking Covers, Franzen quotes friend and novelist Donald Antrim as saying, “It’s well known in publishing that green covers never sell.”)[2] In addition to attracting buyers, art serves as a contemplative counterpoint to the stories in Berkeley Fiction Review. It allows for pause between short stories, bridges thematic elements, cultivates deeper catharsis, evokes new associations, and inspires more thoughtful analysis.

A former English major, I converted to art history after a semester of waking up in the black, leather chairs of Gardner Main Stacks, novel-of-the-midweek resting on my thighs and dry mouth pointing skylightward in a perpetual “‘O’, shit”. The anxiety of neglecting material, assigned or not, mounted until I quit reading altogether for a few months. With a countenance much like the little boy’s on the cover – uneasy, tired, obstinate – I approached The Corrections many times before I opened the alluring cover: I surfed the Internet, raided the pantry, or took a nap rather than take my place at the intellectual table and eat up Franzen’s delicious offer.

The decision to check out or buy a book and subsequently read it hinges on more than reviews and recommendations. Many, and not only picky buyers (say, people who shop around for majors until senior year), rely in part on cover art to make a selection. Good design and thought-provoking art, like Buckley’s cover for The Corrections, often inspire reading’s first step: picking up a book. I look forward to helping choose the artwork for Issue 37 of Berkeley Fiction Review so that we may inspire readers to notice our journal among shelves full of enticing works, showcase visual artists in addition to writers, and publish a journal that provides a richer and more diverse reflection of society.

Please visit the art tab for information about submitting.

  1. Sean Manning, “Freedom,” Talking Covers, July 17, 2012, https://talkingcovers.com/2012/07/17/freedom/.
  2. Ibid.

Arami Matevosyan, BFR Staff

The following two pieces are part of a four-piece series titled Of the Places We’ll Go.

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Death, Then Life, Arami Matevosyan

You never claimed residency on earth. Somehow the idea of mortality was never enough—you wanted to live through the fruits of the next couple centuries, and this notion of life and death did not fit your agenda. You were composed of stardust, no doubt: immortal and ready to burst at any moment. And in your grand scheme of things, you ventured to explain to me that you just wanted to watch people burn the world, all while nestled in your corner of the universe.

 

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Enamored with Glow, Arami Matevosyan

It was your aura that mesmerized me: strong, vibrant, defiant, unwavering.

Absolutely beautiful.

I wanted to chase after you to see where you lead me, but I could never seem to keep up. Terrified of losing sight, I ran into the gnarled roots of your stories and lost myself in the exhilarating glow of your light. I was drunk on your mystery and I never sobered up.

Leah Tyus, BFR Staff

Leah

Who is the artist behind this piece? Is the individual male or female? What ethnicity? If we were to imagine that individual’s story, what might it be? How would their tale unfold? Regardless of the artist you’ve envisioned, it’s important to consider how our conception of an artist comes into formation.

If I told you the artist is a twenty-six year old African American male, with the physique of a D-line football player, would you believe me? Well, guess what? The artist is all those things plus more. What’s astonishing is how few people would associate such artistry with the true artist. Our preconceptions of what and who constitutes the art world lend themselves to biases. These biases have the potential to be detrimental as they impose pre-judgments. We allow our perceptions to create a limited normality.

Our faceless artist is named Julian.

Birthed within a name is the individual’s personality. Julian possesses a story that reveals his particular journey as an artist. He and other artists are more than fantasized ideas because they are living, breathing individuals. Because Julian does not fit within the societal norm of who an artist aught to be, does that make him any less of one? Have we considered how biases limit success for an artist? Doesn’t Julian deserve to be recognized for his artistry rather than an ability to perpetuate an artist stereotype?

I precaution us all to remember the impact our preconceptions have on artists. Let us not be limited in our understandings but become expansive in our thinking. Let us dismantle our concept of the idealized artist to that of the totality of the artist.

*Art by Julian Tyus