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Lidia Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of three works of short fiction: Her Other Mouths, Liberty's Excess, and Real to Reel, as well as a book of literary criticism, Allegories of Violence. Her first novel is forthcoming from Hawthorne Books.


"This is the book Lidia Yuknavitch was put on the planet to write for us."

– Rebecca Brown, author of The Gifts of the Body

"This intensely powerful memoir touches depths yet unheard of in contemporary writing."

– Andrei Condrescu, author of The Poetry Lesson

"Reading this book is like diving into Yuknavitch's most secret places."

– Kerry Cohen, author of Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity

"The book is extraordinary."

– Chuck Palahniuk, author of Pygmy

"This is the book I've been waiting to read all of my life."

– Cheryl Strayed, author of Torch

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The Chronology of Water

Chapter 19: The Less Than Merry Pranksters


I suppose you could call me an Oregon Writer. I live a good five minutes from the U of O campus, although I never studied at U of O. There is a bronze statue of Ken Kesey reading to children in downtown Eugene, where I live, where this particular chapter of The Chronology of Water takes place.

The chapter revolves around author Lidia Yuknavitch participating in a graduate writing workshop in which 13 people — twelve “last ditch disciples and me” — worked on a collective novel with the writer superstar Ken Kesey (pg. 113).

I chose to write on this chapter because I was going to write about being a writer here, and Ken Kesey, and yadda yadda yadda, but what I want to write about now is followers at the heels of greatness, and what we learn, how we as damaged specimens of the human race flock to these larger-than-life personalities to come to understand something, only to find ourselves nursing an aching and overflowing heart, namely this great person’s often aching and overflowing alcoholic heart. This seems a common story, the acolyte helping the drunken prophet home so he can barf into his bed. That, and I also wanted to write about miracles and “reverse miracles,” a phrase Ms. Yuknavitch coins in this chapter to describe a young man collapsing after his first toke of the joint christened the collaborative effort of the group. A beautiful little phrase that will remain with me.

This moment is where the chapter takes off from its tentative beginning in the apartment of her friend, Meredith, for now we have become initiated into the less than merry pranksters ourselves. It quickly transforms into a litany of excess: “Some of us were high on pot and some of us dropped acid and some of us ate mushrooms” (pg. 119). There is something wonderfully mundane about all of this, especially when she repeats it later, a sort of cheeky acknowledgment of how boring psychedelia can really be sometimes, but there is also some of that very real rubbernecker joy of those of us who have grown up on the myth of the sixties, reliving it, and somehow reliving it through another sister rubbernecker who makes it all the more appetizing.

The excess described in this chapter is the excess of an ending, of a person coming to a close and inviting thirteen strangers to the funeral. These could be any thirteen people, but they have been chosen. Lidia is literally dragged to the meeting by her friend Meredith, who is in it, which makes it all the more of a mystical commingling, that she should not even be attending the U of O, not even be in the writer’s program when she takes this class. That she is the thirteenth member. She has set herself out to be the odd one out, the unlucky thirteen, but also something new, a potentially exciting and dynamic force. Which I am sure is very much how it was at the time. The bond she suggests between herself and Kesey as parents suffering from the death of their children, newborn or otherwise, as drunks suffering from the horror of themselves, as a faint hope, that perhaps she can save this man from himself and in so doing nurture in him another masterpiece, that this great man who is drifting away is very tenderly handing his legacy off to her as a second father, makes for a touching chapter, although she makes a point of treating offhandedly the most tender moment in it:

“”I’ve seen a lot of writers come and go. You’ve got the stuff. It’s in your hands. What are you going to do next?

“I opened my eyes and looked at my hands. They looked extremely dumb.

“’Next?’ I said.

“’You know, in your life. What’s next?’” (122)

There is plenty of tender description, of Kesey, his smell, even his constant Vodka consumption is dealt with lovingly, but it’s that he gives her this option, when she thought she had no options, that he takes all that he means to her, all that his name and his books mean to her, and uses them to help give her a way out from digging her own grave, that she does not have to be the zombie she perceives herself to be, but can be something more, something sublime as he is: “You’ve got the stuff. It’s in your hands.”  This is a miraculous statement, or a statement that can produce miracles at least.

What I always find most fascinating is the cult, how this person who is just a person becomes a name with a person attached, and how this person becomes a hypnotic force and how this person becomes a kind of magician who can alter and shape our lives. We have all had persons who have somehow shaped our trajectory. We have walked into walls for years on end, and then someone to whom we’ve given a power says to us that there are no walls, and then we are free to walk through them. Or you might not have, but this is what I see Mr. Kesey doing for Lidia, and it is a gift he gives her. He has given her the gift of self-respect. His broken-down life and his love have opened up the possibility for this discussion between them, and rather than exploit it as many a worse human being might have, he uses this connection to help her, to give her the words she needs, to profess his faith in her.

As for the other members of the class, they are treated as a kind of lamenting fog that follows the great man from room to room, and it’s the small statements she says about them that make them all the more intriguing, that one became the group’s “Judas” and another a cop. This is part of the tragedy of greatness as well, that we lose ourselves in it, that a person could become so large, that everyone around him or her ceases to exist. Of course, there was a part of me that got off on the anecdotal star-fucking quality of it all as well, e.g. “Kesey was the best liar I ever met in my life.” That is a wonderful little phrase that encompasses so many potential myths surrounding the man. Makes me think of Oscar Wilde and his statement that fiction was a “beautiful untruth,” that our favorite prophets are always charlatans. It is lovely to talk this way about the truly great, and lovely to read others speaking in this way.

I have always been enamored of writers who seemed charlatans but aware that they were nothing more than charlatans even while midposture on the pages of posterity. Hunter S. Thompson and Graham Greene are the first to come to mind for some reason, perhaps because they were both journalists and seemed to have learned a little bit of hamming-it-up-ery from their earlier profession. But both of these are also notorious drunks, like our Mr. Kesey from this chapter, and so many of our favorite modernist and proto-post-modernist favorites. I remember being a young boy and saying to myself that I wasn’t going to end up that way, “because it’s been done and done to death,” like a bad haircut that was once fashionable. But now, some years later, I’ve become a little more forgiving of all those lost and pathetic figures who wrote those remarkable books that I once read with such impassioned reverence.

Writing is an interesting craft because it would seem that if a person is to learn to write remarkable prose he must learn to live, but that in learning to write remarkable prose so many of our favorite writers become incapable of living. There’s an amazing book by the notorious editor Malcolm Cowley (who discovered both Faulker and Kerouac) called Exile’s Return, in which he describes his generation going off to WWI and many remarkable descriptions of the authors he met, especially, Joyce, Proust, and Hemingway. Joyce comes off as just a man who needs a letter sent but has become overwhelmed by this simple task.  And then later, “In Joyce the will had developed immoderately; in Proust it seemed almost to be atrophied. Not only his passions but his merest whims were stronger than his desire to control them, and he dispassionately watched himself doing silly things — it was almost as if the living Marcel Proust were an unpleasant but fascinating visitor in the house of his mind.”

* * *

Who are our idols? Why do we follow them? What can they offer us? Who has changed your life? How did they do it?

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  1. ydde said on 07/06/11 at 10:40 am Reply

    I find it sad, at times, that all my heroes are dead and most of them died well before my birth.

    Dostoevsky, though, hands down. Reading CRIME AND PUNISHMENT for the first time when I was sixteen was not only what I consider the most important literary experience of my life, but the most significant and influential moment of my life. For our world lit class, we were handed this book and told to read a chapter a day, which we’d discuss in class. Two days later I finished it. And after a week I had read it twice. I, quite literally, wept into that book. Everything, all of it, always and forever so deep inside me. For all the life that had made on sense to me before, somehow everything became clearer, but it ravaged me, completely broke me down and rewrote me as someone new, someone who could live. I remember finishing it the first time, the words blurred through tears, and going back to page one and reading starting again. Over the next few months I read the rest of his novels and all of his shorter works, and by the end of the year I had read some of them twice, but CRIME AND PUNISHMENT four times. It’s so much a part of me that I can’t imagine my life without it. For the first time, it was as if someone was speaking directly into me. Like my own mind was laid bare on the pages, my whole life seeping through the spaces, bleeding over the margins. We were meant to write an essay and I turned in this thirty page something: part essay, part existential crises, part love letter, part deathwish. It’s something I wish I could read again, but it’s lost in the abyss of four computers and seven years ago.

    When I say the book broke me down and remade me, I do mean that, but it took several months. Mostly the rebuilding part, and it’s why, I think, I’m afraid to read it again, because it always just destroys me and I don’t know how many of those I can take. It makes me again, hopefully better than before.

    Rimbaud, too, for wholly different reasons, but his poetry spoke to me in this kind of ethereal way, where it’s the world breaking down around me while I’m somehow still together. Or perception, on a biological level, is changed.

    And then there’s film and all the directors I love so much. My whole life belongs to the movies and they’ve probably shaped me more than family, friends, teachers, and all the rest. For every book I read, I probably see ten movies and there’ve been times [months] where I’m watching 3-5 movies a day, and maybe only reading a book a week. The big ones are Akira Kurosawa, who’s about as brilliant as Dostoevsky, with all the same power and weight. Or Carl Dreyer who made maybe the most perfect film ever made [available on youtube], and a million more that would maybe get absurd to name.

    As for those still living, for literature, it’s all Steve Erickson. I had never read any of his books until about two years ago, but I quickly read them all, some twice. Reading him was like reading Dostoevsky again. Stylistically and thematically, they’re quite different, but he’s the one who showed me that I could write what I wanted to the way I want to. It was like a flood of relief and I was able to breathe and just let the stories sing within and through me. That’s not to diminish the absolute sublimity of his novels. They’re gorgeous and so very perfect, in my mind.

    And then for film, Wong Kar Wai’s definitely my favorite filmmaker, maybe ever, and I could watch him endlessly, especially IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE and 2046, which I watch probably every three months, if not more. Christopher Doyle, his long time collaborator, is just so perfect with the camera, treating the characters with such gentleness, such beauty. And Pen-Ek Ratanaruang made one of my favorite films ever, too, with LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE, which also has Doyle behind the camera, and it’s perfect for so many reasons, and so many of them inhabiting the same stratosphere as Wong Kar Wai. [Looks like LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE is also available on youtube. It may not be for everyone, but it’s a film in Thai, Japanese, and English about two people who spend a weekend together, about love, or something like it, at the wrong time, at the verge of complete collapse. The woman speaks Thai and the man speaks Japanese and they both speak rather poor English, so they can’t really communicate, at least not verbally, so there’s so much in the quietness, in all that’s not said, all that simply can’t be said, and there’s this one scene where the camera’s above them and it just kind of turns slightly, and they’re on the couch, just sleeping, her head on his lap, his on the leaned back on the couch, and they’re just there, barely touching, but somehow so complete and perfect and together that, the first time I saw it, I just started crying, and, in my memory, that scene lasts so much longer, but it’s actually quite short, just a few breaths, but it’s an image I can’t get out of my head]. Ratanaruang’s made three subsequent films, which’ve been rather disappointing, though. Oh, too, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s made some of the most perfect scenes I can remember. There’s this quietness and stillness that’s so profound and so full of emotion. Maybe even better than Malick [who likely deserves a lot of mention from me, but I’ll try to end all of this right quick].

    There’s something about silence and stillness that hits me so hard. Kim Ki-duk does this very well, especially in 3-IRON and SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER..AND SPRING, and then Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-liang and Yoji Yamada and so many others. It’s something in the asiatic aesthetic, I think. Silence, stillness, and it’s what moves me more than anything else. Maybe because my life is so unstill and so full of noise and I can’t seem to even sit still or sleep without music playing.

    But, uh, yeah, I suppose you could call them heroes, but I think I forgot to answer the other questions, maybe.


    GBoyer said on 07/06/11 at 12:55 pm

    Really enjoyed your comment. Finally read Brothers Karamazov last summer and it became one of my favorite books ever. It is the most real thing I have read in a long time. And that feeling of a book speaking directly to you. I’ve only had that once that I can remember and it was actually a book by Marie Von-Franz, one of Jung’s followers, writing about The Puer Aeternus syndrome, or “eternal youth” syndrome, about people who keep themselves in a child state as adults, using Saint-Exupery as an example. I kept putting down the book, and my chest was pounding, and I was frightened to keep reading, but I did, and am glad I did. I loved the effect “Crime and Punishment” had. I haven’t read it since I was 17 or so, and honestly, I was too immature at the time. I saw only words and how words fit together. I couldn’t see people then. And I am definitely going to check out those movies. I love Kurusawa. And I love the Passion of Joan of Arc by Dreyer. And I love In the Mood for Love. The rest is beyond me and must be watched. I too have always loved this part of the world. (I studied chinese for five years and lived in China for a year.) Thanks for the comment!

    ydde said on 07/06/11 at 2:02 pm

    Yeah, Dostoevsky’s just something else to me. Wholly unfair to compare him to people, I think. He wrote of emotion and ideas and society in such a powerful way, in so many perfect ways, at times hilarious and at times frightening and at times heartbreaking.

    I do think Steve Erickson’s the most talented american writer, especially TOURS OF THE BLACK CLOCKS and OUR ECSTATIC DAYS, but I also think it’s best to read him in order as his oeuvre kind of culminates and builds into this singular landscape within OUR ECSTATIC DAYS. I’m a big fan of Stephen Graham Jones, too, if only for his energy and imagination, especially LEDFEATHER, which I forgot in the above comment, but it’s one of my favorite books ever, right up there with THE WAVES and CRIME AND PUNISHMENT.

    And film, man, a thousand names keep pooping into my head now and I wish I hadn’t forgotten people like Krzysztof Kieslowski, who mad five absolute masterpieces, or Zhang Yimou who seems capable of anything. Chen Kaige made a few great films a long time ago, too. Tarkovsky [who couldn’t help making masterpieces], Truffait [especially SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER and 400 BLOWS and JULES ET JIM], Resnais [especially HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR], Renoir [one of those guys like Morneau and Dreyer and Lang who were doing things perfectly before anyone was even paying attention to the artform], Godard [at times, and my favorites by him happen to star Anna Karina], and Melville [all style, but not in a bad way] all hit me in so much the right way, and Fellini, at times, was sublime in the purest sense, and Alexander Sokurov’s THE RUSSIAN ARK is so unbelievably awesome [one single take, 92 minutes long, like ballet, really]. Bergman did some great films, too, though I think he’s largely overrated, but it’s hard to deny WILD STRAWBERRIES and PERSONA. And then there are all the americans I love, but this is getting silly. I could talk movies for weeks, I fear, and I haven’t even mentioned cartoons, which are so very important to who I am, maybe more than everything else. But I have less of a knowledge about cartoons, or less knowledge about who’s actually making it. I think it’s because film and literature hit me on intellectual and emotional levels, while cartoons are pure emotion with no filter and I’m always five, so deep into the screen that the rest of the world’s muted, far away, insignificant.

    ydde said on 07/06/11 at 2:10 pm

    I totally typed pooped instead of popped, which is maybe appropriate, take a bit of the film snob out of my post.

    But, man, films just excite me and I can’t sleep now, thinking about all the names, all the images. How can one bother sleeping when there’s so much beauty to see? So many films to watch.

    Kristina said on 07/07/11 at 4:03 am

    I’m so happy you mentioned Andrei Zyvagintsev! The Return is, actually, my favorite movie period. It’s so incredible. I saw it alone in the theatre and I’m glad I did because I didn’t want to talk to anyone after, I just wanted to let it sink into me.

    ydde said on 07/07/11 at 10:24 am

    Oh man, yeah, totally in love with that movie. I feel like I’ve been talking about it forever, but’ve never met anyone who’s seen it. There’s one image from that movie that’s deep inside me. What are those things lifeguards stand on? Whatever. It’s that. An empty one and the camera takes its point of view over the lake and the car drives off and, I don’t really know why that image is so powerful to me. Every shot is like poetry, like a painting.

    Have you seen THE BANISHMENT? It was his follow up and I like it more. The stillness and silence in there is quite profound.

  2. Jordan Blum said on 07/06/11 at 12:18 pm Reply

    I have two sets of idols: authors and musicians. Stephen King, Chuck Palahniuk, and Bret Easton Ellis come to mind. King because of his success and prolific-ness (is there a better word?) And because he used to be very good. I think “The Stand” was my first book by him, and it showed me just how epic and detailed fiction can be. As for Palahniuk and Ellis, they showed me that you don’t have to write safely or formally. You can break rules of grammar and diction, and you can use risque language to describe risque stories. It may not be “literary” but I enjoy it.

    Musically, the Beatles are an obvious choice, as is Paul Simon. Other than them, pretty much everyone from the progressive rock genres. Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) for writing two 45 minute songs that are pure genius, the boys in Genesis (pre-1978), Robert Fripp (King Crimson) for inventing a whole new style of guitar playing. As for new artists, Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) is probably my main idol. He’s involved with 100 different projects and they’re all fantastic. Mikael Akerfeldt (Opeth), Vincent Cavanagh (Anathema) and Casey Crescenzo (The Dear Hunter) also come to mind. They push the boundaries and prove that music can still be brilliant and unique.


  3. yrfriendliz said on 07/06/11 at 12:46 pm Reply

    My heros? Koko the gorilla (for real — her documentary is on Youtube in segments — please watch it). Also Robyn. Shakira. John Denver. Megan Mullally. and Frank O’Hara for the literary I guess.

    It can be very tempting to think “they did it this way and I love it” and then have these blinders on where you feel like you have to be the NEXT ____ and not yourself. Or, sometimes I’m like “WHY AM I NOT ZADIE SMITH/ LORRIE MORRE YET?” and that’s not healthy, you know? But when people are successful and young you start to wonder if you did something wrong and if you need to do what they did and then it’s just weird and counter productive. You don’t need to smoke pot and yell at jazz musicians as you drive across the country to create good writing — but if you’d asked me when I was in my Kerouac phase I probs would have been all “YES YOU DO! BLOW AS HARD AS YOU WANT TO BLOW” or something. Or like a lot of writers romanticize alcoholism because Hemingway or Ken Kesey or Bukowski or EVERYONE is an alcoholic (as you talk about, Gabriel), and I just don’t really buy that. Alcoholism isn’t romantic. It sucks.

    For the most part, I like to talk to people’s parents (including mine, who are the greatest and strongest people I know) and find out how they did what they did and how they got where they are. Or talk to my awesome and brilliant coworkers. Or talk to my friends who are 5, 10 years older than I am just for the comfort of knowing that people can survive beyond where I am.



    GBoyer said on 07/06/11 at 1:05 pm

    John Denver, huh? I love that song, “Sunshine on My Shoulder.” It’s one of those songs I sing while smiling at myself and others smile at me as if to say, “Ah. You are a fool and we like you that way.” But I do really love it. And when I was in China, Country Roads was really popular, and I spent an afternoon recording a version of it with one of the teachers in the high school playing acoustic guitar, which was hilarious. (He kept backing me up and then abruptly falling silent.) I wish I could hear that again. But yes. Just older people. How have they made it so far? And sometimes we laugh and say, “Ah. You are a fool and we like you that way,” and then stop for a second and realize, “But I’m the fool.” And realize that foolishness isn’t so bad. Or am I being too koan-y? Any case, I liked your comment. I liked your caps. And I will watch the documentary on Koko.

  4. Dawn. said on 07/06/11 at 9:24 pm Reply

    Great essay, Gabriel. This chapter made me particularly swoony. I loved the starfucking qualities too, and the bond she and Kesey had was just heartbreaking. Also, I was so envious of everyone who got to experience such a badass workshop, haha. I’ve had great workshop experiences, sure, but nothing like that.

    Between 18-22, my literary “idol” was Anne Carson. Before that, it was Yusef Komunyakaa. Before that, it was Francesca Lia Block. Now, it’s honestly Lidia Yuknavitch. COW is my favorite book, what can I say. 🙂


  5. Melanie said on 07/06/11 at 11:46 pm Reply

    I actually finished this book about a week ago, and I didn’t want it to end. What an amazing memoir this was, and it quickly jumped straight to the top of my “Favorite Books Ever” list. 🙂


    Molly Gaudry said on 07/06/11 at 11:50 pm

    Hi Melanie, please check back for more COW as we make our way through the book, chapter by chapter every Monday-Thursday, until the end of August. Lidia also makes appearances in the comments here, so be on the lookout for her! Hope to hear more from you, and thanks for stopping by tonight!

  6. Kristina said on 07/07/11 at 4:06 am Reply

    One of my idols is Annabel Lyon, mostly because she’s one of the few Canadian authors I really admire. I read her short story collection, Oxygen, when I was 14 and it was probably the first book to show me just how much the form is capable of. How things can be weird and off-kilter but still so, so deeply felt.

    And if her classes aren’t full by the time I register next week, I’ll be taking fiction with her at UBC. PSYCHED.


  7. Heather Fowler said on 07/07/11 at 12:13 pm Reply

    I loved this chapter too, in that it so well captures those tiny moments–and the myth of the famous. May I never be so famous that I have to live up to a legend of previous wild behavior, the behavior of the saddest self-destructive moments that can be exhibited as a sort of validation of former or involuntary persona–; what I love here is the real moment described, and yes, the care for Kesey, his ability to make a formative moment for Lidia, as well as the real concern, person to person, Kesey exhibited: To ask about someone’s future is rather beautiful. It implies there will be one. For those who operate at a dark level, that alone can be a compliment. This chapter touched me.


  8. Lam Pham said on 07/07/11 at 7:45 pm Reply

    I was introduced to James Joyce in my AP English class senior year. His bildungsroman, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, left strong impressions on my own conflicts with my Catholic upbringing. When our teacher provided us some context to the author’s own misgivings about his faith, the infamous scene with his dying mother (briefly recounted in Ulysses in the 1st chapter), I felt that I’d met someone who finally understood, though our reasons for leaving our faith vary. I discovered Camus later in life, and I think he might’ve had a similar if not the same impact as Joyce had I read him during my formative years. As such, he’s someone I love, but not an author I idolize.

    So many other literary idols I carry in my mind and words: Steinbeck, Kerouac, Hemingway – all for different reasons, commemorating specific stages in my life. But only Joyce knew me before I knew myself.


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