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PEN America - 2009

  • Subtitle: Make Believe
  • Issue Number: Issue 11
  • Published Date: 2009
  • Publication Cycle: Annual

The opening invitational forum of PEN America was given to writers as choice on "Make Believe." The first option: “Imagine a book you wish you had written, either by yourself or by someone else, living or dead, real or imaginary.” I loved Cynthia Ozick’s playful answer:

There is one work, and one body of work, that I’d sell my soul to have written myself (should there be any willing buyer). The first is that sublimely philosophical drama, The Importance of Being Earnest. The second is everything from the societally antic pen of W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan. (With, I might as well add, this anti-surgical caveat: I’d very much prefer not to have to undergo transsexuality in order to effect this wholly metaphysical desire.)

The second choice: “Tell us something you believe about books – their power or lack of it, how they change the world or don’t, what they’ve done for you or failed to do.” Far and away, Nathaniel Bellows answer was the most visually stunning, and the most fun. He writes that he has read all of Penelope Fitzgerald’s books, and has a habit of folding the upper corner of the book if he has found something he wants to remember on the top half of the page. Thusly, he has done for passages he finds compelling on the bottom half of pages. He’s done this so much, he tells us, that all of Fitzgerald’s books appear as origami. The very image of this – this transcendence of the whole of the craft of writing – made me smile, as I suspect Bellows was as he related his tale of literary love.

In keeping perfect time with the theme of make believe, I came across Peter Kuper’s mini graphic novel transformation of Franz Kafka’s very short story, “The Top.” Kuper breathes so much refreshing life into the story that I found myself wishing Kafka had written more, only if to give the artist more pages onto which he could pour his comic-book-self. It’s a literary/graphic and past/present combination that is truly not to be missed.

Sara Majka’s “The Anthology of Small Homes” adds to the imp of imagination that this magazine has set itself up to be. The narrator is recalling her relationship with her helper, Nigel: “He was walking to get tea, and at some moment he would probably return with a cup, though sometimes he’d forget. He would stop at a shelf of books, only to return later with no memory of tea, not even the memory that there should have been a memory.”

Majka then reveals Nigel’s past history of building miniature houses; one, in particular, called The Transcendent House. Nigel remembers almost nothing of the house, except that by the time he’d left for a couple of years, and come back, the house had disappeared. The narrator asks about the house because she has been leafing through The Anthology of Small Houses, and is surprised to find a much younger, more vibrant Nigel, smiling for his profile in the anthology. Majka’s story reminded me of former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins’s “I Go Back to the House for a Book.” Majka’s magisterial use of Nigel’s past, and his recent past, and the reminiscent feel of her story qualifies it, for me, as a masterpiece – it’s that good.

Also to be found in this make believe edition are several interviews, or conversations, as they are called. It’s an apt description. Indeed, these go beyond typical interviews, being held between two writers. There’s a particularly good exchange between Richard Ford and Nam Le, under the heading: Fabrications. Says Ford, to Le, “Umberto Eco, in an interview in The Paris Review, said that an intellectual is somebody who, by his writing or whatever he does as an intellectual, contributes to knowledge . . . Is that what you’re doing,” asks Ford of Le, “when you believe in something, trying to make a contribution to what it is possible to think?” Answers, Le, “No, no. But I do believe that there is an intelligence that inheres in a sentence and in its syntax and in its parts. And that wisdom can be something you had no conscious idea of before.”

This conversation tops off an issue filled with make-believe wishes, wondrous images, and literary sleight of hand. Finding itself entitled “Make Believe”; this issue of PEN America seems to smile at you, on every page.

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Review Posted on February 14, 2010

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