Monday, January 31, 2011

DDDDaddy's, a Collection of Life's Good Gristle

Whoa, Lindsay Hunter. Way to be surreal. I mean it. Way. to. be.

Like, that's awesome that you were in the ways you were.

"Daddy's" is akin to few books I've ever read; I've read a lot of books. There is a syllogism in there somewhere perhaps, but I won't go further to suss it out. The fact is, Featherproof has completely won me over, not that I was ever terribly skeptical (I had a smallish -- but positive -- familiarity with Lindsay Hunter's work before I read "Daddy's").

And though I say her writing is more than anything all her own, Lindsay Hunter definitely has a little of what I've loved about certain authors who could at least loosely be termed of the southern tradition, which as she is a southerner, herself, that stands to reason. Writers like Cormac McCarthy and what I liked best about Barry Hannah stand out. In the latter case, that's this kind of unabashed enthusiasm for the dire straits of a penniless world, i.e. a world in which you've never known a single penny, as in possessing said penny or pennies. But that doesn't change that the world in these dire straits is hard and hardly alimentary. I think that's why junk food is such a useful metaphor here: abundance without sustenance. It's in the precision of her use of such images that strokes of real and remarkably terse genius are demonstrably evident. Like Raymond Carver, she says a lot without needing too much say so.

There's also something sinister in all the jocularity inherent to most of Hunter's stories. And that's because while not all people are, some people are horrible. Some people are horrible but still they have stories, and personally, I'd rather hear them told from a person whom I think is probably a good person at heart just trying to depict a horrible person from her good person vantage, as with understanding of a kind, and also imagination!

Actually, since writing the preceding I had the opportunity to see Lindsay Hunter perform a story in person (and I don't think her readings ought to be classified as anything less than a performance). Her narrator took on a whole new life. It was the story "Peggy's Brother" -- which appears in "Daddy's." In my own personal reading of this story I was struck by how tawdry and sordid the events that unfurled had seemed. (SPOILER ALERT (with a strong possibility of more to follow, from here on out)): it is the story of a relatively naive young girl who is taken advantage of by the older brother of her friend, the eponymous "Peggy.")

In Hunter's reading, though, I was surprised by how embracing of her circumstances the unnamed narrator girl seems, how -- in a certain sense -- she maintains control of herself and circumstances. She's ostensibly as curious about sexuality as Peggy's brother. She's less interested in the childish games her friends are in the midst of (A particularly crude game of "Truth or Dare"). Surely, Peggy's brother isn't the best option for her to experiment with, but he is the most expedient. It's an odd take that spins the normative expectations of youthful female sexuality, as something entirely submissive, and typically as something that's taken from them.

Here's an exchange between the narrator and Peggy's brother that rang very differently when read by Hunter:

Have you heard of fucking? he asks, raising his voice over Danny's mother's screams ["The Shining" is on television, in the background, through the entirety of the two characters' interaction].

I think so, I tell him.

Good, he says.

Oh, definitely, I say.
"Oh, definitely" is rendered extremely comical in Hunter's reading, its effect a nice punch-line to the absurdity of Peggy's brother's comments -- which would read absurdly no matter who's providing their voice, I think.

As previously alluded -- in Hunter's fiction, junk food has never seemed so horrible. Might never seem the same again. (Although funny how as I get older, junk food just keeps losing its luster and its mystique. And makes me sick more than I find it enjoyable, on the whole.) "Food Luck" is a great example of this. It's the story of two brothers, one who's speaking to the other, describing their sordid lives together. In the story food kills, weighs one down. It's excessive, the eating. Glutinous and vile. To the point where, I dunno, it resembles something else. Resembles the terrible engrams (in the loosest definition of the term) that alter our souls and codify our DNA somewhat differently, bringing about fundamental change. I believe there is science in my previous statement somewhere. I can't promise it is sensical, though. Still, I hope in some sensical sense that makes sense, what I've said. Food kills, because it isn't food at all. It's filler.

"Fifteen" is the story of quasi-orgy. Really vivid. Like a teenage make-out party in the house from something like "Fight Club" (the movie and not the novel). Descriptions of horrible living conditions and the kids, kids probably in the age range of fifteen, wallowing in it. Mothers sleep with teenage boys, boys "nearly eighteen so it was alright." The house has nooks filled with cat feces and wrappers for everything that comes in a wrapper. Then there's the subtly unseemly line that might have been a good alternative title, "the room smelled like breath."

"That Baby" is among my favorites of the collection. It's such a good idea for a story it makes you wish you'd thought of it sooo badly. I mean, it just clicks. I won't say anything more about it. You ought to read it yourself. Read it here, in fact. Then go buy (or somehow acquire) and read all of "Daddy's."

Monday, January 17, 2011

On Those Texts That Have Been Over-Analyzed: "Lord of the Flies"

My likely career as an English teacher presents me with some unique problems, considering I love books but I don't necessarily love the books I'll need high schoolers to read, at least at times. There's also the correlating problem of, whatever the fiction, getting high schoolers to feel reading a novel, a poem, a short story and so forth is worth their while in the first place.

Studies show reading isn't the popular pastime it once was, and why should it be? There's every other kind of portable and stationary stimulation to fill its spot. Problem is, few of those alternatives train people to be as active intellectually as books do. And you don't need to be a Marxist, or a Luddite or some forward-thinking science fiction writer, and you needn't have seen "The Matrix" or "The Terminator" or any other example of technology run amok to worry at the dangers of intellectual complacency. It's just not a good idea to be such and such a way, in terms of blah, blah, blah. Because it's borrring . . .

Ech! Fell into a techno-trap, as these things will cause.

Ok, but honestly, I agree with those who've noted technology does hamper concentration, on being able to focus. We shouldn't lose touch with our ability to focus, or highway safety might be reduced to something lower than where it's at, which is a low place, I've judged.

So all of that leads to my thinking about "Lord of the Flies" -- William Golding's classic novel from the mid-1950s -- which wonders how a collection of English boys, ham-fisted together by chance and a crash landing, would fare without adult intervention on an island surrounded pretty exclusively by water, lots of water. The answer is, overall, not very well. Badly, you might argue. Most everyone has read this novel if the everyone in question has been to high school in the United States. Like most high school novels it's been drilled and mined for its symbolic worth to the point of, ostensibly, being depleted completely.

So why am I wasting my time talking about it? Because despite all of that it manages to be a mesmerizing tale, one that forces students to decide fundamental philosophical things about the nature of humankind. Are we inherently good or bad? Is it a societal construct? I think it's the atavistic nature of the boy's circumstances. As interesting as reads like "Of Mice and Men" and "The Great Gatsby" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" are, they don't have the staying power of a novel like "Lord of the Flies." Because students, nay people, should always wonder about the true nature of humanity, if only to be better than or live up to that true nature.

As the greatest bit of symbolism in that story, the death of Piggy and the destruction of the conch shell, once knowledge and infrastructure are lost it's hard to reclaim them.

Don't crush the voice of reason, or destroy a rational order.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Amelia Gray's Museum is Weird, Indeed

Misapprehension is a stupid thing. You can, for instance, come across a trifling bit of an author on some literary journal or another and misapprehend its representing their entire body of work. And who wants to misapprehend? Not me, that's for true. So I'm glad that whatever it was that made me skeptical of Amelia Gray was easy enough to get past when I first heard of the content of her recent 2010 short story collection, "Museum of the Weird." It's weird, as advertised. It's like Lorrie Moore if Lorrie Moore decided she wanted to be the prefect fusion of Will Self concepts and Donald Barthelme-style abstraction and pith. It's a read you itch to get back to reading, when reading of it stops and you have to go do other things. Fortunately, the stories are all very short, so at least you get some sense of conclusion whilst you itch for more.

It's a disorienting world come to life, here, I mean. Hysterically funny and hysterically sad and hysterically difficult to pin down. But ever worth reading.

There's a nonchalance to the storytelling, as if to say, yes, this is a humorous, wry and thoughtful narrative, but we needn't get all hot and bothered about these facts. Stay cool yet emotionally plugged in. A tough balancing act but Amelia Gray succeeds pretty completely at it.

Let's break it down a bit; here are some of her stories discretely analyzed:

One of my personal favorites is "The Suitcase." I mean "The Suitcase" is about as perfectly comedic as literary fiction gets, the narrative centering on a woman's dealing with her boyfriend's preference to remain ensconced in a piece of luggage. I like to think of main character Claire's boyfriend, Alex, as emblematic of the current, generally infantalized generation -- he can't sprout like the healthy seed he is, if we're speaking of people in terms of their being like seeds.

You grow to love being kept safe and warm by the many safety nets society constructs to keep you safe, even if simultaneously -- if you're any kind of healthy, functional person -- you can't help but resent your situation. Feeling you need to be stuck in a suitcase is both succoring and stifling and you love/hate it. I think one scene that exemplifies this fairly well is when they're confronted by airport security, subsequently barred from boarding their flight, and brought to the airport chaplain (his name is Ted) for some reason. Their exchange is as follows:

"How does he live?" Ted asked. "How does he feed himself, or use the restroom? Doesn't he develop terrible sores? What of his work towards his spirit?"

The Samsonite hopped a little with rage. "We manage, guy," Alex said from within.

This segment also illustrates Alex's position for the entirety of the story, which is object and never subject (except prior to his enclosure in the suitcase). He always needs to react to the comments, is never referred to directly but only tangentially, and this produces the delightfully amusing impotence that defines his character. It's really something to behold that it's achieved with so few words, more with touch and with feel.

"Diary of a Blockage" reads to me like the study of singular obsession, a narrator ostensibly named Miss Mosely is suffering the feeling of a fleck of regurgitation caught in her throat. Yes, it's funny but why is it funny? It's funny because, geez, it's a horrible idea. Imagine if the blockage is only illusory? What a terrible, morbid thought. But from that thought emerges obsession, and obsession's thriving with the wrong -- i.e. destructive -- focus makes life difficult to live. It culminates with numerous excellent thoughts, but my favorite is in this narration:

. . . it is time for the blockage to finally emerge, the gestation period has concluded, the suffering is nearly through (though it has not been true suffering and we will never know true suffering), that which will most closely resemble joy is prepared to leave my body and move into the world

While I think the last line of that excerpt is interesting -- that the blockage will "most closely resemble joy" -- better still is, "the suffering is nearly through (though it has not been true suffering and we will never know true suffering)." Like the difference in poverty and abject poverty, human suffering can be measured on a relative scale. In another sense, you could argue true suffering is only measurable by your personal experiences, that you can never know another's experiences, not palpably, and so you're left to endure only what is worst to you. There is, however, a discriminating tendency in humans, the awareness of others, that shows itself with empathy and feeling you have experienced something similarly insufferable, so as to better understand what would be worse than that, through the perspective of another's experience. What's interesting is having that clarity of mind WHILE you are enduring something horrible, to know that this is not the worst thing that has ever befallen someone, not even close. But that's just one thing.

"Fish" seems to have been written, if for no other reason, then to illustrate the slippery slope of unusual romances. An oft-heard argument of the current political climate is that if gays are allowed to marry then soon no one will be able to present an argument for why beastiality isn't permissible, because a man or woman's having a romantic (sexual) relationship with an animal is no less logical than two members of the same sex being married. I won't bother with the speciousness of this argument. I don't think I have anything new to add to that. Amelia Gray tackles the issue, even if only indirectly, with her protagonists, Dale and Howard, and their respective marriages to a paring knife and a bag of frozen tilapia. The problem is these objects aren't spouses, can't share in anything of the nature of interpersonal interaction, and are thus rendered crutches -- helping Dale and Howard isolate themselves from other people, giving them cause to say others do not understand. I think this story wraps up particularly well, and it could be my favorite of the bunch, were I forced to pick.

All right, so there are many more stories than just the three above, but perhaps you see, they all beg to be analyzed and, really, just thought about. Because who knows if anything I've said here is true at all? What the hell is truth in that respect? I mean, these are just the things I think, so what do you think? What are the things you think on the subject of books and perhaps "Museum of the Weird," in particular? I await your reply.

Here's a link to a good interview with Amelia Gray on HTML Giant, if you would like to know more!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Todd Dills and My First Read Novel of the New Year

Slowly but surely, I'm immersing myself in the work of authors from various indie presses of lesser or greater acclaim. I've already been told what The New Yorker thinks is good, by The New Yorker of all sources. In other words, and seriously no knock on The New Yorker, but I know what the establishment says is good fiction (in surprisingly many instances I would agree, what's more). I know, too, what the less mainstream, more erudite experimental authors of The Dalkey Press think is good fiction.

So now it's time for me to give a look elsewhere, to the slightly less lauded and more obscure publishers and their authors. Featherproof, for one, is a independent press that is producing some top tier stuff by talented young writers, one of whom is, yes, Todd Dills. Dills is a writer I first encountered last spring, when he hosted "So You Think You Have Nerves of Steel?" -- a reading series falling under the auspices of his Chicago-cum-The American South lit magazine, The2ndhand. Dills, himself, was born (and presumably raised) in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Chicago became the subject of his interest possibly when he came here to study fiction at Columbia College, where he received his MFA.

Most of what I've written in the preceding comes from what I gleaned reading his author bio in the back pages of his novel, "Sons of The Rapture," which IS the novel of his I read, recently. It's most of what the following words I write will be concerning, too.

Twang, what's the definition? (The most appropriate-for-my-purposes definition, anywho?) It's let's say this: "To give a sharp, vibrating sound, as the string of a musical instrument when plucked." I have opted not to use the definition (#3) that includes reference to human beings because I feel it has a negative connotation in its denotation. I want there to be no negative denotations or connotations to this: I think Todd Dills writing in "Sons of the Rapture" has a lyrically twang-filled tenor to it. In his prose there is all the thoughtfulness of a writer possessing a demonstrably wide range of diction but, likewise, possessing a singsong quality reminiscent of a folk tale told in or around a barn / old abandoned mill (or most probably a campfire, although ideally not one made in a barn / old abandoned mill for obvious reasons). Boiling it down, what I mean is whether you like the substance of his writing Dills sure can construct some melodious prose, boy howdy.

But the substance of his story is, to me, likewise compelling. "Sons of the Rapture" (published by Featherproof Books in 2006) is at its most pigeon-hole-able a coming-of-age story, if you can come of age in, ostensibly, your early-to-mid 2os, as seems is the case for the novel's primary voice, Billy Jones. He's also a man without a country (Billy is), a southerner sojourning, if not displaced, in Chicago. His brother is a murderer, and his mother the sole victim of his brother's murderous violence. His father, Johnny Jones, is a gadabout and a prankster, herding cattle and hating (for a very specific reason) a senator named Thorpe Storm, who bears a striking resemblance to a real-life one-time Dixiecrat and candidate for president, a man of infamy or veneration, depending on your politics. That is to say, the one for whom praising got Trent Lott into some trouble not too many years back. C'mon, still don't know? Geesus, it's Strom Thurmond, STROM THURMOND. If you've never heard of him consult a history textbook of some accreditation. I refuse to explicate further.

The story is not terribly long in terms of pages, 183 more or less, but there sure is a lot packed in to those pages, and in the tradition of William Faulkner, the story is told by different characters in alternating sections, among whom perhaps the most interesting is Artichoke Heart (aka A.H.), a tiara-wearing, cross-dressing, trumpeter of ambiguous sexual orientation. According to Billy Jones, He even says within the first few pages of the story, directed at what precisely is not entirely clear, "Girl on boy. Girl on girl. Boy on boy. No difference whatever." We learn from A.H. that he might have a dark past riddled with mob entanglements and the likelihood of his committing imprimatur hits on their behalf. But he's also a flamboyant showman and couple that with the oft-unpredictable, unreliable first-person narration both in general and with respect to Dills specifically and you're left basically wondering about his story's veracity all the way to the end.

But my favorite part is Billy Jones' reference to his erstwhile employ at The "Albert R. Parsons" Center, or in real-life The James R. Thompson Center, named for two men whose politics couldn't be much more divergent, I'd think. I won't digress down the path of an impromptu history lesson, but Albert R. Parsons was one of the Haymarket Square martyrs, and before that a contrarian ex-Confederate in the reconstruction, pre-Jim Crow era south. Parsons' views were wildly antithetical to mainstream opinion (there is significant evidence that his wife, Lucy Parsons, was of African bloodlines), especially as southerners of the period were concerned. He was subsequently forced into exile, lest he be killed by the KKK upon reconstruction's end and the northern troops' withdrawal. This led him to Chicago where he and Lucy joined the labor rights movement that would eventually cost him his life -- by an institutional lynching, if I may be so bold as to editorialize here for a moment. James R. Thompson, more affectionately known as "Big Jim" says wikipedia, is less interesting: the longest serving Republican governor in the state of Illinois, and probably some other stuff. Congrats to him for that.

Point is, I enjoyed Dills' reference there, ya know? Billy Jones also notes the propensity for suicide in that location, given the panopticonic series of balconies ringing its center to some great height, which offers the rather spectacular opportunity of jumping from its highest heights to what can only, morbidly, be described as resembling a bulls-eye down below, painted to the flooring of its food court. I passed it all the time as I changed el trains en route to me Alma Mater, DePaul. Happily, I never witnessed even the aftermath of a suicide.

If I have complaints about this book they tend to reside with the characters whose perspectives I was less interested in reading, which were basically whoever is left after Billy Jones, briefly A.H. and, somewhat less briefly, murderous Bobby Jones. It was nice to see Thorpe Storm mocked and messed with, though, as delighting in the failures of men who resemble Strom Thurmond will be.

Check it, yo!

As for Featherproof, Lindsay Hunter's "Daddy's" is next up!