I'm not going to beat around bush: I've got a collection of flash fictions, "Why God Why," coming from the newly conceived Love Symbol Press (also publishing heavy hitters like M. Kitchell, Josh Kleinberg and Heather Palmer; I'm in GREAT literary company, I mean / humbled to be included). The collection will be out later this year. No official date yet, just the broad 2012 label. STILL! I've enjoyed looking over potential cover art. Also there will be something in the neighborhood of 50 plus stories included when alls said and done. Swede.
"Us" by Michael Kimball is one of those novels that is so evocative, so emotive that in so conjuring, it does a lot to defy labeling or being "understood." Certainly one of its primary themes is mortality, and the effects of that inescapable truth on love and the living. But I'm not entirely comfortable with boiling it down to that. I think it's better to look at it as a great big whole without a distillative thesis.
So then, the whole. Well...
The narrator's wife is stricken with some form of illness, sending the narrator into a panic to save her. What follows is a rather surreal journey into the highs and lows of "The End" (there's some suggestion that the end is not The End, but that's all I'll say). The novel is heartbreaking, crushing. But it's powerfully so. It's the good kind of crushing, too. The kind I think everyone ought to force themselves to feel at least every once in a while. Not as practice. Not as prep for something bigger, but instead for its value as an emotive experience unto itself. Things can have value in and of themselves and not for some great palliative effect they offer later on. I believe this. Honest. I think it might be a touch contrary to the prevalent feeling of what does someone or something offer me as an individual, at this given moment but also possibly into the future. People and things don't have to be commodities, commodities we can then exploit for our specific needs and wants.
Nobody has to learn how to grieve. We know how to do that. Michael Kimball through "Us" offers a very powerful opportunity to be human in a very distinct way. To let us collectively experience a unique component of the human condition, having both its pros and cons, to be sure.
I don't want to oversell it. I feel I should always attach something like a rider that says: "Hey, that's how I experienced it, anyway. I hope you experience something similar because that leads to the great thing of relating, a great thing that people can do, that we have it in us to do." But that's not necessarily what will happen. I'm cool with that and I hope you are, too.
Well human psychology, I got one for you. Recently The Moonmilk Review began its transition to The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review. Fans of the literary references, Italo Calvino and F. Scott Fitzgerald respectively, needn't be clued in on their significance or their significant differences. Ultimately, it's all semantics / semiotics, what each as a word and image signifies in the mind of the beholder. Still, I get a categorically different sense from Moonmilk than I do from Eckleburg, even if the content of the publication should change very little. I, as beholder, am not a huge fan of "The Great Gatsby" -- although I do genuinely enjoy thinking about the image of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg regardless. (Dr. Eckleberg is one of my favorite parts of a novel I find generally underwhelming.) Alternatively, I'm a great fan of Calvino's collection "Cosmicomics" -- especially its "The Distance of the Moon," a story from which the term "moonmilk" in The Moonmilk Review is derived.
I know my misgivings about the name change will pass, as they'll have to necessarily since this is a thing out of my control. I will miss the name Moonmilk Review, though -- a surprisingly great deal, too. Much more than I would have ever assumed.
I like when well known / regarded writers take a stab at writing about writing. Lorrie Moore's narrative second-person "How to Become a Writer" is an ought not to be missed kind of read, among stories like these. Handled deftly, they are a fascinating look at the creative process, the writing process in conversation and in workshop, even if / though it's not the "creative process" per se of the author of the fiction itself. And now, Etgar Keret has brought his own offering in the form of "Creative Writing," which appeared in a recent issue of The New Yorker.
Others I've enjoyed in this way are David Foster Wallace's character Rick Vigorous' storytellings in "The Broom of the System" and Will Self's disturbingly awesome "Nonce Prize" which concerns, among other things, creative writing in a prison setting -- and, actually I recall liking the stories within stories more than the primary narrative in novels like John Irving's "The World According to Garp." Even Albert Camus' "The Plague" plays with describing the writing process, when a character becomes enamored to the point of obsession with a sentence he's writing and constantly revising, to wit, "One fine morning in the month of May an elegant horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne."
Etgar Keret's "Creative Writing" left me feeling that, for all its many positives, the one thing I wished was also explored here? His characters' writing badly, or at least in a way that better suggested their novice status. Still, though, there's a lot here, and the stories within the story are conceptual oddities in themselves. At outset, the story concerns a couple who's recently experienced the loss of a child. I can't quite recall if this is expressly stated or implied. As recourse, as escape, as coping mechanism / impetus, the man suggests to the woman that she take up something like creative writing. She does and experiences success immediately, come in the form of praise from her instructor and peers. This leads to an odd form of envy in the man. He finds the woman talented, but also inscrutable. Her work is good but leaves something to be desired, he feels. He joins a beginner's creative writing course of his own. The narrative comes full circle. In a glib sort of way, I enjoy feeling the story's moral is: writing is hard, and endings are hardest of all.
AWP is rolling into Chicago come the end of February. At its commencement we'll be having a big arm wrestling tournament among writers and whatnot. What precipitated this? I challenged Barry Graham, DOGZPLOT Emperor-in-Chief, to an arm wrestling match. He then decided the tournament was a good idea (it is) and the thing has taken something of a life of its own. Worst case scenario? I lose and have to buy Barry Graham pizza and beer and kiss his ass literally and publicly. As you might imagine, I have no intention of losing. We'll see if strength and endurance on my side February 29th, though. I've been hitting the gym hard in the meantime. I expect this will pay dividends come arm wrastlin' time.
Also, Ben Tanzer is a traitorous ratfink who made one mistake when he double crossed me: he left me alive!
TEAM POWERBEEF!!! (That's my arm wrestling team. There's me, the wrestler, and there's the people I've conscripted to shout invective at my opponents / cheer me on (mostly the former, though).)
In other news, Jon Mau and I have concocted a template for further plans should Plan A and Plan B run afoul. You're free to use said template in your day-to-day lives as well, whenever the same happens to you.
Plan U - Try yelling at it from a seated position. Moving as little as possible. Saying something like, "I'm feeling too lethargic to respond to this physically."
Plan V - Sobbing quietly, hands resting on your face, cradling it as you're bent over yourself. Probably, you've moved little since Plan U, most likely not at all.
Plan W - Take a hostage. Then you release said hostage immediately, asking or pleading (most likely pleading) with them for assistance. You've been under a lot of pressure lately, is one big thing you might say to your erstwhile hostage.
Plan X - MELEE!!! (pronounced Mel-E)
New Untoward and Red Lightbulbs things in the world. Mark Jordan Manner, a really talented young writer, being a common thread between our two publications, as coincidence would have it.
I too have a publication on elimae that's up and at them now on elimae!
Tao Lin. He's a fascinating figure/fixture in the world of contemporary indie lit. He's definitely hitting on something -- he has the ardent following to prove it. Gawker, even if sardonically, posts about his exploits often -- even going so far as to offer him a forum for posting of his exploits himself at least once. I consider myself neither a fan nor a hater. I'm an interested bystander. I was interested when discussion of Marie Calloway and Lin's role in publishing "Adrien Brody" and corresponding with its author broke a week or two ago. Then, despite its circular tendencies and refusal to take a specific position without contradicting that position, I quite enjoyed Janey Smith's reaction on Big Other.
Tao Lin is a curiosity, and as Janey Smtih notes in greater depth than I plan to go in here, he seems to deftly understand the importance of being great at getting attention. Everything else can be viewed as subjective in the marketplace, other than the plan fact of what sells. Tao Lin and Muumuu House sell, and much as I'm loath to admit it, Jordan Castro and the rest of the young Muumuuvian disciples are wise to get on board with this promotional machine. I'm sure it could be counted on one hand those people who know who Amelia Gray is or who Michael Kimball is or Blake Butler, even, but don't know of Tao Lin. If it's a shame that this is the case the best you'll be able to argue is for something subjective.
Of course it's crass to say because Lin has followers he also has merit. Fine, it's crass. So what? It's no less true. And even though I didn't much care for the substance of "Shoplifting From American Apparel," the first of Lin's books I've been able to get a copy of and read. It is fairly straightforward. It follows characters who are undoubtedly stand-ins for Tao and his gang, a fact all but revealed expressly in his Gawker piece cited above. He's simultaneously aware of the kind of "movement oriented" nature of his position in this place in history, having characters remark to one another that they'll be no doubt referred to as the "blogniks," or some such media-driven expression to place them in the popular imagination of whatever discrete realm of pop culture they fit into. In so saying, he also has a hand in sort of positioning himself in this categorization, while also removing himself from it somewhat, by having his characters play aloof and dismissive of the idea.
So to the subjective, then, what can I make of "Shoplifting From American Apparel"? It's unlike anything I've ever seen only because of the discussion that surrounds it. But that's kind of fitting, in this day and age. When "reality" is yoked to television shows that are only real to the extent that their characters are marketable it's fitting that a major alt lit hero / pillar would be more worthy of praise for the things he elicits outside of his work and not from the work itself. Besides, he doesn't have time to entertain you with the outmoded medium of reading. I mean, there's just enough in there to keep you in it to the end, but the payoff there is minimal. Satire isn't part of it. Embracing a certain kind of commercialism certainly is, a certain commercialism lifestyle filled with iced coffees and vegan smoothies. All of this is to say Tao Lin knows what he's doing.
I think it's fitting I read Sam Pink just prior to reading Lin. They share many affinities but where Pink seeks if nothing else than to explore through his stories Lin is comfortable leaving the exploration tangential, as a reactionary aside to his life outside of writing or any art form whatsoever. Fair is fair, though, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention his literary forebears. No doubt the Beatniks were of a similar mind, Kerouac and Neal Cassady on the road. The blogniks pun is extremely apt if a little on the nose. Certainly, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. And last, but perhaps most apt of all, the literary Brat Pack of Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInierney renown. I can't help feeling, given their tendency to stay put and write about what was around them, the urban jungle of the 1980s, that there is more than a slight connection. Tao Lin's contemporary version of commercial culture is only slightly more terrifying and only because his characters seem to so earnestly and unthinkingly embrace it (and maybe that's the point). Reading about them left me feeling nothing, emoting nothing, empty of feeling, which might be where Lin diverges from all the other literary groups I mention. There's a catatonic quality to everything there, which to his credit freaks me out. If his goal was to freak me out with his emotionless writing he did accomplish that.
That's not to say it didn't have parts I thought were really strong. I liked the lockup scene, after Sam is arrested for shoplifting from American Apparel. I thought that was where some of the most heft of the story was found, in the visceral reaction of the inmates to one another and to their eventual pugnacious lockup partner, a man who was locked up for fighting in a Starbucks. He'd apparently gone there to go to the bathroom after a more verbal altercation with his assailant at the Bar he'd been at. It reeks of something true and honest, even if it's totally made up. Sam seems to understand that this is an important moment for him but he can't seem to understand how or why. The lack of serious introspection is further horrifying.
There's much to be horrified by in the works of Tao Lin.
And maybe it's good or maybe it's bad.
But those are pretty subjective things. after all.
From Online University Lowdown - Bob Einstein’s Literary Equations : Like the maths and sciences, the best, most thorough examples of literary criticism require painstaking exploration and a detailed report of the findings – all of which blogger Matt Rowan delivers.
From The New Dork Review of Books - Matt Rowan writes one of the best, most intellectually intense amateur book blogs out there. Definitely a blog to check out if you miss your college literature survey courses.