[REVIEW] Made for Love by Alissa Nutting

Ecco Books, 2017

REVIEWED BY MATT E. LEWIS

Readers familiar with Alissa Nutting know that she is not one to shy away from taboo subjects. Her novel Tampa delves into the mind of sociopathic English teacher Celeste Price, who despite having the “perfect” life, uses her position to prey on young boys. Price is, in Nutting’s own words, a monster – but despite all the contempt we feel for her, the point she ultimately makes is that she is still human, albeit based in a nature we prefer to deny than admit. In her newest novel, Made for Love, we are introduced to many more characters that are just as lacking in empathy as Celeste, but in a different kind of story – a near-future tale of a toxic relationship supported by omnipresent technology, delphinaphilia, and sex dolls, all set in what is ostensibly Florida, despite Florida never actually being named.

Hazel has just left her husband, technology guru Byron Gogol of Gogol industries, after his creepy embrace of new science has culminated in asking her to merge brains with him. She flees to the one place she hopes she’ll be accepted without judgement, her father’s trailer park, only to interrupt him on his honeymoon with his newest addition to the family – an inanimate sex doll he calls “Diane”. Embarrassed but with nowhere else to go, he allows Hazel to stay with him as she figures things out. Staying with her Dad causes feelings (both new and old) of anxiety to surface, which she attempts to stuff down with large quantities of questionable alcohol and getting to know the strange denizens of her father’s area. As if the process of divorce wasn’t complicated enough, she soon learns that Byron is not ready to let her go yet – and with an armada of smart devices at his disposal, cutting him off may become completely impossible.

Meanwhile, a man named Jasper is a few towns over celebrating his latest victory: another successful con of a lonely woman for her life savings. Before leaving for a new city to start his process of seduction and ensnarement all over again, he decides to take an indulgent dip into the ocean near his beachside motel. Unfortunately for him, things soon take a dangerous turn when he is attacked by a clearly-aroused dolphin, who bites him on the arm and nearly drowns him. He wrestles both himself and the dolphin back to shore, where a gathering crowd mistakes the event for Jasper rescuing the animal from beaching itself. But rather than accept the praise for the heroic act, he escapes, fearing his conniving past would be brought to light. Soon on the lam from the seekers of the hero and his angry exes, Jasper finds himself grappling with feelings for dolphins that are…complicated, to say the least.

Made for Love is filled with Nutting’s trademark dark humor and wry critiques of modern life. Hazel is a nuanced and complex character – her decisions are based on a kind of logic which ping-pongs back and forth between extremes. Ironically, she knows herself very well, but like too many of us, has made decisions counter to her wants and needs in the name of false stability. Of course, the extreme stability of a bland tech CEO’s life has her craving the kind of chaos that makes us all human, the messy equalizer that should be embraced in life rather than accepted in death. Jasper, on the other hand, is another study of the shocking lack of empathy that certain people can have for others. But in the process of events, Jasper goes from contemptable to pitiable as his affliction grows and turns him from con-man to a victim of his own emotions. Made for Love is really a book about how are choices shape and define our humanity, how our lives and those around us can be changed through the power of free will. It’s a celebration for the sympathy of self, an occasionally ridiculous and heartfelt study of being okay with who you are in the face of an increasingly technological, bureaucratic, and still just as puritanical, American society. In other words, it’s an island of sanity in a time that seems hell-bent on driving us all to the brink. Wherever you are, take a break, kick up your feet, and let the antics of Nutting’s world keep you away from your phone for a while. It’s her gift to us.

[REVIEW] The Dark Net by Benjamin Percy

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

REVIEWED BY JESSE LAWRENCE

I went into Benjamin Percy’s The Dark Net mostly unaware of what it was about (good start, avoid any “dark” and “blind” puns). The older I get and the more that goes on, well, the more dodgy my memory gets. It’s sort of apt, considering this novel deals so heavily with technology, and this also points out why I jive with Lela (“a technophobic journalist”) so well: technology has made it easier to access, store, and recall information and content of any kind, not to mention doing it all faster, but the human brain has a general peak, after which it slows down. That, and the ability to more easily access a greater variety of stimuli means there are more things competing for memory space/retention, and it’s an endless battle to keep up or get ahead or suss out some stasis.

The Dark Net is described as a “terrifying horror novel” and reads like a paranoid rollercoaster stuck on a loop. It certainly is that horror novel, but it’s also a face-in-a-sink-of-iced-water (I never thought I’d make a Huey Lewis reference that wasn’t also an American Psycho reference, but here we are) comment on our current technological landscape, how we use it (or fail to), and how it uses us, how it controls so much of our lives, and how we maybe shouldn’t blindly (yep, going there) trust in it. Also, more painfully but no less true, just how minor we are.

Some people get lost in the Internet, disconnect from the “real world” and “live” online, but maybe the Internet is just illuminating how microscopic and unimportant people ultimately are, perhaps even to each other (though we should always be excellent to each other). Or, maybe, it’s that we truly are nothing but stimulus and response, and the medium doesn’t matter. But the Internet is eternal, right?

Once it’s online it’s out there forever. That sentiment is not just a scare tactic to protect people or prevent them from publicly doing stupid shit. No. It’s true. Yet, many things are lost, or can be, in the advancing/changing technologies. This is something the film community has already had to start thinking about, between the first shot-on-digital-video movie and now. So, is it forever, if it’s on the Internet? Maybe not. Yet, even the physical, which we deem more “real”, like the printed word — or etched, chiseled, carved — is not immune to time, nor human behavior. Which, all of this further proves how microscopic we are, and thus one could so easily spiral into a mad descent of existential ennui, because, really, “the universe has been around for a long time before us — and it will go on without us. We’re the merest speck in the unfathomable reach of its timeline and geography.”

So, then, yeah, this is some heady stuff. But it’s heady stuff in the best sort of way: a horror novel under three hundred pages. I’m not dissing longer novels, or saying they are in any way “less” because they might be “too long” or anything. Definitely not. I will happily live in a thousand plus pages of horror, but if you can cattle prod my brain like this in a number of pages that I can consume in a single day/evening, well, you get major bonus points. Long story short (too late (that’s a Clue reference, and I don’t get to reference Clue nearly as often as I wish)), Percy writes with the economy that all writers should aspire to.

The Dark Net will no doubt be compared to The Matrix in some fashion, and I can see why, to the extents it will, and there are some whispers there, though they’re not unique to The Matrix. Where my mind is going, though, and it’s just too obvious, because it’s Portland, Oregon and it’s a reporter, but I keep thinking of Chelsea Cain’s Beauty Killer series (like Lela in The Dark Net, I also totally identify with Susan Ward in Cain’s books). That, and Sneakers, because breaking into places sometimes makes me think of Sneakers, though there’s that technology connection, so that could be why. Also, The Young Sherlock Holmes, because of ritualistic goings on. Ritualistic killings feature in a lot of stories, sure, but they always remind me of YSH.

Of all the things that The Dark Net is, the greatest is that it’s a Blob-swallowing thing. In filmmaking there’s the notion of the four-quadrant movie. It’s a story that hits all the demographics. Sometimes it gives us magic (think any animated feature that kids go gaga for but also has stuff in it for adult audiences, stuff that kids miss, or don’t understand — this goes for many films and shows since before “four-quadrants” was even an idea, because all of the stuff that kids watched was created by adults, and they probably figured it’d be nice to throw some stuff in that adults, specifically, would pick up on, because they’re probably watching along with their kids, and maybe on repeat ad nauseam), and sometimes it’s dreck. This? The Dark Net? It is so far from dreck. Oh so very far. I’m not saying it spans the four-quadrants. Kids might not dig it, maybe shouldn’t even read it, but to a kid who grew up on King this technological horror novel might just be the ticket for modern adventurers/darers/rebels. If it’s not, though, it certainly hits all points thereafter, and it hits other points as well. Horror? Check. Thriller (and, yeah, sometimes thriller is just the gutless way of saying horror — think Silence of the Lambs)? Check. Action? I’m going to say check. It’s not Die Hard, but there might be explosions, and it’s got all the suspense built in that good action has, so, then: Suspense? Check.

If you’re into Benjamin Percy’s work, you’ll love this, and if you don’t even know who Benjamin Percy is, this book will make you want to devour his other books (and for my final reference I’m using words familiar to werewolves, because Red Moon, though I probably would have gone there anyway, because werewolves are the non-stop ultimate (sorry, couldn’t help throwing in a Psycho Beach Party reference)).

Navigate it well, let it suck you in, explore, venture out, but remember: “the Internet is a landfill and a treasure trove. Every object and every person and every place and every thought, every secret exists there. Every appetite can be satisfied there. Unlike a body, unlike the world, the Internet is limitless.” So, yes, explore. Be bold. Be a pioneer, but remember: it just might be navigating you.

[REVIEW] Rumors of Empathy: Mariko Nagai’s Irradiated Cities

 

Les Figues Press, 2017

REVIEWED BY GIOVAN ALONZI

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
—William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18
the cracked face of an angel : the shadows of men left on walls
—Mariko Nagai, “The Specimen Nagasaki”, Irradiated Cities

 

Beloved apocalypse media, shall I compare thee to Sonnet 18?

More temperate—Roughs winds—Too hot—all that…

 

To prepare for it?—The apocalypse.

To experience it? —The apocalypse.

To savor it? —The apocalypse.

To feel the unfeelable apocalypse?

 

To consume, over and over again, especially if it’s fiction.

Especially if there are zombies.

Especially (especially in Hollywood) if a cut/gruff/hot/frumpy white man kicks zombie-ass to save the whole world?

 

If we can see a breathing apocalypse, does it give us life?

 

How about: sourcing an apocalypse? Anchoring it to nonfictional prerogatives, contemporary to us, dependent on testimonies and footage and technology? Truth may quickly decay into porn: despised, fetishized, commercialized, shunned, “interesting-ized”, e.g. “: it means that when you speak of your experience, some will say that you are selling your tragedy : it means that you keep telling the story of that day again & again, that your voice sounds mechanical & your story soulless :” (Nagai).

 

The fictional apocalypse bears a small, but powerful promise: that things might start over, that we may be able to see it through and start anew. This is the hope of the fictional apocalypse: redemption.

 

The apocalypses that have already happened on Earth, however, are far more fraught—after they are manufactured and dealt as paternalistic gifts and savage, entitled domination, they linger, fusing to us: European settler colonialism in North America and the eradication of indigenous peoples in modern day Dominican Republic and Australia were apocalypses; the African slave trades running through the Atlantic and Indian oceans were apocalypses; genocide is a people’s world ending.

 

These apocalypses bear no redemption. In fact, the through-line Mariko Nagai connects between the atomic events in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima, is that they all primarily bore suffering; meaning, they bore capital.

 

Irradiated Cities: a work at the epicenter of its blast, processing the start of its after, the beginning of its ending, the economic development of its shame: a book not intending to deliver new information (perhaps, more, conventionalized information from a series of ground-zeros); a book that reminds us that the culture of irradiation has only just begun, that irradiation has no truck with certainty, that treating irradiation in the human body as “deadly and unpredictable” creates a surplus of second-class citizens to be exploited by politicians and artists alike, that irradiation is handled like a fruitless aphorism (something like “knowledge demanded of the masses cannot be known as a mass”). For even if one does follow a path of certainty through an irradiated city, a mass of rumors irradiates everything.

 

Nagai’s meditations on the atomic history of Japan are presented in four parts: “Hiroshima”, “Nagasaki”, “Tokyo”, and “Fukushima”—“Hiroshima” and “Nagasaki” focus on their respective nuclear blasts on August 6 and August 9, 1945; “Tokyo” on post-WWII Japan, the U.S. lead Bikini Atoll nuclear test blast, and the slow embrace of nuclear energy in Japan; “Fukushima” re-centers the effects of the recent nuclear catastrophe in March 11, 2011. All four sections present a distillation of facts and rumors circulated in the wake of their respective tragedies, and the similarities these moments shared with each other. The writing resists purity, including constant repetition of phrases and lines, slightly modifying and mutating as the accounts progress.

 

The section “Hiroshima” starts with “: enough : enough has been told again & again : now it’s iconic, offering no space for an alternative : (but then, maybe there never was an alternative) :”. The “:” run through the entire book, simultaneously connecting and separating everything Nagai writes in Irradiated Cities, a crucial textual posture of the work—we are soaked in the illusion that things can be separate, that separation is safety, that separation is danger. For what do nuclear blasts and nuclear meltdowns yield more than paradoxes? One primary paradox being the immediate commodification of hibakusha [survivors of atomic bomb blasts / irradiated people] trauma: “: we make our living going through the rubble to find intact skulls, pulling out gold teeth, or keeping just the skulls to sell to the Americans, & they buy anything, including suffering, on this sojourning to the land of the bomb :” Nagai writes this early in the book, mindful of the history her book is attached to as another form of Japanese nuclear catastrophe media. This is where the stakes of the book are essential—in a history rife with exploitative documentation, how does one write about nuclear catastrophe? Irradiated Cities might be asking: How does one write about the experience of death en masse honestly? Honesty, connoting compassion as much as it should raw, untainted facts? As much as it should the superstitions built around the deadly unknowns a society is bound to after an apocalyptic event?

 

Nagai writes from the perspective of someone who has been listening for a long time (in her acknowledgements, she thanks strangers she met in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima who shared their stories with her), locating the lingering hum of nuclear tragedies, and at the same time fighting the trap of iconifying: the flattening of personal experience—the ultimate removal of empathy for those who’ve experienced nuclear catastrophes personally and survived.

 

In The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot writes “The disaster, depriving us of that refuge which is the thought of death, dissuading us from the catastrophic or the tragic, dissolving our interest in will and in all internal movement, does not allow us to entertain this question either: what have you done to gain knowledge of the disaster?” While Blanchot seems more concerned with a cosmic and pervasive existential disaster of the human condition, I think the part that resonates with real-life apocalyptic events that are survived is this removal of refuge. That death, before having its harbinger irradiate you, with twenty Sievert of radiation or burabura-sho (the loser’s disease), is one of the only things in this world that is actually simple. And though a book might be proof that someone has gained some type of knowledge, excavating the complexity of a material disaster does not have to be a gauntlet, nor do I think Nagai is attempting one. In it, she is far less concerned with knowledge as truth, and far more concerned with knowledge as the life of rumors and longevity (and simultaneous invisibility) of iconifying. “: this city :” she writes of 1945 Nagasaki, “: this entire city is a scientific specimen : […] : when will it be freed? : when will it be freed from the shadow? :”.

 

Many questions in this book remain unanswered. But, she does provide some: she tells us “How To Treat That Mysterious Disease”; she tells us “No One Talks About It, No One Can Talk About It”; she tells us “The Story of Hibakusha”; she tells us “What It Means to Be Irradiated”; she tells us “How to Build Nuclear Power Plants”; she tells us “Rumors of Distant Disasters”; she tells us “Things People Say”; she tells us “Truth & Lies”.

 

Her prose are cunning in their mutability—through imitation of guides leading atomic tours, or genuine reimaginings of a city at the moment a bomb dropped on it, or listing observations in sobering “how-to”’s, it always feels like Nagai’s solemn voice, not shying away from the culture of rumor-making in the wake of bombs and nuclear meltdowns; her writing treats rumors as a poetic form: amassing, contradicting, repeating the reasons for why, the reasons for why not. This way of speaking—perhaps the only way we might socially cope with apocalyptic events—produces cultures obsessed with scarring, however visible or invisible, especially among those who are not hibakusha, those who don’t have to deal with a gaze hungry for symptoms of an apocalypse.

 

The blunt sentences become morbidly adaptable in the flattened, physically square body of her prose: if one assumes the “:” means all of the sentences are connected, and goes on (as I did) to dissect the sentences from various parts of the book and re-connect them to other parts, out of the intended order, a sick momentum appears: “: they do not know that their bodies now carry a bomb inside : a ticking bomb :” (“The Living Calls to the Dead”, from “Hiroshima”), “: psychologists study the survivors & their ways of living : […] : 5592 bodies autopsied in 1948-1950 :” (“The Specimen Nagasaki”, from “Nagasaki”), “what is medicine? doctors ask themselves : […] : who are they doing this for? :” (“Eighty-Three Days in 1999”, from “Tokyo”) “: the men in suits came with promises :” (“Before the Beginning”, from “Fukushima” ) “: it is a good era : […] : workers at plants are quietly getting sick, leukemia, bleeding gums, bleeding noses, exhaustion, cancers : doctors tell them there is nothing wrong :” (“A Good Era”, from “Fukushima”). This is the nature of rumors Nagai portrays—they’re accessible; they’re far more about providing sense than any deliberate truth or falsity; they can be experimented with; mostly, especially when doctors are involved, we keep repeating ourselves.

 

In Cities, Nagai uses “before” and “after” as verbs (“: they come : they come to after the pika [before] & don [after] :”) and states of being (“: it is always beautiful on a catastrophic day : it is beautiful because the before is beautiful & the after dreadful :”). Though writing about events that occurred before Milton Friedman and The Chicago Boys’ academic development of neoliberal globalization, Nagai’s attention to U.S. interests dominating Japanese socio-economics hearken to Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine”: “America’s ‘free market’ policies [that have] come to dominate the world—through the exploitation of disaster-shocked people and countries.” Even after America bombs Japan, Japan justifies nuclear energy production as “: …American technology, no, it’s not the same as atomic bombs, it’s better, it’s safer, it’s cheap :” in order to get poor inhabitants of Fukushima to sell their land to TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company). The before is manufactured as soon as the after is; a two for one, detailed pointedly by one title in Irradiated Cities, “Hiroshima : ????” . Nagai equates the Katakana spelling to a “: synonym for tragedy : the first city :” connected to its original spelling (??) only by nostalgia for “the Before”.

 

Like this after-ing of a place, the production of rumors produce insatiable curiosity—“: suffering is photogenic :” Nagai writes in “Hiroshima : ????” . She follows this up in the piece “What It Means To Be Irradiated”, saying:

 

“: it means that every year, when those days come around, photographers take your photos without permission, as if hibakusha lost the passport to humanity the moment they were irradiated : & you see the faces of these journalists & photographers, their eyes gleeful because the more scars you have on your face, the more tragic you look, the more they can elevate you into an icon : it means to be told by politicians & doctors to be sterilized so that there wouldn’t be bad genes in the future :”.

 

Between pieces that list off descriptions like this, reimagined day-of-the-blasts in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bikini Atoll, and Fukushima, and references to pop phenomena like Hiroshima Mon Amour, Godzilla, Hiroshima Maidens and Nagasaki Maidens, Nuclear Power Plant Sweets and Radium Eggs, Irradiated Cities presents us with relentless crises of empathy, perhaps asking if its possible for a society to do catastrophe right. Towards the end of the book, I began to see Nagai as a detective dissecting a murderer’s devious plot—she is aware of all points of entry, times of death, suspects involved, their motivations, potential witnesses and outcomes of the crimes committed. But, instead of soliloquizing as an individual, she presents a poly-vocal deposition bound to its contradictions. But how does one put “the iconic” on trial anyway? More importantly: how do cities process shame? Cities are machines—the nostalgia for prosperity points to money and commercial development. Wealth becomes healing, treatment remains a commodity, and silence becomes the only indication of disaster.

 

Silence—imposed by American censorship of documentation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombs detonated, imposed by the trauma of the bombs themselves, imposed by one’s own community who doesn’t want to hear about the survivors of the bombs anymore—is everywhere in this book. Where silence may indicate shame though, Nagai looks to it as a way of writing about Japanese nuclear catastrophe without exploiting those directly affected. What can we find in the silence? “: stones sing their irradiated songs & enough will be said about this moment for years to come : but maybe it is not enough : there is never enough in this everafter story of one bomb & another bomb & the illumination of the night : & the silence :”. For every one page of prose, there are about three pages of black and white photography—all given full, square pages, and all taken by Nagai herself in the cities she is writing about. In all 133 pages of the book, only ten photographs have people in them—six of those only show the hands of the subjects, two only showing feet, and the only face not obscured by a blur or darkness is a face in an advertisement on a street in Tokyo. The photography, all mesmerizing, transmits total silence, simultaneously refusing to exploit humanity’s visible scars. It’s beautiful effect: the silence cuts through the sensational rumor-making and empathy documented in the language.

 

It’s important to know that Nagai isn’t fishing for epiphanies about nuclear bombs and meltdowns either—her book is much larger than that. More than anything, she’s written a way to feel the irreverent permanence of national traumas, a sense of trauma’s half-life in the flesh of these cities, as well as the minds, products, and industries of their inhabitants.

 

Blanchot writes, “when the disaster comes upon us, it does not come”—is it because it is already always here? Perhaps the primary effect of apocalyptic disasters, like bombs and meltdowns, is emphasizing a society’s existing alienations—from other cultures, as well from itself. That said, I do not think Irradiated Cities is posing as a model—at no point is Cities a general warning for those unaware of nuclear catastrophe, not an effort to universalize hardship and suffering; it is an attempt to feel and see the nuclear legacy of Japan without exploiting quotidian life—writing towards the constant paradox of capital (the person/commodity), the amnesia induced by obsessions with national wealth, and, if you listen like Nagai, the murmurings of cities: “: on this shore, all is well : because they tell themselves : on a distant shore : it all happens on the distant shore : it can never happen here :” (“Rumors of Distant Disasters”, from “Tokyo”).

Giovan Alonzi’s writing has appeared in VOLT, Entropy, and The Believer. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from CalArts, and currently teaches writing composition at East Los Angeles College.

The Mystery and Mythology of Found Audio by N.J. Campbell

INTERVIEW BY MANDY SHUNNARAH

Two Dollar Radio’s latest publication is hot off the press. Found Audio by N.J. Campbell is a Russian nesting doll of a novel with layers of mystery, mythology, madness, and suspense.

When three stolen audio tapes of questionable origin land on Dr. Amrapali Singh’s desk, along with a large sum of money to analyze them, she has two days to extract any clues as to the origin of the tapes and the identity of the unnamed journalist whose story they hold. Using her keen ear and expertise in antiquated audio formats, she transcribes the tapes, which form the majority of the novel.

From the murkiest bayous of Louisiana to the walled-in city of Kowloon to a chess tournament in Turkey, the unnamed journalist searches for the City of Dreams––a legend akin to El Dorado and the lost city of Atlantis. The clues to where this City of Dreams might be come sporadically, over the course of several decades, and each time he gets close to finding it, something mysteriously happens to affect his perception of reality. Whether under the influence of alcohol, mental illness or the energy-draining humidity of the bayou, our unreliable narrator is thwarted and the City of Dreams remains just that: a dream.

I read Found Audio in one sitting, completely engrossed in the story. Just as Dr. Singh was enraptured by the tapes, I, too, was Alice falling down the rabbit hole.

The novel is a brilliant work of metafiction, and the story within the story is as irresistible as gossip from a friend of a friend. The foreword and afterword are both in the form of letters written by the author, N.J. Campbell, which further add to the mystery by tinkering with the thread-thin line between the extraordinary and the realm of possibility.

There are degrees of truth in the otherworldly tales, which ignite curiosity and propel the reader deeper into the narrative. Found Audio reads like a modern-day version of “Kubla Khan,” where the fantastic is ever-present, just beyond reach.

Being the curious person I am, I Googled many of the myths and legends in the book and was amazed to find that many of them have been documented. The City of Dreams is a renowned myth, the walled city of Kowloon really was torn down in 1993 and The Turk was a chess-playing automaton from the 1770s, later revealed to be a hoax. I even found an obituary for an Otha Johnson in the Times-Picayune from 2003, which fits within the timeline and the location of the story. While his obituary didn’t mention him being a snake hunter, judging by the number of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren he had, it sounds like he lived to be quite old, just like the Otha character in the novel.

While each of these myths may seem disparate on the surface, Campbell weaves them together with a deft hand.

“I remember things that interest me, and they inevitably show up in my work. Stringing them together is partly happenstance and partly planned catastrophe,” Campbell says. “What I mean by the latter is that I’m very critical of my own work. I don’t want to get bored with it, so I’m constantly trying to push myself to see what might come out of further exploration. If I think I can’t do something, I have to do it. And a lot of this stuff all being strung together is me just trying to see in what way something can or might connect to something else.”

As evidenced in Found Audio, Campbell has found that his best writing comes from challenging himself to write his characters out of seemingly impossible problems.

“My friend Joey said it best: ‘If you’re an artist and you can risk it, you have to. You won’t be able to back down.’ That’s really stuck with me. So, in many ways I deliberately try to see how far I can push my narrative––what if that character tells me to get lost? What if I paint myself into a corner I know I can’t get out of? I can always go back and tear up the floorboards, but I want to see what might happen if I build myself into places that look like dead ends.”

Some of Campbell’s best ideas have come to him while at his day job, which is working for a small university press.

“I am 0% involved in anything to do with the publishing process. I literally pack boxes, take orders, and buy shipping supplies. That’s it. But that gives me total freedom to think all day about whatever I want,” Campbell explains. “My body is absorbed in a mostly physical task, and my mind wanders. It’s been majestic. I’ve worked manual labor jobs most of my life to keep my mind rested in order to write.”

The mystery doesn’t end with Found Audio. His next writing project is in the works, though he’s not quite ready to share. “For some people I know, talking about what they’re working on is helpful, but for me it’s not. I get self-conscious and that’s a distraction,” Campbell explains. “I will say that I work very diligently and very deliberately, but I don’t talk about anything until it’s done.”
––

Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though Birmingham, Alabama, will always have her heart. Her creative nonfiction essays and book reviews have appeared in The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, and The New Southerner Magazine, where she won Honorable Mention in their 2016 contest. You can read more of her work at her website, OffTheBeatenShelf.com.

 

[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.

[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.

[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…