Friday, December 30, 2011

First Read On E-Reader: "Person" by Sam Pink

All right, before you judge me for having a kindle fire manufactured by the evil corporation, you should know that I'm very happy with its performance and that that should somehow make up for the terrible things does to competition in the arena of the free market.

Don't be evil and try your best not to be complicit. I will try harder.

No more questions!


(Brief parenthetical aside: I still like and plan to purchase paper books, often from used bookstores. This is what I tell myself and I know it to be true! Besides it's too hard for me to highlight passages and annotate margins on the e-reader. Paper books beat 'em where that's concerned.) 


I read "Person" by Sam Pink. It's an unusual tale that reminds me somewhat of Daniil Kharms' disjointedness. Absurdity coupled with vague sense of the tragedy inherent in things being what they are and not necessarily logical. It's still funny, yes, but there's melancholy, too. Nobody can avoid the melancholy. You'd better learn how to cope with melancholy. It's a part of this. Maybe that's not such a bad thing, either.

A line I can imagine being in "Person" would go something like, "I met a student who was pre-med. He looked like he would be my doctor someday. He would always be the same way, and I might be a little bit different."

Here's another handful of lines actually from the novel and not just put upon it:

There's an advertisement for junior college along the inside of the train.
The ad features a smiling man holding books.
He looks nice.
One day I will figure out which stop the junior college is at and then I will go there and meet this man and we will help each other through life.  

Pink seems concerned with the various superficiality of everyday life, and more to the point, the ephemerality that defines the superficial. The people you meet on the street aren't always going to be there. In fact, they'll be a part of your life far less time than the people you know, the difference between a year and a millennium. Those fleeting, superficial interactions tend to be the real and true microcosm of life and living. They constitute the people you knew in high school, say, and now only know on Facebook, if you know them at all. If you ever knew them at all.

Also, everything in the novel is February. A nice and cold month devoid of feeling. January might've also worked were it not too closely removed from Christmas and obviously New Year's (despite familial issues, unless something very negative happened to you at this time of year it's generally pretty positive, energy wise). Nobody cares about Valentine's Day. It's either too commercial or too lonely or both. Those things make it a sad holiday foisted on the public, and accordingly, it tends to be an afterthought -- even to those who enjoy it. It does not come up in "Person," which whether intentional or not, I agree with.

There's one epitomizing moment in which the unnamed narrator is confronted by his overly extroverted landlord, a landlord who wants all the building's tenants to be like family, and the landlord shows off a Halloween decoration she got at a discount because of its being so completely out of season. It does the thing it's supposed to do, this werewolf statue thing, apparently wiggling its arms staccato-like. More interestingly, the unnamed narrator does what he's supposed to, which is feign a kind of interest. He is a person enough to understand this nuance of human interaction.

There's also the sense of David Markson I felt in Pink's novel. In particular "Wittgenstein's Mistress" is very much felt. Take the plot of "Wittgenstein's Mistress" and put it in a world populated by other people, with a male narrator, and you have a nice, different sort of post-apocalyptic narrative. This is what I think Sam Pink fairly deftly achieves. The language is often terse and never overly florid, but it has this way of expressing a great deal. It makes you think and feel in a different way, a way that's purposely uncomfortable but, as you move through the narrative, you begin to find a kind of comfort, call it making do, with the lifestyle of the narrator, his nomadic existence. It's troubling but pleasing. It doesn't seem so bad. It seems like you don't always have complete control over your own fate, but you have some control over it, and with that you make what you will.

It's a fun read in the way that coming to terms with yourself and yourself in the grand scheme of things can be fun, when looked at from a certain kind of angle. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

rowan university

Peterbd gave me a little history lesson re: the history of the fine educational institution Rowan University. All of this is the god's honest truth. "Merry Christmas to you." - Frank Sinatra

i met a guy yesterday who graduated from rowan university.

he was like "wanna here how rowan university came to be?"

and i was like "no"

and he was like "listen anyway"

and i was like "ok"

and he was like:

jerome rowan was a billionaire from somewhere in europe and was incredibly tired of living in europe.

so jerome left europe in 1921 and decided to come to america. "america doesn't have stoopid

poopy head people like in europe" said jerome aloud. when jerome arrived in new york,

he decided to move to new jersey because the rent in williamsburg was high even for the 1920s.

"i'm a fucking billionaire" said jerome. "i'm gonna conquer new jersey and show those 

williamsburg hipsters who's boss." "but how you gonna do that big daddy" said jerome's lover (at

the time). "you don't know a damn thing about academics." "get outta my house!" said jerome.

"anybody who doesn't believe in my abilities and doesn't love everything about me, needs to 

get out of my life. so get out!" jerome's lover (at the time) later moved to the west coast

and had a tragic end as the black dahlia. 

then i was like "so what's the point of this story. how did rowan university come to be?"

and the guy was like "hush up. i'm just gettin to the good part"

jerome unfortunately became addicted to crack in 1923 and blew all his billions. crack was 

expensive in the 1920's so this was an extremely possible outcome. "what am i gonna do?"

said jerome. "i blew all my billions and can no longer give the middle finger to those hipsters

by building a university in new jersey". but just then, someone heard him. this someone was 

craig rowan. craig was so inspired by jerome's sermon that he vowed to help him build the university

of his dreams. "just stay off the rock dude" said craig. "can do" said jerome. "but what's the catch?"

"there's no catch" said craig. "just make sure to name it rowan university". "my 1st girlfriend's

name was rowan and i loved her alot." "can do" said jerome. the end 

then i was like "so what's the moral of this story? what's so great about rowan university?"

and the guy was like "matt rowan is part of the rowan lineage"

and i was like "but who's lineage? jerome's, craig's or craig's 1st girlfriend whom he loved dearly?"

and the guy was like "that's the thing. nobody knows."

and i was like "interesting. that's hella crazy"

and the guy was like "yup. bye"

and i was like "bye"

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Too Friendly, Detailed Form Rejection

So this is what passes as a form rejection down at Eclectica Magazine:
UPDATE: Given Ellen's considered response in the comments I feel it's useful to point out here and now that while I disapprove of the following I don't mean to indict Eclectica for it in specific -- just offer my opinion for why I disagree with this practice and using Eclectica's as an example of the practice in action. Certainly Eclectica is a fine publication and they are also not the only publication to reject in this fashion.)
Dear Matt, 
Thank you for your submission to Eclectica Magazine.  After careful consideration, I have decided not to select it for publication. There are many possible reasons for why a particular piece isn't selected, and I regret that I am unable, given time constraints, to offer further explanation as to which of those reasons applied to your work. I will say that you're in good company; as always, there were many authors and many pieces that I would have liked to include. 
Best of luck with your writing and in finding a home for this work. I appreciate your support of online literature in general and Eclectica in particular, and I hope you'll try us again in the future. 
Tom // Eclectica

Don't get me wrong. I understand the good intent here. Or I think I do. But it's still misguided / misplaced if you ask me. If you decide to reject someone in a form way make it a form. Don't attempt being personal because that makes you seem like those dishonest salespeople who pretend they're all about good relations and honest sales practice but then find ways to subtly lose your confidence, allusions to things that suggest their inventory is limited and demand has been high, and sort of disingenuously pressuring you to buy. It's like either you be cold and streamlined, literary publication, or you legitimately put the legwork into actually being warm and friendly. This "happy medium" is unsettling and perplexing and makes me want to ralph on you, on one of you.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Want Your Interest for a Minute

I'm just gonna fire right into this one. Went to Ear Eater for the first time yesterday. Apparently it's a reading usually held in a house and not a bar such as the Uptown Lounge, where it was held yesterday. But not this time, because it WAS held at the Uptown Lounge and it was hosted by Colin Winnette, who could quite possibly be the nicest person in the world. He should be in the running for that prize. And I don't mean that in some proto-Nietzschean (in which goodness is weakness), backhanded compliment sort of way. I mean that while I wish I were the nicest person in the world, Colin Winnette actually IS the nicest person in the world. So read his book! (read that also because he's a really good, up-and-coming writer.)

But also, at Ear Eater, some great writers. No surprise that Zach Dodson and A D Jameson were great. Love those guys. Zach Dodson read of England and bacon-ey chocolates to be had therein and Jameson read of a "great" friend whom he felt the need to disparage ad nauseam poetically.

It was Sara Levine who was my wild card, slated as the third reader in the group. But wow! She read a chapter from her forthcoming novel, "Treasure Island!!!" and WOW. Wow, I can't wait for this book. I need it and will have it. As will my girlfriend. We will each get copies. I will get one for her and then I will get one for me.


I had a few stories published, HERE and HERE.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Some items

A few things, though it is exhausting to have to bother with actually typing these posts and then getting to the "publish post" button, a button I want to call "click post" for some reason I can't explain.

1.) Untoward Magazine will be having its one-year anniversary reading on December 14th at the Beauty Bar in Chicago, IL. So save that date! Or be square.

2.) Mason Johnson is up to his old tricks with P. Fanatics, and I will be a part of this next one. Ben Tanzer and I plan to team up to do something potentially real nice. I know with B-Tanz involved, at least half of what we do will be good. The other half will be me, which is sort of a mixed bag as that goes. Anyway that happens at Cole's Bar on Milwaukee, November 13th. Be there, or sadly don't. Its start time is always approximately 7:30pm.

3.) I story of mine was published on Red Fez this month! I've included a link in my sidebar of publications there, but I'll post one here too! This is to the issue in total. Read other people's great work. Red Fez has too much great writing. It'd almost be a problem if it wasn't great.

4.) I will have several more stories coming out in the very near future, which I will tell you about as they happen. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Time for "Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day"

"Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day" is hands down, my favorite book of the year (and not likely to be supplanted). (Although I've enjoyed several others immensely: "Normally Special," "Amazing Adult Fantasy," "You Can Make Him Like You," and still need to read or finish reading several more, "Freight," "Giant Slugs" and "The Pale King"). (One dark horse candidate I've got many praising things to say about and I shall hopefully get to in the coming weeks is a poetry chapbook called "Piano Rats," which will be released by Curbside Splendor next month.)

But Loory's collection, returning to the subject at hand, is not only my favorite book of this year, but easily among my favorite books all time. That's to start with.

I've been avidly following Ben Loory's fiction for awhile now, since his story "The TV" appeared in The New Yorker (appears in greater length in "Stories for Nighttime") in spring 2010, I think (i.e. I think it was spring of that year that it appeared). It's hard not to be captivated in some way by how artfully he succeeds at expressing grand sprawling ideas and sentiments in austere, general terms. (For example, see just there? how I wrote "grandiosity" and "austere"? He would have succeeded at saying the same thing but artfully and with much more exact diction). And I should say, these terms seem austere and general but bloom very quickly into something greater, abstractly significant.

His collection is at times moving, challenging, detaching, philosophical, mythical, and downright funny. Loory is a master at saying just enough, enough to keep you scratching your head in wonderment, and plenty of just enough to allow room for your own personal interpretation. Like Raymond Carver, he's an author whose narrative vacancies have as much -- if not more -- meaning than the passages themselves. This isn't a matter of showing and not telling, or some old cliche about writing. Loory seems possessed by all the good muses that power fantastical fiction. His writing forces you to read and parse an enigma, which is both possible and impossible to solve. (See what I mean, yet?)

In my mind, this collection catapults him (via trebuchet, an ostensibly more powerful engine than the catapult) into the ranks of contemporaries like George Saunders, Amelia Gray, and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. It also puts him among classic authors like Franz Kafka, Daniil Kharms, and Donald Barthelme. All of which of is to say, Ben Loory is easily among my favorite authors, both living and dead. (Not to be morbid, right, but folks often make a distinction, in those exact terms, between the two -- the contemporary and the classic? Or am I just morbid? I suppose I could have put it as contemporary and classic but, ah, that becomes an issue of semantics I refuse to digress into...)

Let me see if I can explain why high praise such as lumping him in the category of the many venerable names above is both correct and due.

See first, in my opinion, the story "The Magic Pig." This story is astounding. Turns notions of belief and skepticism and outright disbelief on their respective heads. A kind of potent farce in the appearance of a magical pig, which shows itself at the inducement of a father who is belittling his daughter's new found faith. The father tells his daughter if god is real then a sign should manifest itself, and so immediately comes the pig, delivered ostensibly down from heaven. This is not enough for the father, who absconds with the pig and demands it show him another sign. I won't explain where the story goes from here. (It's short and fun to read, so read it.)

But I will say there is something of the history of faith and belief in the story, a kind of allegory in the man's conduct. So much of what we believe in contemporary religion (even respecting newer ones like Scientology) owe their roots to tales of ancient supernatural happenings. Things that historical record has no way of confirming absolutely and which require faith. One imagines even those so-called miracles, at the time of their occurrence, might have looked different to different witnesses, if they even ever truly occurred at all. (Bear in mind, it is very likely George Washington never, in his youth, cut down a cherry tree.)

Skeptics were probably eager for more, wishing to see more, and you can imagine a deity of the variety believed in by Western cultures would have grown tired of showing itself at every beck and call, knowing its creation could never be sated. That skeptics might never be able to believe enough for their own or anyone's liking. That such search for belief could easily become an obsession, and that obsession would only grow more potent and powerful with time and age, and the succession of each new generation, further set apart from the miracle's origin. And maybe that's not the point of life, searching for the truth of faith. Maybe, Loory seems to say, you'll find out when you die.

Choosing favorites pieces in "Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day" is like choosing favorite chocolates from a boxed assortment that contains none with pie-like cherry filling -- they're all so very, very good and tasty. But given no other alternative my tops of the collection are certainly the above delved into "The Magic Pig" and "The Book," "The Crown," "The Octopus," "Death and the Fruits of the Tree," "The Shield," "UFOl A Love Story" (Easily the most emotionally charged among the rest), "The Graveyard," and "Hadley." Plus, "The TV' -- which is no doubt the most enigmatic and challenging of the collection.

"Hadley," though, I'll speak a few words of and then I'll stop with this review. "Hadley" was in the best sense "Weekend at Bernie's" meets "The Shawshank Redemption." Hadley comes up missing in an evening bed count at an unnamed prison and the guards, not wanting to take blame for his disappearance, invent a new Hadley (who is, I think significantly, one of the few characters in this collection who has a proper noun for a name). What ensues is startlingly profound, given the superficially farcical circumstances of the narrative. Which is something I think you as a reader will greatly enjoy. I certainly did.

So go get "Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day" if you haven't already. It's one of those decisions I have faith you won't regret.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

LOVIN' INFANT MONKEYS, a mini review

Lydia Millet's "Love and Infant Monkeys" to put it plainly rocks socks. I know I can be a little effusive when it comes to praise round here, but the truth is I was a less than enthusiastic fan of her novel, "Everyone's Pretty." But I enjoyed her short story "Sir Henry" that appeared in issue 1 of Electric Literature, so I thought I'd give her another go with the aforementioned "Love and Infant Monkeys" -- which includes "Sir Henry" in its pages.

I don't know if Millet is better in short form or what, but "Love and Infant Monkeys" was far more to my taste. A little bit daring in terms of using real-life subjects, i.e. celebrities and other famous persons, as primary or main characters. The strange tempo of the third-person stream of consciousness in the first story, the one in which Madonna has successfully if inadvertently killed a pheasant during a hunting outing with her then husband, Guy Ritchie and his cronies. His cronies, I think, are depicted fairly by Millet, at least what my imagination brings to mind.

The eponymous piece "Love and Infant Monkeys" is easily the most tragic of them, in terms of subject matter. It concerns the real-life experiments of an American psychologist, Harry Harlow, and the infant monkeys on whom he tested his various hypotheses. It's easy to see after a few descriptive passages of the animals' treatment, most disturbingly Harlow's "pit of despair" or in the story, Harlow recollects he's been entreated to call them "chambers" rather than "dungeons" by his assistant, a graduate student named Stephen Suomi, who noted the latter would be "bad for public opinion." Harry Harlow's dysfunctional, self-destructive nature is put on full display in "Love and Infant Monkeys" -- not used to rationalize as much as emote the purpose behind Harlow's eccentric behavior. He seems to float through the story in something akin to a alcohol-induced stupor, described early on in its pages as a "functional alcoholic." It ends with a particular strong narrative revelation about Harlow, which I won't reproduce here because you should read the story in its entirety and get the full effect.

The final story in the collection "Walking Bird" hit all the right notes for me too. Conveyed certain feelings seamlessly, touchingly. A good ending punctuation to the entire collection, and all told, the collection is one of the best I've ever read in terms of its "even" quality. These stories were made to be read side by side.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Snapshot of Work in Contemporary the USA

I had a rare opportunity at work the other day -- one of my jobs, a Costco sales employee -- to talk about things a little more meaningful than a more detailed discussion of the specs on the latest LED LCD Full-Array Vizio HD television we carry. The man, as it happened, was fairly well-traveled. He'd grown up in an Eastern bloc country, although I wasn't able to discern which exactly.

First, he talked about his visit to the Dead Sea and its immediate and literally corrosive effects. It's quite a vista, he added, noting especially its depth below sea level. He spoke of the Cold War, too, and the nature of U.S. - USSR power-play dynamics during that period. He also made an offhand remark regarding the nature of employment at a place like Costco, which, honestly, I was not offended by, but nevertheless, it immediately struck a chord with me. He said a job at Costco is fine for younger people, i.e. college aged, (there was a slight language barrier; his English was good but not entirely fluent) but that if an older person (i.e. above college-aged), an older man in specific, worked at Costco. then you knew something was, to paraphrase, wrong with that individual.

I didn't debate the matter with him, nor would I now with the benefit of hindsight, nor do I think he meant to insult me specifically (since technically I'm at about college age, or could reasonably be confused as college aged). I feel I understand his perspective, which is a common one, and is a stigma worn by people working in retail in general, not just at Costco. But what the man I spoke with failed to realize, and what the great many people who think in the same terms fail to realize, is that we've created an infrastructure, via cultural norms etc., in which this is the only alternative for many, many people, even college educated people, who for a pantheon of reasons do not work in more "respectable" fields. It's like everyone acknowledges we need companies like Costco., Wal-Mart and McDonald's, but nobody acknowledges that someone has to draw the short end of the stick and actually work there. These are the new factory jobs, people. Worse than that few of them are allowed to unionize where there was at least a time when that option existed for factory workers (still do for those who remain in the vastly diminished US manufacturing industry).

Look at this advertisement (later parodied by Dave Chappelle on his agonizingly short-lived "Chappelle Show"). It depicts a young black man who's bettered himself, avoided the pitfalls of his community, by working at a McDonald's. At the very least you should be able to see how this is a culturally insensitive portrayal of "Calvin" the young black protagonist.

We talk about socioeconomics and things like people's place in our society in glib terms, more often than not. If someone works a low level job at McDonald's it's because they aren't trying hard enough to go out and aspire to something better. But as I've said, I'm a Determinist insofar as I believe there are many external factors that play into who we become. No bigger is the cycle of poverty. Probably second to poverty's cycle is the cycle of affluence.

The point is, fine, go ahead and say "Calvin" is better off working at McDonald's than being a gangbanger and petty crook. No one disagrees (except maybe gangbangers and petty crooks). But how can we then say there's something "wrong" with a person who has evaluated his or her options only to decide / realize the best, most apparent one is working at a McDonald's? So we can then say the mentally defective populate these positions? And is it not funny that we let corporations off scot-free, bearing no burden of culpability by building these corporations that employ only "mental defectives," i.e. people who do not earn a respectable living, but the individuals themselves are the ones stigmatized. We need our McDonald's but we'd never deign to be employed by one! Or is there no incongruity? Is there no cake and eating it too, here?

How callous have we become as a society, and where does it end?

Regarding Untoward and People and Rejection and Stuff

Sometimes I'm going to talk about Untoward, because I need as many venues as I have at my disposal to get word out that, primarily, my interest these days is in publishing fiction, i.e. either getting my own fiction out into the world (where hopefully it will elicit a reaction, either positive or negative (and no, truthfully I don't care which, I care more that you react than not)) or publishing other people's great fiction. And the latter of which is the point I most want to talk about here. Untoward Magazine exists and I hope you'll send something our way. We might reject it. I've been rejected, as a certain previous post will attest, probably somewhere in the 90-95% range to this point in my career. It's a part of it. Anyone will tell you that. This isn't new to anyone who has tried to get published. It's hard to create a name for yourself in the world of fiction publishing. But it's good that you're trying, too. Keep reading and ignoring posts like another of mine that appears here today on Literary Equations. The important thing is that you're building relationships with other people, so step out of your shell a bit. That is the realization that has kept me going throughout all of this, that it doesn't much matter to me if my stories get accepted (I'll keep crafting and developing my style just the same), what matters is I don't lose sight of the fact that I want to know and engage other people, even though that's not what comes most naturally to me. I force myself to do it because I know how much happier I am when I feel I've successfully related to someone else (and in this case, relating is almost exclusively positive, or I'm not happy if I've had a negative relational experience with someone. I think most people feel the same way, no?). All right, so that's my rant for now, but maybe you have some comments? I'd love to hear them.

Also, Untoward is on Twitter, so if you are I implore you to follow us. We appreciate your readership more than you know.!/Untoward_Mag

No One Should Ever Read a Thing

No one should ever read anything by anyone. Controversial? Perhaps. But I didn't join the blogging game to sit idly by and play nice. Oh no. I joined it to do otherwise.

But let's think about my blaspheme for a second, won't we?

What can you say you've honestly taken from reading anything? Besides nothing? Maybe you've taken thoughts from it, but were those thoughts you wanted to think? If you wanted thoughts you didn't want to think put into your head why not just go watch TV and some great advertisements? Not writing rife with thoughts you didn't want to think. What a waste of your thoughts. What about the ones you did want to think? Where'd those go?

Have I just blown your mind? I apologize, but it must needs be done sometimes.

Oh and I don't care about the irony here, reading something by me. I think of myself as much more like TV, in that the true endgame of my words is to subliminally get you to desire McDonald's or maybe Nike shoes, depending on my mood. So don't throw that in my face, because like Yahoo! "comments section" denizens who most often comment on stories of a politically charged nature and are named things like "THUG" or with single letters like "P." I don't have much desire to sit here and explain what I'm thinking. I just do. And what's more, think about how right I am if I just believe it. I think Stephen Colbert has vocalized something to that effect, if nothing else then subliminally.

Do you see how none of this is explained very well? That's fun to do!

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Brief Exchange

The day buoyant met curmudgeonly. Of course. How could I forget?

“Ha ha ha, I have found you! I was looking for you and now I have found you!”

“Do I look like I give a care? Do I look like I give just one single care?”

“Yes! Yes, you do look that way.”

“Fine, now let me take you out for a cup of coffee and some sausages.”

“You’ve got yourself a done deal!” sprang the middleman, ready to shake hands, bring hands together.

And no one was killed or otherwise harmed for the most part, i.e. aside from one stinger to one member of the party’s left arm, following his being thrust down on his head very hard and purposefully!

Friday, July 22, 2011

If you think that I am smart

Ever think I'm a really smart guy, as in me, Matt Rowan, is a really smart guy? Worry no more! Here's a perfect example of how I am not, and how actually I'm a moron just like the rest of us.

Dear MATT,

Thank you for your submission of "Surveil " to SmokeLong Quarterly. We gave the story careful consideration, and though we are not accepting it for publication, we hope you find a better fit for it elsewhere.

Thanks again for trusting us with your work.

SmokeLong Quarterly



You can change the setting on your submishmash account so a submitter's first name isn't all caps in your automatic replies. It'll preserve a modicum of your giving the story an honest read. I know this is a bit snarky in tone. I just find that to be one of the more irritating aspects of these rejections, and an easily correctable one. I hope my next rejection by your publication comes with my name in the standard capitalization.

-MATT Rowan


That's actually the way you spelled your name when you submitted the story, not an automatic setting on Submishmash. So if you submit your story to us with your name spelled the way you prefer, then it will appear that way on any correspondence we send you.


Editors, SmokeLong Quarterly


HAHAHAHA, sigh, well I sent a very contrite email, acknowledging my mistake (and it was my mistake). Somehow when my account was set up, the default profile name was in all caps (either I did this or it's automatic). If you have a submishmash account you can alter your rejections email name (or acceptances) under your personal settings. All you have to do is investigate them, rather than jump to a conclusion of error on the part of an external source.

Or maybe I'm the only one who's had trouble with that, too.

P.S. SmokeLong is a good publication that's fun, so go read it and have fun. They put up with me and my snark, so there's something.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

xTx is (AB)normally Special

My title really ruined that oxymoron belonging to xTx's latest story collection "Normally Special." I've not read too many contemporary writers with nom de plumes, but of them, I like xTx best.

Frankly, I wasn't so sure that'd be the case. I mean, xTx reads like the title of a Vin Diesel movie (fitting, since he too is operating under a nom de plume, thank god). Happily, there's where similarities end because xTx doesn't tell stories as they might be by The Diesel. She tells visceral stories that make you feel something, sometimes something terrible (an emotion you weren't sure you understood / weren't sure you were capable of having), but, hey, if that's the effect, that's the effect. And these effects are enviable.

I've actually enjoyed the pocket-size quality of a lot of these various indie books I've gotten my hands on of late. (They make for great, surreptitious reading while I'm at work, for example.) Others, which I'll have further comments on, no doubt, are Ethel Rohan's "Hard to Say" "Artifice 3" (a great indie literary magazine), "Big World" by Mary Miller and "AM/PM" by Amelia Gray.

These are books by lesser known but equally worthy writers as those you'll find in prominent places like The New Yorker, Paris Review, Harper's, Granta and so forth. A Patrick Somerville to match a Gary Shteyngart, a Roxane Gay to match a Z.Z. Packer, a near-every late 20s-early 30s female writer (namely, Alissa Nutting, Amelia Gray, Lindsay Hunter, Jill Summers, Faith Gardner, Mary Miller, Frank Hinton, Ethel Rohan and, of course xTx) to match Karen Russell and Tea Obreht, a Michael Czyzniejewski to every Stephen O'Connor. And you get the idea. I like and have read many contemporary authors of all persuasions / categorizations. I refuse to concede that the better known ones are of a higher literary caliber. If anything I might say the opposite is the case. (I know, I know, how very provocative / controversial of me to side with what is presumably the anti-establishment (the independent publishers) but then again sort of its own smaller, niche establishment in its own right. Well, I'm siding with somebody! Dammit!).

All right, the point is xTx. Her stories fill you with grit, ask you to get gritty, enjoy making you feel like you're being abraded by something especially coarse. And I grant that this might sound a little tongue-in-cheek, but that's only because I have trouble expressing these types of emotions. (Yep, admitting a little vulnerability here, folks.)

My favorites of "Normally Special" were "Standoff" -- which I was on the verge of tears reading, but I didn't cry mostly because of manliness and mine being what it is. But the story is fucking powerful sad. I loved it. The mother and son relationship is tortured by all kinds of emotion, by guilt and by loss and by uncertainty. "She Who Subjected the Sun" is an ambiguously dystopian vision, one in which we are able to understand women have been returned to a state of subjection, or more so, really, made to desire being made subjects, perfectly docile, welcoming their subjection. It's something akin to a normative imposition of the sex slavery trade.

Many of my other favorites were colored by a kind of ambiguity. Maybe it was ambivalence, ambiguous ambivalence. It got me to thinking and to feeling, which I like.

Friday, July 15, 2011

What this is becoming

My friends, anyone who's stuck around long enough to see this post, I'm not writing to you to say I'm changing anything. I'm saying I'm adding. I'm adding things like my writing credits. I'm also gonna touch on stuff outside the realm of literary criticism. What stuff? Anecdotal stuff. Things I find interesting. I've said I might post story fragments here, too. Thanks for your patience. My hope is that this is a place that is still worthwhile to be, once I'm done making changes.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Mini Review: "Crash" and Bang and All that Perverse Techno-Violence / Whatnot

"Crash" by J.G. Ballard is a tough slog as reading goes. I remember my first, ultimately aborted attempt at reading the novel. At the time, Ballard's prose was too vivid, too sterile, too graphic for my tastes. I don't know that I was really thinking about it at all even, just my discomfort for its language, which is rife with reference to all sorts of sex and technology and the fusion of the two. For example, engine coolant and seminal fluid are inextricably tied, so as to be one and the same admixture, concoction, what have you.

But I think this imagery speaks to some weird bridging of the primal with the artificial, humanity's most base needs and its (to date) most profound, prolific inventions. "Meaning" in any sense is cast off and completely beside the point. In fact, for as much imagery as abounds in this story I've never felt less inclined to parse meaning, to scratch beneath the surface. "Crash" is violence incarnate. It's the disgusting birth video of future as a tactile entity. It's frustratingly, transparently straightforward in its canonization of simulacra. That's why Jean Baudrillard liked it so much.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Beginning of Something New, The End of Something Old

The beginning has to begin somewhere.

I'm serious, in a way.

I've enjoyed writing straight-up book reviews for the last year and a half or so, but, ever the intellectually whimsical, I'm feeling a bit spent on this type of (although fun) repetitive analysis. I want things that coalesce. I'd like to fuse this idea with that one, and build workable narratives to then consider that with regard to the phenomena of our present day and circumstances. Make my kind of sense of it all. More philosophical rumination.

This could be, as I see it, that outlet. And of course literary fiction will factor into the blog's new course very heavily. Maybe, also, I'll practice at storytelling of my own here. More to the point, this is to be a playground for ideas I'm teasing out. Some of these ideas will no doubt be more fully baked than others. In whatever their condition though, merely by the fact of my posting them here, I'll be looking for your reaction, as I toss ideas against the more or less sticky wall to see what sticks (stickiness depending for the most part on the idea and its solvency).

But let me just end on the homed-in literary topic of . . .

The Instructions

It is possibly fitting that I heretofore ended on Part I of Adam Levin's "The Instructions," because A.) that novel represents to me, among other things, a great example of what fiction is capable of in its sprawling many pages and B.) an impulse toward my own kind of instructions, a desire to think and be more critical about, for lack of a better term, the phenomena I mention.

But I don't want to leave anyone hanging too much. I'm not sure that there's a lot left to say about "The Instructions" on my part, though, not without ruining its very climactic ending. I go back and forth with my final evaluation of whether it was a "good" or "bad" novel. Perhaps my biggest negative criticism, one that I may have mentioned in commenting to a commenter, and the sole point of agreement I might have with Joshua Cohen's generally underwhelming review, is that Levin seems to be afflicted by the same self-consciousness that has beguiled previous long form fiction writers such as David Foster Wallace, who obsess to the point of seemingly desiring total control of their conjured world and, this admittedly a very great leap to make on my part, suggesting a desire for control of a bit of the real world by extension.

I put this upon every very intricately wrought piece of situational analysis and so forth, what happened and wherefore?, belonging to "The Instructions" and "Infinite Jest" and other notable longform works I've happened through. It is the desire for complete understanding, or perceptive "complete understanding" by, in Levin's case, Gurion, the young protagonist. And where Cohen sees DFW avoiding this pitfall by the multitudinous narrators and characters put under microscope, Levin suffers more for the fact that every character has only one thing on his or her mind in "The Instructions": Gurion Maccabee (including for the most part Gurion himself). Though this seems to have been in Cohen's view the novel's fatal flaw, I won't go that far myself. I think it's astounding how well Levin pulls off the necessary and lengthy singular focus of his novel. Gurion is flawed, certainly, but as close to all-knowing as flawed characters get. Gurion, to be sure, speaks volumes about things, about phenomena, and yet Levin somehow manages to have his cake and eat it too by creating in Gurion a believably adolescent temperment at his core.

All in all, it's a stunning achievement. And yet, still I waffle back and forth on whether I would classify it as among my favorite novels. Sometimes time and hindsight are required for the true merits of a piece to reveal themselves, and I suppose that's where I'll leave this mini-review of "The Instructions" -- at pure speculation.

END of reviewing The Instructions

I'll also end the entirety of this piece by simply remarking that you can expect me to have something in line with the poorly defined ideas I describe in the preceding paragraphs sometime very soon. I keep returning to totalitarianism and Nabokov's "Bend Sinister" -- which I must include among my favorite novels, if the criterion of its returning to my mind in a significant positive light bears any weight at all.

Thank you.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Halfway Through Adam Levin's "The Instructions": Of Sub and Serious Men

Adam Levin's "The Instructions" is a novel with a lot to say. At a bit more than the halfway mark (pg. 610 approx.), I thought I'd hit the ground running with somethings it says that have especially struck me. So here we go...

There's a need to represent the voice of the modern, let's say especially male, illiterate in contemporary fiction. Does it stretch a writer's capacity, to write as a guy who doesn't have much to express in any coherent, articulate way? (Especially when you're an Adam Levin, who clearly does.)

No more so than a skilled actor affecting bad acting.

"The Instructions" is full of these contemporary Cro-Magnons or troglodytes or whatever historically lower-on-the-evolutionary-ladder group you wish to assign them to, i.e. men who haven't got much to offer the grand discourse but no less wish to add their two cents. They might also like to feel marginalized, on the fringe, like their way of life is under attack. True, sometimes -- often -- their way of life may well be under attack, but it's not without reason. The reason? Bluntly, the things they're willing to uphold are often terrible, like denying themselves and / or others of what should be basic freedom, of the right to decide for oneself what's moral and just.

This phenomenon brought to mind Simone De Beauvoir and her description of the "sub-man" and the "serious man" -- lowest in the order of her archetypal freedom seekers. The sub-man is led along like a calf to slaughter, and the serious man upholds certain idols for the simultaneous and fairly paradoxical ends of control and personal fulfillment. In other words, the serious man usually begins to believe his own fictions, perpetuating them and foisting them on the always less-discriminating sub-man. Thus are dogmas born and sustained, or so I say, in a nutshell. (Hannah Arendt would then have referred to sub-men as the disenfranchised necessary for demagogues to enact totalitarianism, which is something.)

[Various spoilers no doubt ensue. So proceed with caution!]

In Levin's fiction, sub-men come in the form of, primarily, the security personnel of Aptakisic Middle School, a major setting of the story and one in which we find the 10-year-old protagonist and primary narrative voice, Gurion Maccabee, constantly and deliberately willing himself into conflict. The hypertrophied, hyperactive argumentative abilities of Gurion and his cohorts on "The Side of Damage" (more on that group in a bit) who inhabit the Cage (a little more on this in the next paragraph) are put into direct linguistic opposition with these "mediocre men" -- to refer to them in Nietzschean parlance, because of all the damnable philosophical language already in use. Ron Desormie, lecherous gym teacher, is the ostensible leader to these sub-men, and poster child of "The Arrangement" (primary antagonist of The Side of Damage, which I'll get to when I get to both (they go hand-in-hand)), a serious man if ever there was one, his idol being the so-called self-evident value of winning, and doing so at any cost.

But my favorite of the sub-men, and probably the best rendered in terms of speech and appearance, is a handless (lost in a crop-grinder) Australian transplant, Monitor Victor Botha, disciplinarian to the Cage's inhabitants (The Cage being a place for students who have exhibited violent or otherwise dangerous tendencies that make them unfit for inclusion in classes with the general student body). Botha is the only major authority figure in the Cage, the teachers who flow in and out of its confines (literally a cage-like chain link enclosure) are rarely even subordinate to him in any authoritarian chain-of-command sense. Botha's law is, at the story's outset, absolute. Unlike, say, Nurse Ratched of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," who felt a panacea lay in the prospect of shaming those in her charge out of their difference, Botha desires not to be bothered. Only rarely does he shame anyone, and when he does, he does it with far less cunning and pre-meditation than Nurse Ratched. One such instance of Botha's sadism especially comes to mind, happening around the 100 page mark, which leads to a good turn by Benji Nakamook (Gurion's closest companion) and others in the Cage, as effect.

The incident in question occurred when Gurion first arrived at the Cage, practically his initial interaction with Botha and all others attending Cage classes. There was, meanwhile and hitherto Gurion's arrival, a student -- Egon Marsh -- who was constantly the butt of jokes in the Cage, apparently partially a result of his living in squalid, abusive conditions at home.

The incident began with Botha noting a smell, and said, in a little of his idiosyncratic accent (a bizarre fusion of Australian and, interestingly, really heavy Chicagoan), "Something smells downright bleddy Marshy." Gurion is unaware that the comment is aimed derisively at Marsh. The subsequent events are bulleted:

  • Gurion purposely breaks and asks to sharpen a pencil in an over-compensating attempt to demonstrate that the smell is not his own, as said unaware that Egon Marsh is the one who Botha's accused of being smelly.

  • Botha warns Gurion that normally he'd be given a "step" (the punishment progression at Aptakisic for misbehavior) as consequence for Gurion's speaking out of turn, but he'd benevolently let it slide this time. (Gurion probably correctly surmises, in narrative reflection, "That Botha might be actively trying to humiliate me ..." though admits it didn't occur to him at the time.)

  • Finally, as Gurion begins sharpening his pencil, Botha takes the opportunity to begin his assault on his easy target, Egon Marsh, saying: "Wait! Wait, Mr. Makebee! No need to waste your affort. I think I've found a writing implement here--yes. Look. Right here in this nest!" And he affected pulling a hidden pencil from Egon's hair.
The reaction this elicits is at first mirth, but then, Benji Nakamook decides it better to humiliate the perpetuator of humiliation, and says, simply, "Combover" to Botha. Because, as it happens, Botha class-act that he is, has a combover. This might seem trite in any other situation, an easy exercise of an old cliche, i.e. villainous lowlife = has a combover. But Levin goes to great lengths both to explain the combover as a thing in itself and then Botha's personal reasons for sporting that really unpleasant look. Partly explained by Gurion as follows, "Like those kids who when you tell them their foot-taps annoy you and then in response they tap faster and harder, these men kept their combovers intact to save face."

This then segues into a really involved effort by Nakamook to insult Botha by modifying his hairstyle to affect a combover of his own (a "Harpo Progression" as Gurion calls it), which like quite a few of the Side of Damage's efforts to mock the sub-men of authority, fairly quickly gets away from him and brings about wholly new problems that I won't delve into. (Gurion does a nice job, however, of incisively picking apart the psychological nuances of Nakamook's mockery gone awry, part of which can be blamed on Gurion's own misunderstanding at the time of the combover plot's unfurling.)

Botha's presence as law of the Cage remains ubiquitous in the narrative, even as lengthy passages lead Gurion elsewhere in and around Chicagoland (which is, if I haven't already said it, the greater setting in which practically all of the story takes place). I'll be very interested to see how he and his role change (however significantly).

The Side of Damage exists to undermine the Arrangement (authority for authority's sake, rote and pointless). One of the neatest things about "The Instructions" is how big ideas are rendered with very real-sounding churlish and / or childish vernacular. The Side of Damage sounds like the secret society of rebellious pre-teens and teenagers. And that's just one highly notable example. As the story progresses we see a psychological profile done of Gurion by his therapist, "Call-Me-Sandy" (a woman of some student-standing at the University of Chicago, brought clearly to bear in her profile of Gurion, which also has within it coded and not-quite-coded advances directed toward her female professor). In "Call-Me-Sandy"'s profile we learn in clinical terms (many of which "Call-Me-Sandy" later admits were used for the express purpose of impressing her professor) that Gurion has several very distinct ways of communicating with his peers, but which boil down to three different kinds of "codeswitching" (pg. 306-7): 1) erudite, 2) prophetical and 3) colloquial.

Largely ignored by me to this point is the nature of Gurion and his religion (which as the story would have it are inextricable terms). He demonstrates his great faith by making frequent reference to God "Adonai," the Jews "Israelites" (there are no longer Jews, and the term holds no meaning to Gurion), and other esoteric references to traditional semitic, chiefly Hebraic, texts and so forth. I mention that here because many of Gurion's friends and a great deal of the reason for why he has not been allowed to stay enrolled at any of his previous schools, believe him to be a kind of prophet, or very plain and straightforwardly, The Messiah. Accordingly he is referred to as "Rabbi" by many of his fellow Israelites, who see him as a scholar and authority on such matters. He sees himself in the same terms, more or less, and in his free time (in passages which fill the novel) he writes his scripture.

All of this then seems to fall under the auspices of The Side of Damage, although certainly Gurion has had some difficulty to this point in reconciling the somewhat dogmatic belief that Israelites are the chosen people, possibly needing to be led by Gurion, if he is the Messiah, and the more pluralistic membership, the generally neglected and oppressed, of the greater Side of Damage. The division is also sort of coming to a head at the point I'm at in "The Instructions" -- Nakamook is feeling betrayed to a certain extent by the fact that, as Benji is a goy, Gurion clearly cannot put him on the same standing as his followers, other Israelites.

Last, I'll mention Ron Desormie and one of his closest lackeys, Floyd The Chewer, and a situation involving them both while Gurion is trapped in an In-School Suspension (ISS). Gurion has constructed a weapon "a penny gun" that fires coins with enough force to cause bodily harm and property damage. He has used it on the scoreboard at Aptakisic, which is about as symbolic an attack on Ron Desormie as Desormie can endure. He doesn't endure the attack well and comes screaming at Gurion (Gurion is in his suspension for other reasons unrelated to the scoreboard, and it later is revealed the scoreboard was completely destroyed by an ally of the Side of Damage, not Gurion himself). Desormie then goes into a long soliloquy regarding his thoughts on Gurion and his "so-called" friends:
Not only don't I think your jokes are funny, ever . . . but I don't even get your jokes. And I don't think anyone does. And even if they do, I don't think they think your jokes are funny either, because you're not mature. Maturity, Maccabee, is control of yourself, and I don't think you've got control of yourself.

The soliloquy goes on to make reference to characters from "The Godfather" and "Good Fellas" and is mostly a rambling, ham-fisted diatribe. I like that Levin chose to have Desormie speak idiosyncratically with his expressing "Not only don't I think" and so forth. I think that, too, captures the voice of the individual he was going for, a man not totally in touch with how to express himself. I think it also sometimes goes a bit overboard, and I'm not as totally thrilled by malapropisms like Desormie's saying "non-sectarians" when he (probably) means to say non-sequitur.

Floyd the Chewer, a policing automaton of the school, enters the scene after Desormie has been led into the principal Mr. Brodsky's office, to explain the scoreboard and its destruction. Floyd wants to talk to "Ronny D" his nickname for Desormie, and asks Miss Pinge, the secretary, "So what about any updates on Ronny D and the chief, there? . . . You got a potentially predictional ballpark figure regarding the time for their pow-wow's overage, maybe?" All the malapropisms here are exceedingly forced, although I waver back and forth with this, because my main reason for feeling this way is that nobody in the world that I've experienced speaks like Floyd. But, then a.) who cares if anyone speaks like Floyd and b.) I have a feeling I'll one day meet someone who does, thus throwing that argument entirely out the window.

I'll have to reflect on this and still more things in what I have left to read of "The Instructions."

More to come!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

P. Fanatics: HAIR! Edition

If you're in Chicago next week, on a Thursday night, and you're looking for something to do, THEN consider the above image / invite. Possibly more details HERE.

Mason Johnson will be there, a cast of others will be there. I definitely will be there. So what more do you need? Gold? You don't need gold.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Can't Decide How Much I Like Karen Russell's Short Stories

It is true, apparently, that Karen Russell's first novel, "Swamplandia!" was recently released. This title is befitting her previous collection of short stories, "St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves," which I've now read. I'm not sure about "Swamplandia!" (so you can search elsewhere for reviews on that). Let me start by saying I really enjoyed Karen Russell's short story featured in The New Yorker, as a result of her being one of the recepients of their "Top 20 Under 40" honors last summer.

Karen Russell is a good author, but is she better than that? Is she better than other young authors whom I enjoy? I like the sprightly quality of many of her stories. That much is true. I think by my natural temperament I swing toward the more negative side of positive opinion. This is not good, I think. I'd prefer to be sanguine and carefree. (Not carefree in a delusional way, if it's possible to be carefree any other way.)

But see there, in my parenthetical aside? See that I've said being carefree seems delusional, that it is implicit to the idea of being carefree? That's negative. And so too is the title of this post -- more or less -- implicitly as well. Too negative. Certainly some of Russell's stories speak to me more than others. Her collection "St Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves" is thus more uneven (take that, Mark Athitakis) than other collections I've read of late. But enough with soft praise and let me get to actual, considered criticism.

My biggest overarching negative criticism of Karen Russell is that she seems to be a writer without a fully realized ethos. I've wrestled with whether this is a fair assessment for a long time (I can't remember when I first started reading "St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves," much less began writing this review). The point is, there are many interesting stylistic qualities to Russell's work but I constantly felt let down by their weight, i.e. I kept feeling there was something more to her stories that she wasn't saying, or that there was something more that could be said. This, as criticism goes, is more on me, as a reader, but I guess as contemplative aspects to her storytelling go, I was left very underwhelmed.

I do like that whimsy abounds in the world of Karen Russell's fiction. I feel like Terry Gilliam, on his less morose days, could direct the hell out of one of her tales. That's another thing, Russell's stories feel like they should more appropriately be referred to as tales. I see in her writing some of the same things I've liked about the writing of authors like Stephen O'Connor, under whom Russell apparently has studied. But like O'Connor, she writes stories that don't always fully commit to their subject matter. Her whimsy feels only halfheartedly implemented, like an author who'd prefer to be writing fiction of a more realist bent but who likewise feels as though (s)he is not making enough of his/her creative abilities by doing so. Had George Saunders never existed, I feel like Karen Russell would be a very different kind of writer, as would many who appear in publications such as The New Yorker.

Allow me to further explain. Irreverent settings in Russell's stories strike me as having little point or no point OR have a hyper-telegraphed point (e.g. "Out to Sea" in which a retirement community has been built of old boats and so forth, and its denizens are literally isolated from society by this means, which it doesn't take a master of metaphysics to make the connection between this and an elderly inhabitant's emotional isolation, also). It's fine that the settings don't immediately or necessarily relate to the plot, in the former and alternative case listed above, but then why have the plot be something as vanilla as coming-of-age in an ice rink or giant conch shells? The concerns of the characters, most of which are children, are so ordinary and everyday that the whole collection begins to feel like it's on repeat, just with required changes in costume and scenary. (This would also explain why I think I liked "St. Lucy's" earliest-appearing stories the most*.)

I hate to just heap the negative criticism on a work like this, especially knowing that A.) Karen Russell is a skilled writer whom I can absolutely understand people liking and 2.) you could easily argue my position is one of a different school of thought. But like Stephen O'Connor, Russell shows a lot of creative agility and I'm disappointed by writers I feel could be doing far better than their body of work. With luck, that's what "Swamplandia!" is for Russell -- especially considering how I felt about her "20 Under 40" New Yorker story. It was far superior to anything I've read in "St. Lucy's." I'm not sure when I'll be willing to give Russell a try again, though. She frustrated the hell out of me.

*My favorites of this collection were "Ava Wrestles the Alligator" and "Z.Z's Sleep-Away Camp For Disordered Dreamers."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Now I Know About Jobs For Women and Girls: the 2nd Bibliographing Challenge

Alissa Nutting is another young author you should take time out to read. She has a macabre view of life, at least as shown through her fiction. I like that. I ENCOURAGE it. Or the plan is that I will dedicate my life to the promotion of such things, ENCOURAGING such things as the hilarious macabre in fiction, for one thing I will do / am doing. (Check out Lindsay Hunter, Amelia Gray, Faith Gardner and Jill Summers if you're looking for more of this kind of good stuff (and yes, I've provided links, but there's more by all four authors athwart the internet and elsewhere, which you should also read).)

Nutting is also the second of two writers I challenged Nicole of bibliographing to read. Nicole, never being one to back down from a reading challenge of any sort, did just that. (Check out Nicole's good thoughts on the subject here, in fact.)

So without further ado, and not much reiteration of my "take that, challenged" etc. refrain of last time, here are my thoughts on Nutting's debut short story collection, "Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls."

The first story in the collection is called "Dinner." It's about a motley assortment of individuals being boiled alive in a kettle. I was reminded of cartoons in which the protagonist is set into similar circumstances, misinterpreting the situation at first as some sort of spa-treatment and, in specific, Jacuzzi, complete with a ravenous antagonist chopping carrots nearby. The inhabitants of the kettle are a little more immediately aware of their plight than, say, Bugs Bunny.

We are given, probably not surprisingly considering the entire collection's title, an offering of this experience through the narrative lens of the only female in the bunch, a bunch of six altogether. There's a weird pragmatism and a fatalistic resignation to her description. She describes the others by the degrees of their attractiveness as men, human beings and, disconcertingly, as meals. "The men do not look so delicious."

"'There are worse ways to die,' I tell myself, 'than being boiled then sliced with a knife.' But it takes me awhile to think of one." This is the sort of black humor that the piece drives on. The story itself is probably too outlandish to take its subject matter as seriously as it might have, i.e. sincere rumination on the cruelty of man feels misplaced when at several points an evil-seeming chef enters their boiling chamber to remove one of their ranks for preparation and consumption. Couple that with the fact that the narrator immediately gets it in her head to dive unthinkingly into faux-love with the nearest, most innocuous seeming of the men who surround her (e.g. she says: "'I love you,' I say. It's coming from a good-pretend place. I just want to pack as much into these last few moments as I can."), and what you have is a really charged story, powered by a comic eye for the absurd and a willingness to poke fun at the human condition, wherever said condition rears its terse, too serious head.

And while generally humorous throughout, there are a great many stories here that do in fact hit dramatic high notes and demonstrate considerable range on the part of their author. One in particular is "She-Man" -- which just by its title starts off by sounding a little callous, yet ultimately proves to be anything but. Human callousness factors into the story heavily, though. Deceit and love are components as well. I've never seen "The Crying Game" but "She-Man" strikes me, based on what I've heard of "The Crying Game," as a more honest appraisal of its outcome (at least a very different appraisal).

The narrator, an unnamed woman, is a complex person, hitherto the time of the story she'd been a transgendered prostitute in the employ of a pimp named "Daddy V." Daddy is as huge an asshole as one would assume a man of that moniker would be. He makes life hard for the protagonist, reentering her life and attempting to blackmail her and extort money from her boyfriend, a professional bowler named Ginno. Ginno is unaware of the fact that she was once a man, which is where Daddy's blackmail enters the equation. But she's unwilling to manipulate Ginno, in every way a lovable loser, into giving her the lion's share of his recent payday after a big tournament win.

Or as she puts it:

He wants the money. All of it, the whole pot of Ginno's winnings. Daddy didn't change the channel until he saw Ginno receive an oversized $30,000 check.

The terrible part is that I know I could invent some story that makes it seem like I really need the money and Ginno would have no problem giving it to me. Somehow that means there is no way that I could ever bring myself to do it. He's the first and only decent man I've ever been with. And that makes me a decent woman.
So she attempts to pay him off herself, which goes not the way she probably wanted. The whole thing turns into a massive nightmare, and despite her best intentions, the narrator is undone by her deception. I'll say no more of that.

"Dancing Rat" is another of the stories that I found particularly enjoyable. It tells the tale of a woman who plays the part of a mouse named Sneezoid on a kid's dance show called Whisker-Bop! It's also about her relationship with her infertile boyfriend and, also, her relationship with her young, opinionated co-star Missy. The interplay between Missy and the narrator, in specific, is peculiar. Missy is as manipulative and bratty as privileged people get. The narrator won't be browbeaten by her, though, if she is at least in general kowtowing and servile to her demands.

Others I really enjoyed and highly recommend "Gardner," "Deliverywoman" and "Bandleader's Girlfriend."

Probably the only story that really missed its mark (and of course we're talking purely opinion here) was "Hellion." I thought it ambitious, and it had a really excellent concept: a hell-bound woman, or "Hellion," who becomes entangled in a romantic relationship with the devil. What could go wrong? Well, for my tastes the story was just sort of blah, nothing much happens. I guess I'm complaining about what I felt could have happened more than I am what did. I suppose that's an irritating position to take, but I've never promised I'm not irritating in a great many ways. Read it and see what you think.

Go, go now and read it!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My Other Staple Reading: Philip K. Dick

Vladimir Nabokov and Philip K. Dick have each appeared many a time on this blog to date. Why stop now? Why stop when such a good thing is going?

I don't know, perhaps because it's hard for me to imagine "VALIS" being topped by anything else in what remains of my "to read" PKD reading. I've nursed on this book for the better part of the last several months, not so much because I couldn't focus on it (although as previously mentioned focusing on reading has been difficult of late), but instead because it's such a bizarre and fun romp to read, and I am one to savor such books.

But "romp" probably doesn't adequately describe the fact that this book is insane. As Ben commented on a previous post, PKD sort of lost his sense of . . . things . . . near the end of his life. It's also possible that instead of losing his mind he became a modern-day prophet, technologically oriented and so forth. One thing is for certain, whatever the case, something profoundly affected his fiction. Something gave us "VALIS."

So let's talk about what it gave us, then. "VALIS" is in a very superficial sense a story about a man, his friends, and his mortality. It's about mortality, also, in a more general way. I feel like when Jean Baudrillard was sussing through the offerings of simulacra and postmodernity in the novel, sure, yes, "Crash" by J.G. Ballard was a good choice, a great example of the synthesis and synesthesia of postmodern techno-simulacra that's possibly come to define our present way of life, but c'mon, Baudrillard: Philip K. Dick. I mean, c'mon.

"VALIS" is so much a synthesis of the age-old theological, ontological questions set against the backdrop of modern communications and greater media. The modern prophet would receive his call from God through a medium like a major motion picture, wouldn't (s)he? The modern prophet wouldn't know if he or she was crazy or sane, right? (We, the viewing public, would assume insanity, which I maintain is not an unreasonable thing to assume.)

The answer to all questions posed above: yes, yes absolutely. (I'm comfortable being categoric as those things go.) But would the prophet, the receiver of this information simultaneously be both "VALIS"' third person subject/object of narration, i.e. Horselover Fat (PKD's alter ego), and the narrator himself, i.e. Philip K. Dick? Um, yes again. We're introduced to Horselover Fat at the beginning of the "VALIS" through a presumably omniscient, third person narrator, but who in fact, it turns out, is Philip K. Dick himself. This meshes perfectly with the dichotomous nature of the tale -- e.g. reference to the rational and irrational creators of the universe abound.

This will sound stupid, I suspect, but one of the most satisfying qualities of "VALIS" is just how much esotericism fills its pages. I mean, there's religious references of all kinds, Gnosticism (the codices of Nag Hammadi are cited frequently), numerous eastern sects (Buddha and the like), countless nods to various other derivations of the Semitic religions, Zoroastrianism, and truly more than I could hope to identify or keep track of, even when PKD invokes them by name. Then there are references to philosophical schools and their preeminent thinkers. Goethe's Faust is mentioned, and how that work more or less engendered existentialism, revealing in it that humans are defined not by words but by deeds. From this seed came the outgrowth of man's awareness of and relationship to his absurd conditions -- to, in PKD's parlance, the unstable creator deity who begat a world that is not rational but irrational. Richard Wagner is referenced several times. Wagner's "Parsifal," his last opera, is taken to task in an amusing anecdote:

I can see Richard Wagner standing at the gates of heaven. "You have to let me in," he says, "I wrote Parsifal. It has to do with the Grail, Christ, suffering, pity and healing. Right?" And they answered, "Well, we read it and it makes no sense." SLAM.

SLAM, indeed, Wagner.

Others noted are Pascal, Spinoza and Schopenhauer. Immanuel Kant might as well have been cited by name with the introduction of Fat's friend Doug, a man Fat meets while he's institutionalized, following Fat's suicide attempt. Doug states his belief in two forms of knowledge that which is empirical and that which is occurring a priori -- i.e. knowledge that requires no experiential observation, et al, "that arises within your head." Certainly Kant isn't the inventor of a priori vs. a posterieri knowledge, but he is one of its greatest advocates, one who best advanced and infused this dichotomy in Western thought, of phenomenon (things experienced, or of the senses) and noumenon (thing-in-itself or Ding an sich).

All the while, an unnamed but monomaniacal search continues. It's a search for things, and each thing becomes a new singular focus. At one time it's a search for the cause of pain and of suffering. it's next the search for belief and a reason for doing so. It culminates with a search for the next coming of the deity variously referred to as Zebra, VALIS (which is an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System), and eventually the reincarnation of St. Sophia (and thus Christ) with a computer for a brain (although she's only referred to as Sophia, this second coming, or whatever coming she is).

Sophia, a two year old and product of immaculate conception, is the daughter of Eric and Linda Lampton, filmmakers responsible for the theatrical version of "VALIS" -- a movie which tells a tale of a dark world in which an evil ruler holds sway, Ferris F. Fremount (referenced as a stand-in for Richard Nixon). VALIS undoes Fremount's reign in the film, as it did in real life, or so is what's claimed by the Lamptons and Sophia. The Lamptons also claim to be immortals, members of the "Friends of God" Society, which is meant literally. They are immortal friends of him/her/it, God. There's also the deteriorating Mini, a man who is dying a slow death (of multiple myeloma) as a result of his experiments with lasers that are meant to reveal to him VALIS in its true form. Mini explains to Fat and Philip (who by the time in this story when the Friends of God Society is revealed is a functioning character in the story) that VALIS is living information. [I TOLD YOU THIS STORY IS CRAZY!] Ultimately revealed by Mini is that VALIS is our savior, meant to free us from our unreal maze world that's inherently irrational, or poisonous, toxic to humankind. This is at least partly because humankind did not originate on earth but on Albemuth, and VALIS is an artifact sent by those left behind to beam to us rational instruction . . . obviously. VALIS apparently looks like an old satellite. It's all very interesting.

Most of the "Friends of God" saga reads to the outsider, the reader, as the way in which people become immersed in a cult. It happens slowly, by subtle indoctrination, as with Scientology. Scientology doesn't reveal all the crazy truths that make up its origin story when at first you join, but slowly as you become more and more entrenched in the church's dogma. After that, Xenu makes a lot more sense, but I apologize for this digression; it's just one of the things I observed over the course of "VALIS."

There's also moments earlier in the story when it's revealed time and space are constructs of sorts (mechanisms of separation) and that all existence is happening simultaneously. That's not as strange as the cross-consciousness that results from it, i.e. Horselover Fat's thoughts begin to be penetrated by the thoughts of a man named Thomas, who is living in ancient Rome and who Fat says is smarter than himself, Fat. It leads to a lot of Ancient Rome's being superimposed over 1974's California. That would be kind of a mind fuck. I might parse this episode further but it's sort of exhausting just rehashing this much.

In fact, this might be a good place to stop. I feel as though "VALIS" is the kind of novel that begs for follow up reads, and follow up analysis, and follow up perplexity. I encourage you to check out other PKD before giving this one a go. It's less for the uninitiated, or rather it's worth waiting for.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Few Items: bibliographing and Bartleby Snopes

Firstly, Nicole has responded to my literary challenge with a post of her own on bibliographing. so I think you ought go over there and see what she had to say about Patrick Somerville and his very good book of interwoven stories.

I also have a news story up, "An Interrogation." It's readable at Bartleby Snopes. CLICK HERE TO READ IT! (along with the other stories of March). It's actually a section from a longer novel I wrote some time ago. Let me know what you think!

Have a great day!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"The bibliographing Reading Challenge" Challenger Reads Patrick Somerville

Take that Nicole of bibliographing, and that and that! Words and more words. These are what I throw at you in challenge, reading-wise. Of course I'm referring to "the bibliographing reading challenge." Nicole and I are dead set against one another, reading two contemporary authors' latest short story collections. The first, you ask? Well, it's Patrick Somerville and his, "The Universe in Miniature in Miniature."

Honestly, this book is so good I'd say it reads itself if I were one of those people who found reading to be a tedious bore (e.g. the greater multitude of public high school students, perhaps?). But seriously, Patrick Somerville is no longer up-and-coming. The term simply doesn't apply. He's here and now. If he needed anything to cement that fact, "The Universe in Miniature in Miniature" more than does so. It's chock full of the kind of whimsy and humor that is guaranteed to get my approval.


The eponymous (and if you haven't noticed by now, I love that word) story, "The Universe in Miniature in Miniature" does much to live up to its being an eponym (boy, I hope that makes sense). It begins as a tale of three friends, art students so-called, working in the muddy waters of a program whose name reminds me of The School of the Art Institute or Columbia College in Chicago, The School of Surreal Thought and Design (SSTD) (also the school's acronym is one letter off from STD, #obviousobservations #horriblediseasescausedbysex).

[inescapable spoilers forthcoming]
The protagonist, a girl named Rosie, is working diligently on scale models of a father and son's working on a scale model of the universe in miniature -- hence the repetition, the universe in miniature in miniature (which I think is hilarious, also: both the project itself and the name). It's all for the purpose of graduation, which as Rosie puts it, the requirement is this, "All we have to do, to graduate, is complete our final projects. Our projects are whatever we want them to be."

There are quite a few humorous notes to the story, for example the school in question's campus is located beneath Lake Michigan in "East Chicago." It's accessible through a bakery whose proprietor seems just the right mixture of surly and accommodating.

Then for all its humor, it's touchingly sad. It centers on one of Rosie's friends and fellow art students, Lucy, and her final project. Her final project involves observing (via many secretly installed hidden cameras) the degradation of a young man, up and coming in his employ as a lawyer, who was rendered permanently brain damaged after a slip and a fall.

The weird thing is this story and this project don't start off touchingly. One gets the visible picture that Lucy is studying the young man, Ryan Conrad, for exploitative reasons. In part because, as a Rosie who's our first person narrator also, says, "Her project is to observe the wholesale collapse of a family following major trauma." Rosie thinks at the story's beginning that Lucy might be evil. We learn from Rosie, as the story progresses, that Lucy once dated Ryan Conrad. You're sort of asked to relax on certainty of Lucy's evil as time wears on. The opposite is the case with Dylan, Lucy's boyfriend and the third member of the trio, who starts off seeming somewhat benevolent and sheepish, and in general at the mercy of the domineering Lucy.

Slowly, though, Dylan's motivations seem less innocent. He's working on a novel for his final project, a sci-fi piece about scientists who turn earth's water supply into soda pop. It ends up being a ludicrously lucrative expenditure of his time (which is not in itself evil or bad or anything). I wouldn't call Dylan evil or bad, as I don't think the story offers the opportunity to paint with that broad a brush. What it does do is modify our preconceived notions of each character: Dylan begins to seem less honest, Lucy less driven by her final project's nefarious ends. Rosie is caught in the middle of this, totally uncertain of what she should do and who she should be. The triumvirate is a good one, one that changes fluidly, without willfulness.

And that leads to what ultimately happens, which telling you about would be more than I think a review should offer. This is the teacher in me speaking, I think.


The thread that ties all the stories of the collection together is a combination of the randomness of any so-called order, here on earth or up in space, and the way perception is altered by a slightly new viewing angle. These stories repeatedly have within them -- very literally -- the depiction of a random stabbing, which is told through many different perspectives, and is often confused by the fact that in certain cases the victim dies and in certain cases the victim is possibly alive and well. The perpetrator is sometimes regarded as crazy and sometimes as a complete unknown. (All of this depends on the source of the information.)

In the first several versions of this anecdote the story seems to come from or to secondhand sources, a man who is just hearing about it by word of mouth or a mother who is being told by the hospital staff that her son is dead. In that way it reads like a news item or a tragic occurrence that has befallen a friend of the family, a friend of a friend of the family, on and on. Never are we the victim, not until the story comes firsthand from the victim.

Further challenged, Nicole, eh? Feeling the literary challenge heat, as they say?


Well, here, if you're desirous of more. . .

Another interesting idea that floats through a number of stories (at least two) in "TUIMIM" is what Somerville calls, "The Machine of Understanding Other People." It appears first, as a supposed idea Dylan has, in the short story "The Universe in Miniature in Miniature." (We later learn of the possibility that Dylan stole the idea from Lucy, as she claims he did.) We see it again in the -- gasp -- eponymously named "The Machine of Understanding Other People." This latter tale is the kind of story I wish I'd written (but didn't / can't), because it so perfectly encapsulates all those ideas of contemporary pluralism and social equity of modern liberalism, and the realistic challenges of actually understanding someone else from their point of view.

The machine Somerville offers up to his characters and the reader is both the greatest and most destructive invention in the history of mankind. It allows one to feel exactly as the subject they're viewing, done so by aiming a weird wand attached to a helmet that resembles something you'd wear deep-sea diving (like something out of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea").

But you, who wears it, (the two main characters in the story being Tom, an American and a middle-aged, broken-souled alcoholic and Eliza, a Briton and a relatively young, world-weary optimist given to flights of whimsy), are forced to see things through the eyes of the person at whom you point the wand. This, meanwhile, creates all new problems, as it doesn't swing open the gates of solipsism. You're still an occluded consciousness as you bring all your experiences with you to the experience of "understanding" another person. The difference is that you know what that person now feels and has felt throughout life, what's stuck. The baggage. You feel it, too, through your purview.

Tom and Eliza come into massive inheritances, although each one of them is different. The pair was brought together by the chance happening of an outlying eccentric uncle, who was born out of wedlock, the product of Tom's grandfather and Eliza's grandmother's brief affair. The uncle, Herman, went on to accrue some wealth and a very peculiar kind of machine, "of Understanding Other People." His mother, Eliza's grandmother, Beatrice, was some kind of genius and invented it during the second world war, the result of prompting from the British government to produce some kind of new weapon. By his own unstated means, Herman was able to keep tabs on and took an interest in Tom and Eliza, and upon his death, Herman willed away his monetary wealth to Eliza and his machine to Tom. Eliza, as a do-gooding idealist, has plans to create a university of free-thinking and invention at which whimsy and imagination are, above all else, encouraged. It's called Pangea University. It ends up creating quite a stir, worldwide. I will say no more. Read it!

The point is, "The Machine of Understanding Other People" is spell-bindingly layered, layered not only in plot points but in actual written structure -- at times reminiscent of The New Yorker journalism's unusual bends and folds in their articles. Narratives are strategically left behind and then returned to like so much parabola. Other stories of the collection are again referenced, even the murderer who stabs makes a cameo appearance (we get a fuller explanation of what is happening with him and that, also).

It's just all so much good!


But enough, this pugilist of the literary variety needs rest. I have made my literary challenge. It is your move, Nicole!