Review: We’re Getting On by James Kaelan

Flatmancrooked is gaining quite the reputation for innovative book marketing. Last year they launched Emma Straub’s novella, Fly-Over State, by asking people to buy a “share” in the project, which includes a signed first-edition copy of the novella. This year they tried the same approach with Alyssa Knickerbocker’s Your Rightful Home, with equal levels of success.

As well as being part of the Launch project, James Kaelan’s short story collection, We’re Getting On, is also part of the new Zero Emission Book Project which aims to offset the environmental cost of book production. Each first edition of the book is made of 100% recycled post-consumer paper, with covers made of seed paper. This means that if you were to plant the book, it would grow into a tree. Such beautiful circularity. But presumably you will want to read the book before you plant it, so first of all you need to figure out whether you will like it.

gettingon-500x366We’re Getting On consists of four connected stories focusing on hipsters after the apocalypse. It is exactly the sort of book that would be sold in Urban Outfitters, though like most books sold in Urban Outfitters it mocks the people who shop there. The collection’s first story, ‘A Deliberate Life’, takes place in a hellish land where everyone rides bicycles just because some guy does, and wears glasses they can’t see through, and spends a lot of time picking out quirky t-shirts. As Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho contrasted lists of music and clothing labels with graphic violence, ‘A Deliberate Life’ connects Palestine and Saddam Hussein’s trial with a meaningless cycle of bands, bars and booze.

The characters in We’re Getting On are not nice people: when told that the women he’s just gone home with might have a contagious disease, one narrator thinks: “Whatever I might contract from her, I thought at the time, would be a small price for the boost in status.” Other characters start fights, have hate-sex, and generally think stupid and unpleasant thoughts.

It’s not fun to read stories about horrible people, but there is a point: “In my circle,” says the narrator, “you’re only allowed to worry about things that don’t matter, like bands and trials and fashion.” Although I hated these characters, I still felt a little cheer rise in my throat at the end of ‘A Deliberate Life’, when the protagonist makes an attempt to escape from this awful non-existence.

For me, the high point of the book was the second story, ‘You Must’ve Heard Something’. Here we are treated to a handful of uncomfortably intimate snapshots of two people trying to connect in a mysterious world they don’t understand. These characters may be struggling through an apocalypse, but like all the best TV dramas they still make time for witty banter:

“I’m Charles,” said Charles.
“I’m Jane. I’d shake your hand”“”
“But I’ve already seen you change.”
“And we’re standing in different buildings.”

Again, it’s hard to sympathise with them: after describing having sex with an unconscious woman who then presses charges against him, Charles says: “I suppose she was just ashamed for having not paid attention”. The message of the story seems to be that the basic exchange between men and women is sex for food: Charles watches Jane undress, and in return he gives her some rotting apples. The focus of the story is kept tight, and this claustrophobic tone allows the dynamic between the two characters to heighten to a beautifully chilling conclusion. The characters in these stories are ‘getting on’ with each other and with their lives, but just barely.

We’re Getting On is the sort of book that will be sold in achingly cool shops, next to cult novels and Beat poetry and photography books of urban graffiti. If you like that sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will like. And if you don’t like it, you can always plant it.

  • Surface Review

    A shallow surface review.

    • Thanks for your comment, anonymous person! If you’d like to explain this book to me, I’d be very happy to learn. I’m always open to the possibility that I have misinterpreted a book.

  • kirsty,

    i have yet to read this book, though i did participate in the “launch.” in part because i love FMC and the ideals behind the zero emission book. while i certainly won’t know until i read it if i enjoy it or not, i appreciate the honesty with which you wrote your review. it can sometimes be a hard thing to do, especially in the face of major buzz!

    keep on,

    • Much appreciated, thanks Ryan! I certainly didn’t intend to take a dramatic stand with this review; I was just saying what I thought.

      I love Flatmancrooked and all their projects too. But I wasn’t super-keen on the book, and I’m not going to lie about it. If I pretend I like everything, then when I do really love a book (like this or this or this) then that praise becomes meaningless. But James Kaelan is a super-lovely, super-brainy guy, and I’m really looking forward to our discussion.

      • no, how can one expect such a response from a review?! that’s why i had to post. i wanted you to know there are people who appreciate the honesty!

        i always have trouble writing reviews of things i don’t like because i have a hard time motivating to actually do it. i write music reviews and of course write reviews of stuff i think is mediocre, stuff i am disappointed by, but i can’t bring myself to write about stuff i truly dislike, haha.

        and yeah, james is a really nice guy (from my few exchanges with him), and I, too look forward to the discussion.

  • brooke allison

    Hi Kristy: I didn’t think your review was THAT negative. It certainly was thoughtful and well-written. But, I’m not sure you didn’t miss the point. Seemed to me you were reacting negatively precisely as the author intended. His achingly stunning portraits of selfish, pretense-full relationships, “cool” trends ‘d jour cloaked in political correctness, and gulfs in pride and understanding that so often separate good people from one another may be brilliant, albeit not always fun to engage.

    I very much look forward to the discussions you two have next week and beyond! Brooke

  • Although I haven’t read the book just yet (but definitely will, so I can actually get with the program here), from your description, it almost seems like there’s a little Vonnegut in the cake batter…some critical satire on our cultural inability to connect on any meaningful level (also, great food for sex comparison, Kristy…and the fact that the man gives the woman rotten apples in return–this is so right on, James! Also, deeply allegorical and begs the question, are men the providers their grandfathers were or will they give girls compromised stuff for what they really want?)….I’m really looking forward to the conversation. I enjoyed your review very much, Kristy and don’t think it was superficial at all!