Monday, July 9, 2018

Bronwyn Reviews: Downdrift

by Johanna Drucker
Publisher: Three Rooms Press
Released: 2018

reviewed by Bronwyn Mauldin

Koalas work in the construction industry. Coyotes run for school board. Armadillos breakdance. Prairie dogs gamble. Lemurs sell jewelry. Silverfish volunteer to take notes for crows gathering oral histories (this doesn’t end well). Giraffes develop a passion for flute playing. They partner with little jerboas that finger the notes by hopping about and pressing their cheeks against the flute holes.

I haven’t laughed so much while reading a novel in a very, very long time. And yet, Johanna Drucker’s Downdrift is completely serious. She sets the tone and intent in an early scene:

“The squirrels are tired of the purpose-driven life, sick of storing nuts against the barren winter. Suddenly they are addicted to the luxury of squandering their energy in useless production and consumption.”

In the “downdrift” of the title, animals increasingly take on human characteristics and behaviors. As the title suggests, this is a move backward in the evolutionary cycle. The “drift” of the title is the haphazard nature of their downward spiral. One species makes a rapid evolutionary leap, while another moves incrementally. In the animal kingdom as on a sandy shoal at the mouth of a river, downdrift is a form of erosion.

The two main characters are a Massachusetts calico named Callie and an unnamed lion on the Kenya grasslands. Something in the downdrift drives them to leave their homes and search for each other. Their journeys are narrated by an archaeon, a genderless single-celled microorganism that is networked around the globe, giving it an omniscient vantage point for observing the downdrift.

“The hyenas are good at many things. They recycle foil with a great passion, flattening its convoluted mass into worried surfaces that they read as if an augury. The rhinos keep them around for amusement, even if they have to police their behavior at times…. After all, the hyenas are helpful to them in many ways. For instance, they have an uncanny ability to assess inventory and are involved in what they consider to be a cargo cult.”

As animals become self-aware, natural law must be replaced with something more formal. Is it right for a lost suburban housecat to hunt down and eat a mouse that has become capable of communicating its emotions through an ecstatic dance on a piece of toast? Laws must be written, regulations promulgated, lines drawn. Under pressures both legal and social, Callie quickly becomes a vegetarian, falling off the wagon in only the most hungry, desperate circumstances, as at a hidden tide pool writhing with minnows.   

Drucker applies concepts from popular culture to animal behavior, at times using the language of bureaucracy to bring it all together in an uncanny absurdity that still seems familiar. In one scene, a goat looks up from the newspaper he is eating to read aloud to a group of beavers about the emerging new narcissism disease:

“The beavers, sounding the alarm and fearing for contagion, scream a warning about the ‘blue-eyed syndrome!’ Callie takes advantage of the uproar to scoop up a few more yams and yellow squash, which helps to calm her homicidal urge to attack the rodents. The goat who started the whole mess takes pleasure in the random chaos of the scene. Though he pretends to be a political pundit, he is really a nihilist at heart, and confusion provides him almost as much pleasure as consuming the last of the news.”

Reading Downdrift put me in mind of Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis (1997) and Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov (1925). Both are sci-fi-adjacent, speculative, satirical, brilliant, and heartbreaking. Animals take on our characteristics and behaviors with tragic results that reveal our human failings. What sets Downdrift apart is that humans are almost invisible in Drucker’s text, irrelevant to the story beyond their general evolutionary influences. As the book comes to a close we get one final look at the lion:

“Nobility is ascribed to him by humans, but their love of charismatic creatures spawns from their own aspirations. They adopt the animals as role models, as if the animal kingdom is a metaphor whose purpose is symbolic, not lived or real.”

This is the powerful eco-fiction ethic at the heart of Downdrift. Animals do not exist for our purposes. Their lives have value and meaning beyond our ability to see or comprehend them. Many other animals were here before homo sapiens emerged. They will, unless we make some terribly colossal mistake, remain long after we are gone, living their lives on their terms.


Bronwyn Mauldin writes fiction and poetry, and creates zines. She will be an Artist in Residence at Denali National Park and Preserve in summer 2018. More at  

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Audio Series: The Space Between

Our audio series "The Authors Read. We Listen."  was hatched in a NYC club during BEA back in 2012. It's a fun little series, where authors record themselves reading an excerpt from their own novels, in their own voices, the way their stories were meant to be heard.

Kali VanBaale is reading an excerpt from her recently released novel The Space Between. Kali is also t
he author of the novel The Good Divide. She is the recipient of an American Book Award, an Eric Hoffer Book Award, an Independent Publisher’s silver medal for fiction, and a State of Iowa major artist grant. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The Chaffey Review, Midwestern Gothic, Numéro Cinq, Nowhere Magazine, The Milo Review, Northwind Literary, Poets&Writers, The Writer and several anthologies. Kali holds an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a faculty member of the Lindenwood University MFA Creative Writing Program. She lives outside Des Moines with her family.

Click the soundcloud link below to listen as Kali reads from her latest novel:

What it's about:

Valentine's Day in Middle America. Judith Elliott fixes breakfast for her affluent suburban family. She kisses them all goodbye, tends to the house, makes plans for later with her husband. Then comes the news: her teenage son, Lucas, has taken a gun to school. He has killed two other students, a teacher, and himself. Judith must suddenly grapple with extraordinary grief and horror. As reporters gather and lawsuits loom, society shuts out the Elliott family--including husband Peter and daughter Lindsey--who are as blindsided by the tragedy as anyone. Judith is soon plagued by unanswerable doubts that may eventually disrupt her life more completely than the initial tragedy. Kali VanBaale's powerful Fred Bonnie Award-winning first novel examines this modern nightmare with clear-eyed dramatic precision. It will leave every reader wondering what lurks in the dark but unknowable spaces between even the most loving of family members.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Where Writers Write: Marshall Moore

Welcome to another installment of TNBBC's Where Writers Write!

Where Writers Write is a series in which authors showcase their writing spaces using short form essay, photos, and/or video. As a lover of books and all of the hard work that goes into creating them, I thought it would be fun to see where the authors roll up their sleeves and make the magic happen. 

This is Marshall Moore. 

He is the author of four novels (InhospitableBitter OrangeAn Ideal for Living, and The Concrete Sky) and three short-fiction collections (A Garden Fed by LightningThe Infernal Republic, and Black Shapes in a Darkened Room). With Xu Xi, he is the co-editor of the anthology The Queen of Statue Square: New Short Fiction from Hong Kong. His short stories have appeared in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Asia Literary ReviewThe Barcelona Review, and many other journals and anthologies. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Aberystwyth University in the UK, and he teaches English and Creative Writing at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. For more information, please visit

Where Marshall Moore Writes

I seem to move a lot. Here in Hong Kong, where I’ve spent the last ten years, I’ve lived in five apartments. I’d buy one but they’re too expensive. As a result, once the landlord raises the rent to an amount I refuse to pay, I find someplace new. My current one, in the Hung Hom district of Kowloon (which is the Brooklyn to Hong Kong Island’s Manhattan, but perhaps not as hip), is terrific: huge windows, lots of light, a view of Victoria Harbour. I have a long L-shaped living/dining room, and my writing alcove (I don’t really call it that) occupies the base of the L. I would prefer a room with a door I could shut, but the view almost makes up for it.

In order to get any writing done, I need quiet and solitude. Once upon a time, I could listen to music and write. I got the second draft of my novel The Concrete Sky done in a hotel room in New Orleans, listening to a lot of late-’90s French disco (Daft Punk, Cassius, Mirwais) and scaring the maids by staying in all day to work. I think they thought I was a vampire. I used to write on planes, too. I wrote one chapter of that book in a departure lounge at Narita, and probably some of it either over the Pacific or on the flight down to Singapore. The way I work changed when I was writing my second novel An Ideal for Living. I was in a failing relationship then, and there were constant interruptions. My cortisol levels have never recovered, so today I absolutely cannot have other people around while I’m trying to work. I’ve done some good work in hotel rooms, but -- forgive the cliche -- there’s no place like home.

The cat, nicknamed the Fur Bomb for reasons that are probably obvious, helps by broadcasting fluffy cuteness and keeping me from disappearing too far into my own head. My ideal writing day starts with breakfast at my desk (where else?) and a pot of coffee. By mid-afternoon, it’s time for lunch, and if everything has gone well, I will (a) have gotten a decent amount of work done, whether creative or academic, and (b) not have spoken to anyone other than the cat. Weather permitting, I’ll take a break and go to the gym. Sometimes, I’ll work in the evening as well, but if I’ve depleted myself for the day, I’ll do other things.

I have nothing but respect for authors who can work in cafes. One part of me wishes I could. Some great books have been written with the help of supportive baristas and endless cups of coffee or tea. But while I’m in this flat, here’s where the work gets done, and when my landlord jacks the rent up, which he will, then my next writing room will be totally different.