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Naked: Writers Uncover the Way We Live on Earth

Susan Zakin (editor)

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Naked: Writers Uncover the Way We Live on Earth
Susan Zakin calls nature-writing a "decrepit genre" in a "self-imposed ghetto of boundless purity and bloodless prose." She is referring, of course, to the sort of writing that is the prosaic counterpart to new age music, spiritually-rendered landscapes and meditations upon a willow tree. Not that there's anything wrong with this sort of writing. Its only fault is an error of omission -- man and all that comes with man is omitted from the picture, air-brushed ever so elegantly out so that what remains is the breathtaking Audubon Calendar image. It makes for a lovely illusory fantasy to help drown out the little voice inside that something has gone awry with the way we interact with the natural world.

Naked, Zakin's newly released collection of short fiction and nonfiction does exactly the opposite. The commonality amongst these pieces is the inclusion of humans in the picture. In fact, it is exactly at the junction of human society and the natural world that Naked lives. And it's not always pretty.

Alexandra Fuller's prose is visceral as she recalls her childhood years in Africa:
"Dad has killed the impala with one shot to the heart. I insert my forefinger into the passage where the bullet has gone. It is still warm and wet with quickly robbed life. There is a tinny smell of blood and there are animal smells that waft up from the carcass – the smells this ram carried with it in life: dust, rutting, shit, sun, rain."

Scottish writer, A.L. Kennedy weaves a tale of an attempted suicide who finds respect for life in the bull-fighting ring and L.A. Weekly editor, Joe Donnelly, in an epiphany at the Raging Waters Waterpark, shatters the illusion of the human ego to uncover our true nature: "Things like phlegm, boogers, dandruff, loose toenails, pubic hair, psoriasis, seborrhea, earwax, scabs, blood, pathogens..."

A handful of Edward Abbey's letters, a stretch of road from Vietnamese-American writer, Andrew Pham, a sexual encounter with a dolphin from hallucinatory-fiction writer, Ted Mooney – Naked pokes and prods at the various spaces, real or imagined, where our Tevas meet the Earth. Among my favorites is a T.C. Boyle story about the new girl's unnatural fascination with the canine and its impact upon her nice suburban neighbors.
At the heart of the collection is a passage from Joy William's "Ill Nature," a stylistically aggressive bit of ecological rant in which the narrator addresses the reader in the second person, indicting us for our superficial relationship with the natural world:

"At some golf courses in the Southwest, the saguaro cactuses are reported to be repaired with green paste when balls blast into their skin. The saguaro can attempt to heal themselves by growing over the balls, but this takes time, and the effect can be somewhat... baroque. It’s better to get out the pastepot. Nature has become simly a visual form of entertainment, and it had better look snappy."
Williams' piece is the most pointedly reprimanding of the collection and recalls the tone of disgust Edward Abbey takes with the human race in timelessly classic works like Desert Solitaire. The only piece I like better is perhaps Klaus Kinski's seething tirade against director, Werner Herzog: "Herzog is a miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, cowardly creep. His so-called 'talent' consists of nothing but tormenting helpless creatures and, if necessary, torturing them to death or simply murdering them."

Far from a collection of pretty calendar images, Naked often scrapes the bottom of that which is the human experience, yet, at times, alludes to the highest qualities in our nature. Zakin sets out to "uncover the way we live on Earth." She does exactly that, and it is by casting such a wide net upon that experience that she neither condemns nor condones us, but sets forth an artist's view for our own interpretation.
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