[REVIEW] Mile-high with Mary Ruefle: a review of My Private Property

Wave Books, 2016

REVIEWED BY E.D. MORIN

A bad baby kicks the back of my airplane seat. Bad baby gurgles. A cacophony of jungle ululations (moist, hot and fretful) assaults my ear drums. Bad baby makes strident, vomity sounds as if his caregiver clutches him too tight.

I get it. I want to clutch bad baby tight too.

One time a bad baby howled for my entire long flight, not so much shrieking as emitting gulpy, infant cries meek enough to draw co-traveler sympathies. This bad baby is not sympathetic. An exotic hell-parrot foments in this bad baby. Bad baby howls, lazy and wanton, hatchling of lazy parents. I can just see it. All those tricks these parents perform at home to calm their squalling babe in arms (loud punk music, baby bouncer in the kitchen doorway) are inoperable here.

If I turn to peer behind me, I fully expect snap! a forest canopy. Down fall the oxygen masks. Rubber liana air tubes, snot-and-milk soaked and strung with fruit loops.

Don’t turn. Don’t even think about it.

In the air, time goes by as if in a dream, seconds and seconds and minutes and minutes and suddenly hours are gone. Somewhere above our destination and nearing the Greater Toronto Area, surely by now, I hold my book open, Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property. The writing here is reduced to essential, devastating truths. “You may decide to take up an insane and hopeless cause,” she writes in “Pause,” a piece about menopause.

“You may decide to walk to Canada, or that it is high time you begin to collect old blue china, three thousand pieces of which will leave you bankrupt. Suddenly the solution to all problems lies in selling your grandmother’s gold watch or drinking your body weight in cider vinegar. A kind of wild forest blood runs in your veins.”

The back dust-jacket flap tells me that Mary Ruefle lives in Bennington, Vermont, which Google later tells me is a town with two colleges and a population of just over fifteen thousand. In other words, small. Google will also inform me that Mary Ruefle is off everything, Facebook, Twitter, doesn’t even have her own website. Certainly not Snapchat. There will be images of Bennington’s fall leafage, the world’s tallest ladderback chair, a covered bridge. There are reports of a recent heroin scourge.

My guess is the town’s folk don’t know Mary Ruefle the star poet. They may notice she visits the same coffee shop every day. And if they know her as a poet, she’s approachable enough that the police headquarters will ask her to compose something for the chief, a “dry and understated” statement as she writes in “Little Golf Pencil.” Maybe people do ask such things. If they even know about her being a poet.

I yearn for such off-the-grid seclusion. What writer doesn’t yearn for seclusion these days? A reprieve from the endless distractions, cut off from WIFI, cell service. Incommunicado. This cross-country flight is a gift, then. And only now, when I’m almost at my destination, does my mind grow quiet enough that I’m able to even begin. My own private mile-high writing retreat, however brief.

And so I observe.

The man in the row ahead of me has just put away his bagpipes, an electronic device. A black stick and box with earphones so he can practice Prince Charles’ Welcome to Lochaber in silence. He opens a paperback and begins to read, but I can’t make out the title or author. One of the Scandinavian crime writers or British, could be. Likely a male author, bloody minded, perhaps with a military background providing a nice foil to the piper’s sensitive finger manipulations.

In the row ahead of the piper, another infant, pudgy and brimming with health. The tray covered with infant paraphernalia, which is a word in today’s crossword, paraphernalia running the height of the puzzle’s grid of black and white boxes. I can’t recall the clue for this word and I can’t look it up now because I just relinquished my paper to the flight attendant for recycling, assuming the airline actually recycles its papers. A national paper it was, originating in Toronto. I bought it in the Calgary airport where I began, and now here it is almost back home, like a return to Mecca. Such a short life for that paper. Only just begun, and now it’s about to be shredded and pulped and relegated to an enormous pile.

I didn’t finish the crossword. I might have kept it and, after a time, returned to scan the clues and they might have finally made sense such as happens sometimes. But instead I said, fuck it (inaudibly as I was still on the airplane), who needs an unfinished puzzle hanging over their head? It’s not like this crossword is Mount Assiniboine, the mountain I hope to summit two months from now. “We’ve begun our descent. Hope you enjoyed the flight. Welcome to Toronto,” the pilot’s disembodied voice announces, and as usual the voice is male.

So I guess that’s it for my private writing retreat. Only a few minutes left to pull that long, long ribbon out of the carpet bag and examine it. Never mind that there’s a barf bag in the slot at my eye-level, there are seeds at my feet from the sandwich I brought with me on this no-frills flight, or that my toes are ensconced in no-nonsense footwear. Menopausal sandals, the kind of sandals that have small, rubbery, self-massage bumps on the footbed, and a wide cover over the toes to protect them and so that no one can see, heaven forbid, any of my nail fungus.

My younger self wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing these sandals. Or maybe, just maybe, she would have worn them ironically the way young women dye their hair gray these days. I don’t know what they’re getting at. I sometimes still wish I was a full brunette.

——

Winner of the 2007 Brenda Strathern Writing Prize, E.D. Morin co-edited Writing Menopause: An Anthology of Fiction, Poetry and Creative Non-fiction (Inanna Publications, 2017.) A native Albertan, she is a director of the long-running Calgary reading series Writing in the Works. Her work has appeared in such publications as The Antigonish Review and Fiction Southeast and has been produced for broadcast on CBC Radio.

[REVIEW] We All Just Want to Be Touched: Courtney Maum’s “Touch”

(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017)

 

REVIEWED BY DAVID PLICK

I’m sitting here in this café on my laptop typing out a review of Touch, remembering that as I walked in here I inquired whether or not they had wifi, and when I heard the answer was no, I had to force myself to not be annoyed. “Okay,” I thought to myself, calming down. “I can do other things . . . Like, write that review for Courtney’s book. I don’t need internet for that.”

Let me describe this horrible café with no wifi. It has high ceilings with exposed heating vents and painted steel rafters—the obligatory industrial chic décor—atmospheric geometric art everywhere, Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky” is playing on the radio (I remembered how much I loved that song), a large communal table with plants all over it. Actually, come to think of it, living plants are everywhere. The windows are open, and the summer heat isn’t stifling. Also, it’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, so there are interesting characters moving in and out of the café and on the street (I’ve been here twenty minutes and I’ve already seen a French woman yell at a man for nearly spilling his coffee on her). This is all to say, what reason do I have to want to leave this place—the present, where I am, with these wonderful people—to disappear into the world of the internet? Is it because I’ve been programmed to be that way (and is that an acceptable excuse?)?

This is what Touch is about—how we’re moving further and further from each other, yet all we truly seek is intimacy, for someone else to know and understand us deeply, our true selves, not our avatars, or our feeds, or our digital presence.

Touch tells the story of Sloane Jacobsen, a trend forecaster who lives the life that most cosmopolitan people dream of. A self-identifying “anti-breeder” who moves from Paris to New York to lead a technology/commerce behemoth (imagine if Amazon and Google had a baby) called Mammoth through a three-day conference with trendsetters from around the world called “ReProduction”. Their tagline: “What will we make when we stop making kids?” Mammoth also carts her around New York in a self-driving AI automobile named Anastasia who becomes her best friend. On the surface, her life sounds thrilling.

Not to mention she also has an overachiever French boyfriend named Roman, a sex-intellectual (a “neosensualist”) who gets 700,000 likes on his Instagram posts, has his articles published in New York magazine, and is into Zentai suit onesies (As ridiculous as some of the characters seem in this book, they are rendered with absolute truth and humanity.).

But of course, it’s not that easy. She and Roman haven’t had sex in eighteen months (he doesn’t believe in penetration). Practically every time he opens his mouth to tell her how amazing his life is, she wants to scream. He won’t touch her, so she eventually finds someone willing to. This person, at first, is herself. Touch has some playful and intimate masturbation scenes with Sloane, told by Maum in a fearless way. For example, there’s a scene where Sloane watches pornography while pleasuring herself (her stupid boyfriend ends up walking in), and while she snidely and subtly mocks the artfulness of the porn, she absolutely revels in it. Sloane, after being restrained and quieted in her desire, bursts to feel something. Anything.

Also, after living in Paris for ten years, she’s completely alienated from her family. Upon returning to the US, Sloane is reminded constantly of the death of her father. It’s clear that she’s never been able to process his death in Paris, that she never spoke to Roman about this. For years she quietly mourned the loss, but now that she’s home she tries to reconnect with the people who understand what she’s going through—her mom, her sister, her brother-in-law. But after ignoring them for years, it’s not like they’ll just forget what happened, and take her back with open arms. There are a lot of wounds being reopened, and resentments that are rising to the surface.

Sloane’s final trend forecast in the book, something that makes the CEO of Mammoth furious, is that people will seek to abandon technology for human interaction. Sloane has achieved legendary success, lived in the fanciest neighborhoods in the most chic cities in the world, a true fashion and social elite, yet all she wants in this world is to be touched.

Much like the film Her, Touch is funny but also a warning sign of things to come. An important reminder that we should go into cafes with no wifi, and revel in the simple and beautiful art of spending time with another human being.

 –

David Plick is the founder and editor of the online lit and humor magazine Down & Out, and a former Henry Roth Fiction Scholar at The City University of New York. His work has been in Fiction, ArchDaily, The Collagist, Entropy, Fiction Advocate, Word Riot, Philadelphia Review of Books, and other places. A New Jersey native, he currently lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at Guttman Community College.

Seeking Gravity’s Center

BY JENNIFER AUDETTE

Carla’s office at Salon Beyond is a dark alcove of damp towels and a drain perpetually clogged with hair. After seven years of looking down, she’s learned the geography of foreheads. Her fingers know the topography of scalps. From her lather-worn hangnails she sucks dots of blood. Eight stylists rent chairs in the narrow space upfront by the windows. They almost never share their tips.

“You’ve been here a long time,” clients notice.

She’s saving to finish up cosmetology school, pay for her state license, rent her own chair.

“You must really love it,” the women say.

Truth: she doesn’t know what else to do.

The men who come in–and there are quite a few–she is sure, come to be touched. Moaners and sighers and silent smilers. She learns to curve her body just so, to avoid their open eyes, their flushed cheeks aching toward her breast as she leans to adjust the hot water. “This better?” she asks.

Truth: they are the ones who leave her tips.

Some nights Carla dreams of hairs looped and twisted around her fingers. She pulls at them and flails her hands to flick them away. They wrap tighter, grow thicker. Blood pounds beneath her fingernails.

She wakes. On her phone she searches for videos of men doing things in high-def slow-mo: skateboarding, skiing, boxing, big-wave surfing. She learns the lingo to find their captured pain: wipeout, fail, knockout, bail, bite, eat, slam. She watches ankles falter, wrists bend terrible angles. A punch lands. Spit flies. Eyes roll. A body skips like a rock down the face of a wave. There’s beauty in the way men twist and turn, the way they seek gravity’s center before they sense it’s hopeless. Carla waits until they realize. She taps pause. She holds them in the blink of awful knowing. She hits play. In slow motion, she watches them fall.

Jennifer Audette lives in Vermont. Her short fiction has appeared in The Front Porch Journal, Tin House’s Open Bar, Stoneboat, Crack the Spine, and Fiction Fix. Her review of Ben Lerner’s 2014 novel 10:04 is at Fiction Writers Review. Contact her at jennifer1million@gmail.com

 

Clicking on the Moon

BY INDERJEET MANI

Our front balcony faces the Gulf of Thailand, and on evenings when the moon is full or nearly so, we love to watch it rising over the sea, its luminous presence marked by those great basaltic plains once mistaken for seas. The moon is naturally the subject of countless iPhone pictures that I share on social media. In a network driven by mutual admiration, getting those likes from friends and acquaintances is now essential to the rituals of picture taking.

My memories of the moonlight I snapped a few nights ago are tied not only to the appearance of the moon, but also to what was going on when I took that picture. As it happens, my wife and I were enjoying a penne with spinach sauce. I remarked on the moon, and as we watched it, we held hands briefly. The moon that night also brought to mind memories of a much earlier time when my father and I would stand together observing those more distant moons.

Moon-Pic

When I look at my moon picture now, I recall the feeling of the wash of moonlight over air and water, and the presence of my wife beside me. For dozens of other moon pictures, unlike birthday or work-related ones, I have no recollections of the occasion of my taking them. While writing this essay helps preserve my personal memories, it’s possible that my clicking at the scenery around me might be diminishing or even erasing them.

In a recent psychological experiment, people touring a museum who were asked to photograph certain exhibits had trouble remembering them, whereas the exhibits that they didn’t photograph were surprisingly easier to remember. Another set of experiments has revealed the extent to which people rely on machines to relieve themselves of the burden of memory. Humans are willing to forget information if they believe it is available online, remembering where it can be found rather than the information itself. It’s sad enough to find memories of friends and distant places dimmed by age, without having to deal with technology ruining them further.

Not so long ago, the link between photographs and memories was celebrated simply and effectively. We sat around the fireside with our families, thumbing through those vintage photo albums with their wrinkled plastic sheets, remarking on a stooped grandfather’s piercing eyes, or admiring those glimpses of a daughter playing in the tub with her faded rubber ducky. Today, our kids, now grown up, show little interest in those family albums, offering only a brief nod and maybe an “uh-huh” while snap-chatting their friends about something far more interesting. The nostalgic world of physical photo albums is now an attic curiosity, like those fraying wedding saris and locks of forgotten hair. What the world offers us instead is the vast ocean of online repositories where we drop our little snapshots, hoping that our memories won’t face death by a thousand clicks.

All is not lost, however, in that sea. When I uploaded my moon shots that night to the Cloud, the system knew not only when and where they were taken, based on information available on my phone, but also the fact that the moon was involved, along with moonlight and the sea. My wife, leaning in on one of the shots, was accurately identified.  Realizing that some of my moon photos were taken in quick succession, Google Photos stitched them together into an animation, which I duly shared on Facebook. I also shared various digitally enhanced versions, including one that resembled an oil color. And I got those likes.

The systems we are tethered to are in possession of numerous potentially memory-jogging bits of information. The weather on the eve of the moon shot was lovely, reflected partly by the temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, and wind velocity. Earlier that day, my calendar had thoughtfully reminded me that it was the birthday of an 87-year-old aunt in India. The powers that be must also realize by now that when I take my moon shots, my wife and I are often seated together at dinner, sometimes in the company of friends, on a balcony at a considerable height above the sea. My wife’s emotional state might also be inferred from her facial expressions. My mood would be easy to discover from my tweets (some of which are already entirely predictable).

In the near future, systems will be able to assemble such information and generate verbal summaries of our photos, explaining what was happening at the time. These summaries will include rich descriptions of image content. Today, photo captioning algorithms can provide not only tags, but can also describe entities and scenes (which is especially helpful to the visually impaired). These descriptions are generated using natural language processing from information found in pre-existing image captions as well as from online textual content related to objects and scenes found in the photograph. Taken together, these smarts may help resurrect, from their synaptic slumber, personal memories associated with a picture.

While technology may help our personal memories, they are not as cool, for sharing, as pictures. Even though a digital photo today is the result of a complex computational reinvention of the scene, it is still understood as a view of reality, and as such, on an equal footing with experience. After all, no matter how much it may be staged or edited, a photo must resemble the scene from which it was mechanically generated. In the language of semiotics, photographs are signs that are inherently iconic and indexical. Those characteristics, in turn, allow us to conveniently forget that a moon shot is entirely different from the moon that we view through our native visual system. As Susan Sontag observed forty years ago in On Photography, “Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.”

Future technological innovations may continue to warp our definition of what is real and personal. We are already reeling from the disruptive impact of social network algorithms and search tools deciding on which collective events we should focus on.  When fully programmable cameras become commercially viable, algorithms worn on our face and body will decide when and where and how to take photographs, choosing and framing those experiences for us. From the buzzing confusion of images, shots with features that are popular across users, or that fit with a machine’s deep fantasies, will likely be preferred. And once virtual reality truly takes hold in online gaming and entertainment, almost all of the visual experiences we savor will have been selected by machines that capture and render them based on their own perspectives. By then, we will be used to living mind-bogglingly virtual lives.

In his 1922 essay Photography and the New God, the photographer Paul Strand wrote about the need to humanize the machine, “lest it in turn dehumanize us.” Nearly a century later, the direction we’re heading as a species seems to involve ceding key cognitive functions over to intelligent mechanical appendages whom we attend to more than each other. Some of our most treasured moments are now bits of electronic information, ghostly images desperately craving for attention. But unlike us, they have a chance to persist way into the future.

Just as we get that eerie feeling watching archival footage of Tolstoy or Tagore, anthropologists and historians of the future may wonder as they interpret our personal photos.  It behooves us to try and provide an honest and human-centered telling, mediated by technology, of what they were originally about. After all, it was we who were present, like our ancestors before us, observing the moon on an enchanting evening.

Inderjeet Mani is a writer and specialist in AI and computational linguistics. His books include The Imagined Moment, and his work has also been published in 3:AM Magazine, Aeon, Apple Valley Review, Areo Magazine, Babel Magazine, Drunken Boat, Eclectica, New World Writing, Nimrod, Short Fiction Journal, Slow Trains, Storgy, Unsung Stories, Word Riot, and other venues. On Twitter, he is @InderjeetMani, and his website is http://tinyurl.com/inderjeetmani

My Brilliant Blackout

BY MARCIA BUTLER

Forty years ago, I was an aspiring twenty-two-year-old oboist, recently released from four years of music conservatory, eking out a living as a waitress at an Upper West Side restaurant in New York City. For some reason, the manager had promoted me to bartender on Sundays. He knew I played music and perhaps this was his attempt to push me onto some sort of stage or in this case, a bar. But I wasn’t quite ready for the spot light. While I mixed martinis with the most inept pour imaginable, customers stared at me all day long. Arms flailed, beckoning to me like insane snakes, with a need to satisfy an endless urge for an afternoon buzz. But mostly it was those hot lights, crowning my head with a heat only Edison bulbs could produce.

Steven walked into the bar the Sunday before the blackout. I’d not seen him since our time at the Tanglewood Music Festival, a few years before. After downing several mimosas, he began a wistful reminiscence about our heady summer of yore and our current unrealized professional dreams. Eventually, throwing me a hangdog look, he confessed that he was playing piano for a show around the corner at the Promenade Theatre starring the actor Dick Shawn. This work was not up to what he aspired to, being a classical pianist and all. Yet, I detected a sliver of bravado in his tone.

Just as I was beginning to hate him, Steven offered me a free ticket to the show. I feigned ignorance. “Who the hell is Dick Shawn?”

“He’s an actor.”

“Never heard of him.”

“He was in the movie called It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World.”

I played dumb. “Huh?”

Steven rolled his eyes. “Look. I can get you in. Do you wanna go or not?”

“Yeah, sure.”

That Wednesday evening, I entered the theatre to find the stage floor covered with enormous heaps of crumpled newspaper. As the 8pm hour came and went, I began to wonder, where was “The Second Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World”? Suddenly, Dick Shawn popped up from underneath the newspapers, scaring the devil out of everyone. He’d been hiding under front-page headlines the whole time. Shortly into the second act, 9:36pm to be exact, the theatre went black. Within a few seconds an emergency spot came on, aimed toward Dick who’d continued with a stream of consciousness soliloquy. I assumed this was all part of the show, but five minutes into Dick’s Hamlet moment, an usher ran into the hall and yelled, “Blackout! Everybody out of the theatre!”

When 200 plus people run inside a theatre, all headed toward an ever-diminishing door opening, it goes badly. I held back as a few bodies hit the ground, stepped over – not exactly trampled, but close. When I finally breached Broadway and a blast of almost 100-degree heat, the surreal quality of the night pushed into my dilated pupils. Traffic had stopped dead and headlight beams gave off the only available shaft of light down the swing of Broadway, at knee level. And the noise: Cars braying. People screaming or crying, while standing, walking, running, pointing, shrugging. Sirens at a distance, perhaps approaching, but nowhere near.

A roar of humanity swallowed me yet I sensed an internal calm. I’d just stumbled into an environment that reflected the way I saw myself: invisible. I was more than 50 blocks away from my apartment in Chelsea and considered how to get home. A bus, though a long trip for sure, seemed plausible. I crossed the street to the southbound side of Broadway and idled at a bus stop, along with other hopeful riders. But then I looked back across the street in front of the Promenade and noticed a northbound bus, jammed beyond capacity.

I began the long walk downtown.  Looters scampered about, pushed through the crowds and broke glass storefronts with handy trashcans. Somewhere between Lincoln Center and The Coliseum I felt a rough hand, like a claw, at the back of my neck as my gold chain was ripped off. I stopped suddenly, and, with a blind sense of the theft, slipped my fingers to my throat to feel the fresh absence of metal, not quite believing I’d lost this thin, sweet treasure.

Down past Madison Square Garden the crowds began to thin out. As I neared my apartment, it occurred to me that I didn’t have any candles at home. On an impulse I stepped into a Spanish restaurant. Through the window, I’d noticed votive candles glowing on tabletops, the kind in bulbous burgundy vases wrapped in white plastic mesh.

Suddenly I was in a foreign country. Couples pressed close and I smelled something I couldn’t identify at the time: the musk of love. With no jukebox to play Spanish love songs, men and women made their own music with a throb of murmured confidences. They seemed to take advantage of a night whose air hung heavy and with no place to go but into another’s arms.

There was my mark. I sidled past the bar crowd and made my way to the empty table. With my back to the vase, and glancing up to the ceiling, I reached behind to grab it. Then a man stepped in front of me, blocking all nonchalant momentum. He smiled. I froze – maybe caught – I wasn’t certain. He gestured like a bull fighter whipping a red cape, inviting me to join him at the bar. I assumed he was in charge, maybe the manager, so I gave in and perched on a stool. As he settled in beside me, the candles lined up across the bar surface gave his face a sinister, Vincent Price sneer.

This was lighting in which I could be myself; vaguely seen but not known, present yet without pressure for performance. My eyes adjusted to the man who’d taken my hand and began to caress each of my fingers.  His beard looked at least two days old, with sweat gliding around each and every hair on his chin. I liked his eyes; maybe medium blue, or light brown, hard to tell. He stood thin and tall in the torso. Somewhere at the V slice of his half-unbuttoned shirt, some spare, wiry chest hairs appeared. And his arms, poking out of pushed-up shirtsleeves, showed plump veins worthy of an injection. I slunk down into my seat, forgot about being a third-rate thief or even an aspiring oboist and began to love the heavy darkness of the room.

Six apricot sours, four blows of coke and many tongue-filled kisses later, I succumbed to my own personal blackout, sensing pleasure through his salty mouth and experienced hands. His desire for me felt pure and badly needed – all in the comfort of the shadows. Then, I felt the brush of his breath at my ear as he whispered to me in an incomprehensible dialect that I could only guess as encouragement: “Take it. Take that candle. It’s yours – my gift to you. Run, my little tiger, and light yourself up.”

The part about getting home eludes me, just that I woke naked in bed, alone. Damp sheets stung my abraded cheek – collateral damage from the man’s rough beard – his face now a pawn of memory. Morning was about to breach, yet the lit wick still threw red into the corners of the room. My oboe lay on the desk, mostly invisible. But its silver keys sparkled in the candle light. I turned on my side, looked out the window and waited for the sun to take over and render the candle impotent. Finally, light saturated the space and I could clearly see my oboe, just where I’d left it the day before. And I thought of one thing. Not Steven and his phony gig or Dick Shawn and all the news that’s fit to print. Not even the drunks on a Sunday afternoon. I thought only of my Spaniard – the perfect stranger who, on July 13, 1977, encouraged me to unfurl the coil of uncertainty wrapped around my mind and to forget about what I wasn’t. I began to dream about what I now knew I’d eventually become: a musician. My blackout was woozy, wet and smelly. And utterly hopeful.

Marcia Butler is the debut author of the nationally acclaimed memoir, The Skin Above My Knee. She was a professional oboist for twenty-five years until her retirement in 2008. During her musical career, she performed as a principal oboist and soloist on the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestras – including pianist Andre Watts, and composer and pianist Keith Jarrett. Marcia was a 2015 recipient of a Writer-in-Residence through Aspen Words and the Catto Shaw Foundation. She lives in New York City.

[REVIEW] Deconstructing the “stronger sex”: Fernando Sdrigotti’s Dysfunctional Males

sdrigotti.JPG

La Casita Grande, 2017

REVIEWED BY GABINO IGLESIAS

Steeped in anger, misdirection, discontent, sex, alcohol, and the feeling of uncontrollable exasperation that is usually tied to states of agitated stagnation and solitude, Fernando Sdrigotti’s Dysfunctional Males is a hilarious, dark, and unapologetic deconstruction of masculinity that offers a raw look at the way the male psyche and its obsessions react to the harshness of life in a great metropolis. The collection brings together five stories that share a few cohesive elements: all take place in London, have a male protagonist, and dance between humor and despair.

The collection kicks off with  “The Grid (Bosnian Charlie),” a tale in which a man goes out and spends the night getting drunk, dealing with the father of his friend who’s in town for a wedding that’s not happening, and snorting cocaine in an attempt to achieve “the grid,” a state of connectedness to everything that makes him feel superior and in control. As the night progresses, the drinks and coke mix with the man’s frustration and eventually coalesce into a monster made up of anxiety, anger, desire, and the need to stay in the grid. Unfortunately, despite the quest for depth and significance, the main character spirals into a gloomy, strange state of mind in which he ends up becoming another victim of the night with a mouth full of blood and shattered teeth. Before that happens, however, Sdrigotti manages to set the mood for the rest of the collection and to clearly show what some of his recurring themes will be as well as displaying his knack for detail:

I wash my face. Refresh my mind with the sound of a subbuffer vibrating a couple of rooms away. This tacky wallpaper and tacky lights. A dripping urinal and a flashing light-bulb. I look at my face in the mirror. Blue eyes, short blond receding hair, thin nose and pronounced chin, a piercing stare in my eyes: Steve McQueen, I have turned into Steve McQueen. It must have been the charlie or Babo Kanic’s influence. If you want to be a man you’ve got to hang around with men and do manly things. It’s so clear now. So evident. I wonder how it escaped me for so long. Or maybe I just forgot it.

“Elision,” the second story, is also a standout. The narrative explores the way a man fills in the space in his mind where the memories of the previous night should be. Not remembering quickly becomes a serious problem, and he eventually starts obsessing about the possibility of having been raped by another man. The narrative allows Sdrigotti to deconstruct masculinity in various contexts and to explore sexuality in interesting ways. This story is also one in which the author’s prose shines. Sdrigotti’s style, which resides in the interstitial space between literary fiction, surrealism, and gritty realism, is in full display here: memories are created and destroyed, possibilities are analyzed, and, perhaps most importantly, the fourth wall is bombed from the inside and Sdrigotti comes out screaming, somewhat like a literary version of the Kool-Aid Man:

It is a well-known fact that only mediocre writers make use of the oneiric recourse. Dreams in fiction are hardly ever necessary for the flow of the narrative; and more often than not are used as an artifice to increase the page-count of a certain work, in order to satisfy a publisher. What’s the point in talking about the dreams of a character? How can the imaginary activities of an imaginary character mean something to a story that takes place mostly in the mind of the writer? I for one have fell into this sin before. The day I decided to become a serious writer — that is the day I made my mind up that I needed to be approved of by peers, academics, and assorted cognoscenti — I dropped it and assumed a Brechtian approach to writing instead: a decent and sincere rapport with my reader, where I’m always aware and making him or her aware that what is being read on the page is fiction. So, at some point in my career my characters stopped dreaming and Adrian is not an exception. What happened between the time when he went to sleep and the time when he woke up — around two-thirty in the afternoon — could be said to be another elision.

The third story, “The Vanishing Onanist of E5,” also merits attention. In this case, for two very different reasons. The first is that this entertaining tale of a man spending his day smoking, thinking, and masturbating has the best, most surreal ending of the collection. Sdrigotti flexed some muscles in this one that he doesn’t engage in any of the other tales presented in Dysfunctional Males. There are some funny moments and some that delve into depression and loneliness deeper than most contemporary short fiction, and that makes this one a disquieting read that sticks with the reader long after the last page is turned. The second reason is not so positive. The wealth of details presented here walks the fine line between commendable and too much. The story is very effective, but the cumulative effect reaches its zenith here, and that hurts the two stories that follow it. “The Vanishing Onanist of E5” closes with a bang and “Satori in Hainault” starts, and the transition hurts the second story, which is also packed to the gills with pornography and explorations of loneliness, both of which are approached with a staggering amount of minutiae that includes enough scatological details to satisfy fans of hardcore horror. By the time the last story, “Herne Hill,” rolls around, the names of streets, descriptions, and confusion are all too familiar. More of what has already been offered happens: descriptions of public transportation, more passages inside the main character’s head, more details about spaces, and more conversations that lead nowhere add up to a tale that, on top of the preceding ones, is a tad lackluster. Perhaps this points to the only drawback of this collection: five tales that come in at over 240 pages means that this is more of a novelette collection that, given its recurrent themes, maybe should have ended with “Satori in Hainault.”

Dysfunctional Males is a great collection from an author who is a sharp observer and fearless explorer. It is also a book that should help put La Casita Grande on the map because of its strength and genre-bending nature.

 

[REVIEW] Saving American From Itself: Steve Erickson’s Shadowbahn

erickson

Blue Rider Press, 2017

REVIEWED BY JESSE LAWRENCE

SAVE AMERICA FROM ITSELF

— a bumper sticker reads, in a land with a flag of disunion, a land wherein a shadowbahn, a secret highway (possibly running parallel with the night train), “cuts through the heart of the country from one end to the other with impunity.” On the shadowbahn, it appears the whole country is a secret. It is no longer a united land, if it ever was. The Twin Towers have reappeared, and they continue to reappear, here and there, and disappear again, from here or there. It’s a time and a land that reminds us “we never were as impervious to the chaos of human history as we thought.”  This is America, yes, and this is the land of disunion.  This is a land with a birth, and also a death, “dates on a country’s tombstone.” The appearance of the Towers is seemingly a miracle, yet none will lay claim to them. The county certainly won’t, even going so far as to shove the responsibility off on the Lakota, whose tribal council elders are none too pleased about such a notion. The nation here, as is, always, still, cares not for tribal lands and rights unless such may be exploited for the nation’s own convenience or gains, and this case is no different. There is no change, now as before, and so we are stuck, not impervious, forever trapped, disappearing and reappearing, and trying to remember what came before, as if we might finally discover that which holds us back.

The Towers are examined form every angle. From below, from on high, with our eyes, and with camera lenses. Photographs are “enlarged, decoded, in-zoomed, and out-zoomed.” It’s Blow-Up on a national scale, concern and distrust on a Blow Out scale. It’s the Zapruder film all over again. And just as we have failed to escape or even remember history, we are back in time, as well. The shadowbahn leads us everywhere. We are JFK. We’re Elvis. We’re Elvis’s twin brother Jesse, dead at birth, yet somehow surviving, living that life the shadowbahn lead him to. We’re in hotels, and we’re in the Factory. We’re being shot at, here. We’re being shot at by Valerie Solanas, and by snipers? Conspirators? Hired hands? We’re living and dying and surviving. The voice says, “what I’m telling here is your story, America… You’re the one who lived it, and you fucked it up, didn’t you? Sure you did.”

Shadowbahn is an exploration of our nation, a journey through it, past and present, all to the tune of an American playlist. Within the book are multiple playlists, in fact.  As I’m sure will be the case with everyone who reads this book, I have compiled these playlists. I’m listening to one now, actually, as I type and erase and revise. I am listening to the playlist of the chapter headings. Tracks one through twenty-four. At least, I’m listening as best I can, for there is no Elvis here, unfortunately. Erickson admits that the concluding tracks are practically impossible to find, and Dylan and Caruso are just fine, but they’re not the precise ones. Perhaps this is why we’re stuck in history and time. We’ve somehow filled the puzzle with ill-fitting pieces. They hold the whole together, but only as well as a single stitch. It bought us some time, but is useless if we don’t mend. Progress comes through union.

On the shadowbahn, we are reminded that it is up to all of us. We are all our own sound, and we are each other’s sound. We are hope and music and sound and voice. Let us not lose our sound. Let us not surrender.

My Favorite Gershwin Song (in the manner of David Lehman)

INTERVIEW BY LAUREN HILGER

poems in the name of cover grab

Poems in the Manner of… David Lehman’s most recent book speaks to the future by speaking to the poets who have come before. Featuring poems inspired by Kafka, Lady Murasaki, Catullus, alongside translations and astrological profiles, it’s a book that opens up with enthusiasm, deep love for poets’ technique and for their individual personalities, and provides possibilities for teaching. When I met David, he placed his hat on his hat stand and sang me the lyrics of my favorite Gershwin song. I talked to him about Poems in the Manner of… (Scribner), collaboration, and the American songbook.

Lauren Hilger: Most of the titles in this book begin “Poem in the manner of” and all start with a preface. I especially admire the poems that twist this constraint, like the twice-baked idea of a poem in the manner of Wallace Stevens as Rewritten by Gertrude Stein. I am curious, though, about how many layers it would take for it to no longer be a poem “in the manner of” and for it to just be your own. If this is a poem in the manner of Stevens rewritten through Stein, for instance, how many other voices would need to appear before it was yours again?

David Lehman: Writing the poems in this book I felt that I was writing my poems, as well as writing poems that were either homages to, or parodies of, appreciations of, translations of other poets.

I thought that was such a good idea: a poem by so-and-so rewritten by someone else. I wish I had done that more. I wish I had taken Wordsworth and rewritten it with the vocabulary and in the style of Wallace Stevens. A friend of mine, Terrence Winch, a very good poet, said after reading the book he wondered if the book had a different title and the poems had different individual titles, and there were no preface or no headnotes, how would people react? Another friend of mine said he came to the reading I gave and he felt the poems all sounded like me–which I was glad to hear. It’s really a device.

I wanted to write a poem one day in April of 2002 and I think it was either a poem of Max Jacob or Baudelaire that I looked at and took some of the words and some of the syntax of and built a poem around that, little knowing that I would enjoy the exercise so much I would repeat it the following day and day after until I had something that could grow.

Books are miscellanies, gatherings of poems, written from different periods. This is a unified project and the short headnotes and those prologues reinforce that. They can orient the reader, introduce them to Crane, for instance, open the door. The preface is a little bit like what you receive at a live reading or an anthology.

Hilger: I like that the prefaces are not “born, died, name of the boat off which he jumped, etc.” but they are your take on the poet, an usher guiding you to your seat.

Were there any poets with whom you struggled?

Lehman: William Carlos Williams. That one looks so easy. Williams’ first draft was easily done, but it was unsatisfying because it was easy. I imposed on it a rule that there be three words per line, and I often find that’s a good technical requirement because it will create a shape and perhaps a music as well, and that was the first thing I did but I rewrote that poem a lot.

Rimbaud also, those two were rewritten so many times. I rewrote both of them without looking at the previous versions. I had a pretty good memory of some of the lines or how it began, but in the abstract. One might think those were two of the less complicated poets.

Hilger: I love that revision strategy–whatever needs to stay will stay. Whatever you remember is what needs to be, and what got in there but is excess is probably not what you’d remember anyway.

Lehman: Do you revise a lot?

Hilger: I value compression and I value how–you said it beautifully–to make it look easy, it’s so hard. To have those poems that seem as if they arrived fully formed, Venus on the halfshell, takes a lot of work.

In a book like this, you’re connecting to someone’s individuality. I’d like to ask you about Emily Dickinson’s poem. In that one, just that one word and year and dash, it’s both you and a heightened version of her style. Was it important to focus on her and not think of yourself? How do you allow for someone to come through you?

Lehman: With Dickinson, I made two dozen attempts to write it. I couldn’t do better than the one word poem, although I did try.

Hilger: Another poem I admire is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s–the brilliance of the beginnings and ends of her lines. It’s amazing to realize how Edna St. Vincent Millay it still is were you to chop her poem in half and see just the words she’s chosen. It’s difficult to isolate what’s great about a writer, it’s sort of amorphous, or takes a lifetime of reading to see.

Lehman: Millay I believe is a very underrated poet, totally underanthologized and underread. The Oxford Book of American Poetry, a previous edition that Richard Ellmann put together, a noted Joyce scholar …

Hilger: and Oscar Wilde!

Lehman: Yes, also an Oscar Wilde biographer, well he didn’t have any of her poems in the 1976 book. She had fallen so completely out of favor. She’s in the 1950 Oxford book that F.O. Matthiessen put together even though Matthiessen didn’t like sonnets. He thought there were too many sonnets in American poetry; there are always interesting biases.

One thing I was really happy to be able to do is choose certain poets–to give them a little boost. She’s such a fine sonneteer, in particular. She knows how to make a sonnet. It’s a little trick if you isolate the last and first words, you really distill it in a way that may not be true if you take Auden’s sonnets. I really enjoyed doing that with her poems.

Hilger: I’ve been thinking about your translation of Apollinaire’s “Zone.” That one took forty years? It’s a revelation of a last line. Maybe it required those years of approaching it and then it came on its own.

Lehman: The Mayakovsky one too, I possessed it in some way, I knew it for so many years.

Hilger: There so many poets behind closed doors. And if we’ve read one bad translation, they’re not going to be real to us.

Lehman: Goethe is another one, he’s less accessible than Dante or Homer, harder to translate.

Hilger: Were there any writers you admire or teach but who were omitted?

Lehman: There’s the problem of finitude, what you’re able to do given the exigencies of time and space. I didn’t invest time in writing something in the manner of Blake or Coleridge, though I love Coleridge. I tried Shelley many times and threw out most. As for the astrological profiles, I did one for Barbara Stanwyck Dostoevsky, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, and Graham Greene.

Hilger: I love those forms that feel like they’re having fun. If you lower the stakes, there’s something you can achieve that maybe feels too grand to approach in a different style. I love the Freud quiz.

Lehman: I love ad hoc forms, forms that are not literary but are out there. The multiple choice test is one we’re familiar with from school and examinations. They can have jokes, and can also have serious information.

Hilger: My favorite is “Poem in the manner of a jazz standard.” One lyric morphs into another. It’s what jazz musicians do, there’s a fakeout beginning: they’ll start with one song–you think you know you where you are–or maybe they’ll begin with three different songs’ beginnings, or maybe in the middle of one song they’ll play another–then they return.

The subjects of so many of those jazz standards are the most grave and hurtful parts of life. Nothing would connote that we would want to be in their presence, yet we go to those songs and those songwriters for that joy. Can you give some insight?

Lehman: Well, they believed in romantic love as a possibility.

I don’t know that the popular culture today does, really, but at that time in American pop culture the idea of love at first sight, for example, which is kind of preposterous as a proposition, was a wonderful point of departure for a make-believe kind of universe. In fact, there’s a song called “Make Believe” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, “We can make believe I love you.” And that’s a really interesting supposition. And in fact, Hammerstein liked that idea so much, he has “We Can Make Believe” and the bench scene in Carousel, “If I Loved You.”

If! There’s a supposition in those songs of a passionate love, that is really a condition even Freud would say is the most exalted.

Hilger: “It’s only a paper moon […] But it wouldn’t be make-believe / if you believed in me!”

Lehman: It’s only a paper moon. That’s right. But we need those illusions.

Hilger: Is it real if we invent it?

Lehman: I think there’s a reality principle that comes along.

There’s an exuberance when you realize you’re falling in love with someone. And popular music, of the kind that I like and you like, especially that 50-60 year stretch, captures that: “I’ve Got the World on a String.” That’s a very exuberant feeling. “I’m Sitting on Top of the World”

Hilger: “If I seem to scintillate / it’s because I’ve got a date”

Lehman: Yes, now who wrote that…

Hilger: “Stepping out…”

Lehman: “…with my Baby.” Irving Berlin! That’s a whole subjective mood: the conditional if.

That allows for a lot of songs…there’s an equal number in which there’s heartbreak: “Angel Eyes,” “One for my baby / ”

Hilger: “…and one more for the road.” They make you light up, though, even the sad ones. There’s something to it that still makes you relieved to be in the presence of that–I wonder what that is and how we can understand it.

Lehman: I think it’s insane to think that all that matters of a performer is if they wrote the song themselves. If you have a song like Rodgers & Hart “Lady is a Tramp,” you can have Ella Fitzgerald sing that song and she does a magnificent version, and Frank Sinatra does a great version.

Hilger: And Lena Horne! They’re all so different.

Lehman: And the song’s the same! It lends itself to all of these different singers, and there’s a song “Day In, Day Out,” a Johnny Mercer lyric. The Sinatra version most people know is a swing version, a fast tempo, but he did a very slow early 50s version too. It shows you how the same song can be done in a different time signature, a different tempo, can be done in three part harmony, can be done with a chorus, can be done with just strings, no strings. You’d have the best composer and the best lyricist and the best orchestrator–that’s a division of labor that makes perfect sense to me. You can’t expect someone to do all of those things.

Hilger: And you need the alchemist performers. It’s true, it’s sort of like with one artist, their vision stops there, but it expands when you have someone else, it bounces off of them. It’s like reflecting and refracting light–in order to have a rainbow you need all of these angles and ideas bouncing off the back of a raindrop.

In maybe the way it’s hard to write a poem that appears easy, it’s hard to write these lyrics. Still, there’s a guttural difference in the reaction. If you hear one of these songs, there’s a lightness. It’s not not serious, but it’s different from that intellectual sigh at a poetry reading when someone hears something that moves them.

Lehman: The wit is such is that it appeals to the intellect, but the heart is the music; the music is the real genius. I would aspire to write lyrics. I’d have a wonderful time. You just need the composer, you need the band, and you need the people who are going to dance.

__

Lauren Hilger is the author of Lady Be Good (CCM, 2016.) Awarded the Nadya Aisenberg fellowship from the MacDowell Colony, her work has appeared in Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. She serves as a poetry editor for No Tokens

[REVIEW] A Tender Mercy: Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book

sarah book

 

Tyrant Books, 2017

REVIEWED BY MILA JARONIEC

We are all waving so desperately hello.

Inferno

There is only one thing I know about life. If you live long enough you start losing things.

Semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan gets drunk and puts his kids in the car. He’s always doing stupid shit like getting drunk and putting his kids in the car and forgetting about it. I think about how I would kill myself before I would get drunk and put Silas in the car and how I would kill Silas’ father before I would let him get drunk and put Silas in the car too, and then I think about resisting the impulse to judge characters in books, but here is semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan getting drunk and putting his kids in the car. I think about pressure and how things only come to us when we’re ready for them and how that must mean I’m ready for this even though I don’t feel that way. He drives and the kids cry and my stomach tightens and he throws up in a plastic bag from Wal-Mart and the world glows, and I take a sip of wine and feel the warmth and understand everything but there is the simple fact of getting drunk and putting your kids in the car.

Fuck you, semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan.

This will be difficult I know because I can’t read outside of myself anymore, just like I can’t do anything outside of myself anymore, as someone without a Silas, the way other people read books with Silases in them saying oh yes this must be a hard thing and nodding their heads and not understanding, understanding theoretically which is the same as not understanding, and I used to read like those people but I read differently now.

What can I do?

The cover is black and blue like the walls of my apartment and I sit in my black chair looking at the walls in between reading the book and the black clock on the bookcase has an orange second hand that spins instead of ticks so that time looks like it flows, in a circle. Both types of second hands give me anxiety but when the time looks like itself the anxiety is less. It’s a good cover.

He ripped that cover off a Guns n’ Roses record, Silas’ father says.

What?

Yeah. It’s the exact same thing.

So I look up the Guns n’ Roses record and goddamn it he’s right, it is the cover of Use Your Illusion II so I tell him, He must have done that for a reason. Then I ask if Guns n’ Roses will be pissed about it.

Probably, he says.

I tell him well Guns n’ Roses ripped off Raphael but he can’t do anything about it because he’s dead so what does it matter. It all comes full circle. Then I show him the School of Athens and he says hmmm. I point to the unnamed philosopher and say Look, there’s Scott McClanahan. There’s Scott McClanahan in the School of Athens and Guns n’ Roses put him on their album. He says, hmmm. Then I ask if I should listen to the record. I feel like I’m missing something now and think about what I’ve lost in my life by not having paid any attention to Guns n’ Roses. I worry that this review will be terrible and I feel ashamed about my shitty knowledge of American culture. He says the record is okay and goes to do something else.

Be invisible, Scott. Be invisible.

My best friend Lindsay who I’ve written about before used to be a body piercer and once got a silicone heart implant in her chest. The magician made a little incision right at her heart chakra and slid the silicone heart inside. But flesh doesn’t split clean like a pocket. There’s muscle and tissue to be pushed aside and in the end the stitches looked awful and the heart always leaned a little to the left. So then she had to get the silicone heart removed. The magician gave her seven shots of anesthetic but when it was time for the heart to come out her body didn’t want to let it go. It had assimilated it. The magician pulled at the heart and Lindsay came up off the table with it. He gave her one more shot and said Girl we’ve reached the legal limit now and she thought she was dying and then it was over. It’s the way I’ve started looking at pain. You reach the legal limit but you can always take a little bit more.

I’m telling you stories. Trust me.[1]

Semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan tries to kill himself with Tylenol. The first two bottles are Tylenol PM and he takes them and the third bottle is children’s Tylenol – mistake – and he realizes he can’t kill himself with children’s Tylenol and decides to throw up. He throws up quietly at first because Sarah hated how loud he threw up. But then I realized Sarah wasn’t here so I could throw up however loud I wanted. I stuck my finger deeper and then I gagged and vomited like who I was.

I vomited up kisses and love. I vomited up the way she smelled like cigarettes and tropical fruit gum.

The best way to show respect to something is to not write about it. But real-life Scott McClanahan knows what he’s doing.

Remember the Buddhist monk who spent a lifetime writing a letter about love and all he knew about it. He wouldn’t let anyone in the temple while he was writing and it was very serious. After he died everyone came to see what he had come up with and the letter was blank. What a shitty monk, thinks semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan. It’s like the story about the philosophy student who was the only one to pass the final. The professor wrote Why? on the blackboard and the student wrote back, Why not? My brother told me this when I was younger except he said it like it was him. I went through middle school thinking he was some kind of genius. By the time I found out he made it up, I didn’t think it was genius and he didn’t either.

You beat the liver out of a goose to get a paté; you pound the muscles of a man’s cardia to get a philosopher.[2]

This is the book written after all the lights have gone out. Because the world is a kind of dark most of us don’t know how to see in, until someone teaches us. The second sight is a lesson from Death. There’s nothing to follow but the sound of your breathing.

But not all dark places need light, I have to remember that.[3]

As for life,

In one life we are married.

In one life we are dead.

In one we are rich.

In one we are poor.

In one we are parents.

But always we belong to others.

Purgatorio

I told Sarah I was going to live at Wal-Mart until she changed her mind about the divorce.

I’m writing this in my parents’ walk-in closet which is where I go when things start to fall apart which is where I went this time things started falling apart. Maybe soon I will think I’m lucky, or maybe I think I’m lucky now, because beyond pain and heartbreak it’s always lucky to read what you’re living, but you only feel lucky when you know something more than you think. Things are falling apart in my life the way they are in semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan’s life except in my life I am Sarah and we are both learning what it’s like to be Scott.

What we’ve learned so far is:

Why is the measure of love loss?[4]

In New York I wrote my first novel Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover and then moved into my parents’ walk-in closet to finish Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover and then got pregnant with my son Silas and then I had to stop feeling so scared and small. I never thought anyone would want to publish Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover but nine months later someone did and my message in a bottle went up in lights. And everyone wanted to know: Is this book fiction or non-fiction?

You can always count on people to ask the least interesting questions, but this one is symptomatic of something worse. It’s: how much work did you actually do? And: could I do something just like this? Except: it’s harder to write nonfiction because stories make sense but this is your life.

I never look at a painting and ask, “Is this painting fictional or non-fictional?” It’s just a painting.[5]

And so Sarah McClanahan gives birth to their daughter Iris. She had to be induced, like me. She had an epidural, like me. She had the presence of mind to give herself an enema beforehand so she wouldn’t shit on the delivery table. It didn’t occur to me to do that. If you’re going through childbirth you have every right in the world to shit on the delivery table. Everything is exploding and Death is tapping you on the shoulder saying, Are you ready? So I shit on the delivery table. I shit on the delivery table and tore my unwaxed pussy bringing forth a soul.

It was shaped like a halo.

They put him on my chest red and steaming. His father tried to cut the cord and it wouldn’t cut and he tried again and it still wouldn’t cut. I thought of the Fates’ scissors contorting. He cut it finally and they stitched me up. I thought about the ways I’d stretched, for fists and dicks and objects and now a child that had come out of instead of into, and how the stretching is different then. How there’s a hole now that will never close. I thought of the tattoo between my hips that reads Pulvis et Umbra and how when I got it I thought it would make sense if I had children and it would make sense if I didn’t. All we are is dust and shadow and dust begets dust and my dust was screaming and screaming and then opened his eyes at me and said, Welcome to the world.

Let the people who never find true love keep saying that there’s no such thing.[6]

Scott McClanahan puts a crossword puzzle in The Sarah Book which is the hardest crossword puzzle in the world but he says you can try to solve it too so I try to solve it too, but I only get as far as the first two:

6 across is the name of your first love.

7 down is the name of the one who broke your heart. You belong to them.

I can’t give this book to anyone now because I used pen.

In Sarah’s hospital where she works there’s a schizophrenic patient with tattoos all over his body and voices in his head and none of the drugs are helping and then Sarah has an idea. She speaks to his hallucination. She looks over to where the patient is looking and speaks to the devil woman sitting in the chair. The devil woman tries to start some shit so Sarah puts her in a headlock and kicks her in the face and chases her out of the room. And the schizophrenic patient says Thank god. Because someone was finally helping.

All you need is someone to put their hands on your mind. Then you will know what happiness is.

Are you happy right now? Well just wait.

Paradiso

We started calling the place we lived the apartment of death.

I find the Guns n’ Roses reference. Semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan listens to “November Rain” fourteen times. I want to tell Silas’ father about it but we can’t talk about things like that anymore. We talk about the apartment. We talk about schedules. He tells me terrible things and I listen. In this book I am Sarah and I’m reading about me.

There are hungry black kittens in the snow and semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan feeds them hot dog chunks from the fridge in the apartment of death then decides to go buy the best hamburger meat he can find and feed it to the kittens, because when there’s a hole in your heart you pour your love out on the world. He feeds them and loves them and one day he accidentally runs one over. Squish. We can’t help but kill what we love and flatten the remains until they’re gone. Until the world can wash it all away and make it new.

For every tear you’ve cried, so shall the rain fall.[7]

Semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan has a panic attack in the night when he’s trying to get baby Sam to sleep and baby Sam won’t sleep. He puts him on the floor in the bathroom and imagines baby Sam can talk and is saying, What are you going to do now? You’re totally fucked. So he does the only thing to do when things get to be too much inside. He throws up. He throws up a black bile that doesn’t look like anything he ever ingested because the body’s response to trauma is to expel the dark. And then: the darkness laughs. And his mother comes in to see what’s going on and no matter how old we are we still need our mothers to hold our babies when our hands shake and tell us it’s going to be okay. Our mothers are always stronger than we are.

I move into my parents’ home while Silas’ father is moving out of our home and I put Silas to sleep in his crib in my childhood bedroom and my mother lets me sleep in her bed. I roll myself in a blanket like a cocoon and listen to the sound of her breathing and think my night thoughts. I think about this book and I think about my son and I think about love. I think about what love is and what we have said love is, and how the more we talk about what love is the more we talk about what it isn’t.

Love is patient, love is kind.[8]

Love is a dog from hell.[9]

Love is like sliding the stem of a flower down a loaded rifle.[10]

All semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan’s college students want to talk about is whether the author is a good person and whether the narrator is a good person and why books with happy endings aren’t considered literature. Scott McClanahan doesn’t write the last example but English class is English class even in books so even if it isn’t written you can bet someone in English class wants to know.

Books can have happy endings but literature is the history of pain.

In The Sarah Book Scott McClanahan puts on Sarah McClanahan’s underwear and lipstick and I wear the shirts of seven down when I’m alone in the house. Like taking shelter in a carcass, we put ourselves in the memory.

I think about my son learning to walk and myself learning to be upside down and how you can’t live your life upside down but how all we ever do is learn to walk, this way that way and the other way too. All we do is step forward and there’s no such thing as aging and dying if time goes in a circle we will be reborn again differently and we’ll be alive again and we’ll be new. And our pain won’t follow us and we’ll learn it all over again. And we’ll write our books and have our babies and look at life through our looking glass and think what the hell does it mean, and ask the void what it means and the void will say who knows, or why not, or doesn’t matter, or nothing depending on the winnings of our neural lottery. The void will hold us in its arms and say whatever we want.

There’s a monster at the end of this book and it’s you and it’s me. It’s how everything changes.

Thank you Scott McClanahan for the document of doesn’t matter. Because it takes balls to stop saying why not. It takes serious fucking balls to say doesn’t matter and keep living like it does. To seek out a tender mercy, sit with it for a lifetime and produce a blank page.

Let nature do the freezing and frightening and isolating in this world.[11]

We make an offering and take a step back, and whatever meets us halfway is destiny.[12]

 

[1] Jeanette Winterson, The Passion

[2] Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

[3] Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

[4] Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

[5] Scott McClanahan, Crapalachia

[6] Wislawa Szymborska, “True Love”

[7] Jeffery Scott, Visions From Within the Mechanism: The Industrial Surrealism of Jeffery Scott

[8] 1 Corinthians 13:4-8

[9] Charles Bukowski

[10] Sam Farahmand, “Patrue mi Patruissimo; or, Philadelphia”

[11] Jack Kerouac, Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954

[12] Mila Jaroniec, Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover

 

Mila Jaroniec is the author of Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover (Split Lip Press, 2016). She is an editor at drDOCTOR and currently lives in Akron, OH.

 

[REVIEW] Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

mapping

Tor Books, 2017

REVIEWED BY JESSE LAWRENCE

What can one say about a novellette without giving it all away? I know there are guidelines for what constitutes what, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you the difference between a novella and a novellette. The good thing, for all of us, is that length truly doesn’t matter (I’m sorry, really). It’s all about the story. And Jones delivers that. Every. Single. Time.

I’d wager you’re all, you great readers out there, familiar with the work of Stephen Graham Jones. If not, obligatory (but still emphatically sincere) directive: dive into his catalogue. Start wherever. It doesn’t matter. In fact, if Mapping the Interior is your first Jones book or if none of them are yet and you’re reading this review to see if you maybe might want to read his work, then, honestly, a huge part of me is jealous. To discover and read those books for the first time? You don’t forget those things.

At any rate, Mapping the Interior is Jones at his best. It’s distilled. It’s got some signature touches, like family, bargaining for a better deal, a better outcome, and characters who get themselves into the craziest of situations that even we would have gotten ourselves into had it been us, and [spoiler alert] Frankenstein’s Monster dogs. Okay, that one’s original to this story, but it is so, so Jones. And, did I say family? Yeah? Yeah. Family is important above all. The things we would do, would sacrifice, for our family, it’s all there, all here.

Jones takes us through the dark hallways of the human heart, and he shows us that axe-heavy beauty that lies within.

Like so many of his stories, I found myself lost in the world, still, minding my own business, yet something always manages to get in my eye…