Instant City: a literary exploration of San Francisco, Issue 7

Instant City: a literary exploration of San Francisco, Issue 7

Instant City 7
Editor: Gravity Goldberg
(107 pages/Instant City, San Francisco)

Founded by Gravity Goldberg and Eric Zassenhaus in 2004, Instant City is a biannual journal that publishes fiction, non-fiction and art about San Francisco. Instant City 7, published in spring 2010, is a departure from the journal’s usual theme-based collections. For this one, the editors decided to let those mysterious muses that whisper into pens and keyboarding fingers dictate the theme. What were those muses whispering about? Naughty, cheap, objectionable, crass, misguided, desperate, hilarious, absurd, delinquent, questionable, base, wicked and in short, completely riveting bad behavior.

For those readers who live or have lived in San Francisco, there is something unspeakably satisfying about knowing the places where these stories take place. If you thought you were the only person who recognized the 38 Geary bus as a confrontation magnet—you’re wrong. Or maybe your experience picks up where someone else’s leaves off, as in Lincoln Mitchell’s story “Waiting for the 43,” where the narrator imagines the bus disappearing to exotic places named Prague and Geneva, after it leaves the Haight. Even if you have lived in San Francisco for many years, (or are one of its seven natives) you will never know the city the same way another person knows it. The idea that your stomping grounds also belong intimately and emotionally to someone else is an uncanny sensation, akin to fitting together the pieces of a metaphysical jigsaw puzzle, or maybe just to shopping at Out of the Closet. And for those who don’t live in San Francisco, the place names and specifics won’t matter, but the parallel experiences will. Stories, particularly those about people doing what they are not supposed to do, are as universally compelling as playing ding-dong ditch or making prank calls.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Instant City 7 is the nature of the bad behavior people are writing about. It’s strange to see, quite clearly, the imprint of economic fallout and its accompanying stifling of a sense of well-being almost unilaterally across these stories: a former convict working as a drug counselor is now being blackmailed for an amount of money he can only obtain illegally; the forced happiness of dirt-streaked, stumbling and sloppy recreational drug-taking; trying (and failing) to be slutty on craigslist; the ugly truth of waking up in a post web-designer, post job, job market.

San Francisco’s misbehavior of 2010 is not the glamorous, rock n’ roll to-hell-with-it bohemianism of the 60’s and 70’s, nor the cocaine and cash driven Top-Gun mentality of the 80’s, and definitely not a 90’s parachute-panted, can’t-touch-this, SUV-infested, bling-driven impropriety . We’re even past the air-brushed and trout-pouted shenanigans of the early 2000’s. San Francisco of the moment seems to be a little dazed, a little tentative: less into escapism and more about survival, which makes sense when Burning Man has become a tourist attraction, or when a life and death near miss might be as simple as accidentally stumbling into a drug deal, or when a sack with a live duck in it seemed like a bright idea until the reality of the knife enters the equation. It seems from these stories, that San Franciscans are feeling an undercurrent of solemnity and exhaustion, like people posting wanted posters on telephone poles that say, REWARD: LOST FUN. Last seen so long ago we’re not sure of what it looked like.

Still, even with the more shell-shocked nature of these stories of folly, this is still San Francisco: the Barbary Coast, Baghdad by the Bay, the City that Knows How. It’s the place where the best role-model you ever had could best be described as “Rosie Greer meets RuPaul,” and where “the sidewalks sometimes sparkle.”

Want another take on Instant City 7? SF Literary Culture Examiner Evan Karp’s got VIDEO.
Contributors: Robert Arnold, David Becker, August Bleed, Charlie Callahan, Scott Carroll, MK Chavez, Joshua Citrak, Sherilyn Connelly, Amanda Davidson, Sonya Derman, Dylan Dockstader, Andrew O. Dugas, Cathy Fairbanks, Kimia Ferdowski, Rona Fernandez, Casey FizSimons, Philip Franklin, Cody Frost, David Fullarton, Charles Gatewood, Peter Hermann, Beau Knight, Kyle Knobel, R.J. Martin, Rob McLaughlin, Christopher McLean, Cynthia Mitchell, Lincoln Mitchell, Alex Nowik, David Plumb, Aaron Rodriguez, Mary Taugher, Kevin Thomson, Stephanie Vernier, Atom Wong and Chris West.

Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts

Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts

Shantaram

Shantaram: A Novel by Gregory David Roberts
Gregory David Roberts (933 pages/St. Martin’s Griffin)

Shantaram parallels its author’s own true story of escaping a maximum security prison in Australia and living as a drug runner and passport forger in Bombay during the 1980’s. Roberts was eventually captured and forced to serve his 19 year sentence, where it took him “thirteen long and troubled years to write Shantaram. My hands, damaged by the residual effects of frostbite, suffered so badly during the winters in the punishment unit of the prison that many pages of the manuscript journal, which survived and which I still have with me, are stained and streaked with my blood.”
Shantaram is narrated by the protagonist Lin, who ends up living in a slum where he runs a makeshift medical clinic. His physical and philosophical struggles form the heart of the novel’s emotional thrust. Can someone be a good person after making many mistakes, or is it possible, “to do the wrong thing for the right reasons?” This moral argument becomes the lynchpin of the story and the heart of a deep conflict over where to invest a moral authority. Lin observes both fault and favor with society’s ways of dispensing justice, comparing the cruelty of the prison system with the communal compassion and punishment he sees meted out in the slums in Bombay, but all the while considering himself an outsider, no matter how desperately he wishes otherwise.
Shantaram is an uneven, messy book involving tens of characters, plotline after plotline, and the physical and emotional geography of what is essentially ten years worth of the author’s life, and the writing reflects that inconsistency. At its best moments, Shantaram is alive and eloquent with true self-expression, while at other times it collapses into cliché so groan-inducing it’s hard to believe the same author wrote these lines. In the end, it is a sense of the deep-down desperation of a man who must tell his story that keeps you reading. One way or another, Shantaram grips you by the hand and says, let me tell you a story that matters.