[A Reviewable Feast] Adult Gummies by K. Karivalis

Neon Burrito Publishing, 2018

A Reviewable Feast is a hybrid book review/author interview series by Mandy Shunnarah.

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“I saw the best minds of my generation artificially enhanced by the excessive nutrients of two-a-day adult gummy multivitamins, upgraded alongside their devices… going through the motions as the world watched, being completely aware they were being watched… every one of them pretending to work harder than the next but only as hard as will require the least amount of effort.”

With that howler of an opening, K. Karivalis begins Adult Gummies, her satirical novella on the battle between Millennials making art, making money, and often being disenchanted by both. The characters learn the hard way that office jobs can lack creative and spiritual fulfillment, while full time creative self-employment can lack steady income. In the parlance of our times, the struggle is real.

Jen, Kat, Dirk, and Thad work at the amorphous Company, a business whose goings-on we know nothing of besides content creation, advertising, and sales. Jen dreams of being the Content Queen, vying for the head copywriting position. Kat wants to be a “real writer” who’s creatively fulfilled. Dirk coasts along, not having to do much since his privilege as a white man already affords him more money and growth opportunities than Jen, his chief rival. Thad endures the indignities of daily racial microaggressions just going to and from work. Adult Gummies is sardonic social commentary at its best.

I talked to K. Karivalis about Millennial struggles, music as an escape, and the effect of personal branding on art.

Mandy Shunnarah: I’m curious about how this book came to be. Did you have an office job you hated where you ran into the real-life inspirations for the characters?

  1. Karivalis: I landed my first office job when I was 24 and it was at Binder & Binder (yes, the Social Security Disability law firm with ads on daytime TV) and it was bleak, like a caricature of a mundane office job. I was hired as a “writer,” which meant I wrote legal documents and had to learn all these laws about Social Security Disability, etc. The contrast between the rather alternative “artsy” lifestyle I lived the first few years after graduating college and the 9 to 5 world was jarring, almost terrifying, but in a fascinating way because it was all completely new to me. I felt like I was thrown into a movie set, like I was starring in a movie about a young woman navigating the banality of big city office life. So it felt natural to translate those experiences into a book, though I didn’t do so until a few years after I left that job. One particular character (Dirk) is very much based off of a former coworker, the others are more inspired by bits and pieces of people I know and different millennial stereotypes.

MS: One of the things I loved about Adult Gummies is that, while satirized, it’s eerily true to life for Millennials who have worked at a company that produces content. Kat says she wants to be a “real writer, not a copywriter,” and meanwhile the protagonist Jen actively wants to be a copywriter because then she’d be the Content Queen she aspires to be. And yet neither of them fit well at The Company. I imagine there are a lot of writers who feel like this right now––wondering whether they should write for the sake of creating art or write what sells, even if what sells is often substandard. How did you navigate all this? Is this dichotomy something you find yourself struggling with?

KK: The characters Kat and Jen represent this dichotomy: quit your job and pursue your writing dreams with reckless abandon or climb the ladder of being a “professional” writer in a “professional” setting, hoping that if you reach your desired position, you will be satisfied creatively while still having the comforts that 9 to 5 jobs provide. Kat’s decision to (spoiler alert) quit her job and become a “real writer” and Jen’s dedication to playing the professionalism game represent the fork in the road I feel like I am at now.

I currently work an office job but it’s part time, which gave me the time to write Adult Gummies. Before I started working on the book though, I was focused on finding a full-time professional job as a content creator and/or copywriter at a company that I thought embraced the idea of a progressive office environment and encouraged creativity, such as the Urban Outfitters corporate headquarters, which is one of the biggest employers of young creatives in Philadelphia. At the Urban Outfitters corporate headquarters, people bring their dogs to work, buildings are situated on this beautiful campus with trees and public sculptures, there are many artisan options for cruelty-free lunch, you can bring your laptop outside to work on the grass when it’s nice out––this sort of utopian idea of The New Professionalism, trying to rid office jobs of their stigma. I thought the combination of my professional experience and online “clout” (some of these jobs require a minimum amount of Instagram and/or Twitter followers) would make it easy for me to land one of these jobs, but alas, this was not the case. So I thought, ‘okay screw you I’m writing a book.’

Unfortunately, I think most young writers these days give up on The Dream and get the creative labor job and tell themselves they’ll write their novel in their spare time. But this is the climate we are in now––this is the reality of money ruling the world, in addition to health insurance, benefits, sick days, 401K, job security, etc.

About a year into working at Binder & Binder, my dad died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack at the age of 54. I got the phone call at my desk at Binder & Binder (I had left my cell phone at home that day by strange coincidence), and immediately that environment was poisoned with that traumatic memory. I quit my job directly afterwards and worked odd jobs for a year while in a deep state of grieving. I slowly started to rebuild my life and got the part time office job I work now, as a kind of minimal-amount-of-money-making placeholder until I felt ready to return to full time work. After I applied to and didn’t get the creative professional jobs I thought I wanted, I got real with myself and thought: “this is all a big procrastination dance to avoid putting my nose to the grindstone and writing a book.” So then I wrote the book.

I don’t think I would have had the dedication, motivation, concentration it took to write the book if I didn’t go through this horrific experience, but something about being reminded on a ceaseless, obsessive basis of my own mortality and the finite reality of living really gave me the kick in the pants I needed!

MS: I couldn’t help noticing the subtle music references throughout the novel, which was a nice surprise. I saw some Smashing Pumpkins, Pink Floyd, and others. Tell me more about the soundtrack to the novel.

KK: Parts of the novel examine intergenerational workplace dynamics––how employees from each of the three generations of working age people in America right now (Millennials, Gen X-ers, and Baby Boomers) interact with each other on a common playing ground. During the after-work karaoke party, Jeff in Sales (Gen X-er) sings “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” by The Smashing Pumpkins and Kat visualizes him in the time period of the song, in the 90’s, when Jeff in Sales (in her mind) was young and still had hope for a non-conformist lifestyle, before he sold his soul to the 9 to 5 world. The line “Despite all my rage I’m still just a rat in a cage” is in a way the thesis for the entire novel: you can hate your job as much as you want but you’re still working the job. Are you a victim of the system or are you playing yourself? Are you staying at the job you hate because you don’t have the financial means to quit or do you just lack the guts?

I decided to feature this song through karaoke because I had attempted singing it at a karaoke night a few weeks before I wrote that scene and it was surprisingly hard to sing. It starts a cappella so I was off key for like half the song. The frustration of searching for the right note after the song already started really helped me vocally express the desperation inherent in the lyrics of the chorus. So that’s what happens to Jeff in Sales too––he’s visibly frustrated trying to sing on key and also visibly frustrated at his life situation. Not only being a rat in a cage, but a rat in a cage that can’t sing its favorite song properly.

The Pink Floyd lyric “All in all your just another brick in the wall,” has become such a widespread shared sentiment for feeling helpless and dissatisfied with capitalism and modern society that it’s a cliché. Because it is so iconic and well known, I liked playing with that lyric and having Kat write on her Tumblr “All in all you’re just another blown up pizza pocket shit-stain on the wall, the white walls, the pin-pricked cubicle walls of the proverbial Dilbert.” Offices are filled with many different types of walls, both physical (glass partition, drywall, cubicle, rows of ceiling-high filing cabinets) and, of course, metaphorical.

I also want to touch on Jen’s karaoke choice, which is “Escape” by Enrique Iglesias. This is funny in context because she sings it to freak out Dirk, singing he “can’t escape her wrath.” Kat also visualizes Jen in the time period of the song like she did Jeff in Sales, but it is 2001, so she gets into a thought spiral about 9/11. Associating Enrique with 9/11 seems absurd, but it kind of made his career. Right before 9/11 happened, Enrique released “Hero” and it was a hit. However, after 9/11 “Hero” somehow became the theme song of honoring all of the fallen heroes of 9/11, and he sang it at NYFD/NYPD memorials, even though it’s a song about a romance, not about actual life-saving heroes. So this sappy, romantic-sad pop song became the theme song for the NYFD/NYPD 9/11 heroes. It was the chosen song for New York radio DJs to remix with audio from rescuers and politicians speaking about 9/11. It just seems so bizarre thinking back on it now.

MS: I want to slap this novel into the hands of every Boomer who’s ever told me I should get a “real job” while asking me to do work for free and simultaneously telling me that my generation ruined the economy. At first, I thought Adult Gummies was about disenchantment with office life, but as the characters find out, freelancing in the gig economy can be worse. In your experience, do you think the economy Millennials have had to battle makes creating art more difficult or do you think it forces us to be even more creative?

KK: This is my hopeful optimist answer: Overcoming obstacles makes for interesting art. Financial obstacles force us to be not only more creative in our budgeting but also more driven and dedicated to the act of creating (because time is money so if you spend time making art it better be worth it, as in it better be spiritually fulfilling or at least make you look cool). Creating can still feel like an act of rebellion, it can still help us express complicated emotions and ideas that go against the status quo.

The internet art of the 2010’s is a good example: artists who lacked the money for a studio space and supplies used whatever software they had on their computer. Music too, like bedroom pop and vaporwave––that all came from people holed up in their rooms with nothing but a laptop with Garageband and guitar or midi keyboard. And as far as promotion goes, everything can be done through social media. Living paycheck to paycheck and working a terrible job that barely covers your expenses is a bleak existence. Dedicating ourselves to creating art gives us purpose and an escape from the monotony of our money-driven reality.

This is my jaded pessimist answer: That being said, there is no denying the current economy makes it much harder for us to do what we want. It’s difficult to live on a minimal income, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have dodged accruing massive amounts of student loan debt, credit card debt, getting sick and being unable to work, supporting family members, etc.

And the attitude we get from Boomers doesn’t help either, though it has given us such glorious tone-deaf clickbait as: “Millennials Aren’t Buying Diamonds, Why?” And that whole “if Millenials stopped buying avocado toast they could buy a house” fiasco. In recent times I have seen friends who were once set on being writers and artists choose the path of a full time job with a steady income after realizing how many risks have to be taken to dedicate yourself to your creative work.

If we take the little time and money we have and throw it all into writing a book, what if nobody reads it? What if it sucks? These were constant ruminations I had before, during and after writing Adult Gummies––a lot of self-doubt, anxiety and fear of failure.

MS: Nowadays it’s not just office workers who have personal brands––even writers and other artists are often expected to have a brand as part of their creative output. What effect do you think having (or striving to have) a personal brand has on art?

KK: I think it can have a profound effect at the beginning but then becomes problematic when the artist or writer wants to do a new project differently, thus having to not only re-brand but re-brand with grace. Marketing is so important (unfortunately) to get your work noticed and most artists or writers don’t know the first thing about marketing (unfortunately).

I picked up a bit of marketing knowledge when conducting research for Jen’s character, and also through my experiences on social media. A lot of the vocabulary in Adult Gummies is the result of my own experience trying to develop a personal brand for my Instagram account. Generally posts that had a consistent “theme” and “aesthetic” would get the most likes, and at that point in time my Instagram was my only active creative outlet (before I wrote Adult Gummies), so I put a lot of heart and time into it. Then I started developing a personal brand.

Kell Casual was my fake name associated with my Instagram account and she is a character who works in a dreary office but wants her microwaveable meals to be ethically sourced! And she rates different brands of adult gummy multivitamins on Amazon and links these reviews to her Twitter! And she writes melodramatic sonnets about hating Mondays! And she needs to know, for the sake of her brand’s philosophy: How does one make something so un-cool, cool?

Developing a personal brand included targeting Kell Casual’s biggest interests. There had to be reoccurring themes, including the character arc of writing and then finishing her book (my book). Jen’s character is kind of a vamped up, more clean-cut version of Kell Casual, like how actors stay in character for a few months to prepare for an Oscar-worthy role. I did a light version of this, performative for the internet, to create a multidimensional, round character for Jen. I lived in a similar flesh to experience similar experiences. Thus writing a book about a Millennial working a mundane office job became part of the brand, and then the brand became the book, and then the book promoted itself, and then people read it and apparently it doesn’t suck.

Mandy Shunnarah is an Alabama-born writer now living in Columbus, Ohio. Her essays, poems, and book reviews have been published in or are forthcoming from The Citron Review, Barely South Review, Entropy Magazine, Southern Women’s Review, The Missing Slate, New Southerner Magazine, and Deep South Magazine. Read more on her website offthebeatenshelf.com.

 

[REVIEW] Standard Loneliness Package by Michael J. Seidlinger

Broken River Books, 2018

REVIEWED BY GABINO IGLESIAS

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Author Michael J. Seidlinger has entered the poetry arena with a book that, although he mentions in its pages might be his last foray into the genre, will leave a mark with readers. Standard Loneliness Package is a collection of epistolary poems, a recipe book for loneliness, a bestiary of errors and regrets, and a deep, personal exploration of our innate ability to fail at connecting with others or sabotage any meaningful connection we someone manage to achieve.

What makes Standard Loneliness Package especial is not the people that are at the center of every poem but the way Seidlinger processes his role in the time period he spent/spends with that individual. His faults are at the core of the collection, exposed and raw, aching to be deconstructed and understood, blatantly questioning themselves, and wallowing in a combination of regret, loneliness, grief, and even a touch of sarcasm.

The poems in this collection are about every conceivable element of human interaction. In some, Seidlinger appears as victim. In others, he is clearly responsible for everything that went wrong. The result is a narrator that is constantly asking why things went wrong and answering his own questions (sometimes); a narrators that is at once victim and executioner, that confesses and apologizes before asking a rhetorical question and smirking at his own mischief:

Do you know, I bet you don’t

But do you know that every single time

Every single time

You knocked on my door

Or tried to use a credit card

To get into my room

I was there

Did you

I bet you didn’t

Standard Loneliness Package makes it easy to see that time is the great healer, and that it also sometimes acts as a microscope that allows us to study every small mistake we made. Seidlinger navigates the space between the past and the birth of every poem with grace, showing that he understands his own shortcomings but also explaining why some of the results he got were inevitable, and we this might just continue to be so. Furthermore, there is a hunger for change that pops up now and then, a realization that, once an error has been deconstructed and understood, there are ways to change it. However, there is something deeper, some profound understanding that we are the way we are and sometimes significant change is something that’s forever lost in the a sea of agitated stagnation. In “To Unknown (3),” we see this line of thinking clearly (and depressingly):

Why do I worry if these poems will be published

Do I quantify every single thing I care about

It is true

Every poem is an apology

It is true

Every apology is a poem I have trouble reading aloud

It is true

Every time I apologize

What I’m doing is hiding behind

The fact that I don’t know how to change

How to heal

How to show you that I can do better

It is true

This is the best I can do

It is true

The best I can do is never enough

It is true

To keep those I want close

It is true

To distance myself from those I shouldn’t keep

The last part of the book, which is a creative nonfiction piece retelling the month-long trip the author took across the United States as a social media experiment, breaks away from poetry in form but retains some of the preoccupations that plague the poems that precede it. Alone in a car for a month, moving from state to state and meeting people, Seidlinger was immersed in social media (even more than usual), and the writing that emerged from that experience is rich, deep, and breathtakingly personal. What is our relationship to social media? How is mediated communication processed in the soul? What is the true meaning of a “like”? What happens to those messages we send and are never answered? Why do we sometimes refuse to reply to a message? More than offer answers to these questions, the author delves into his own experience living for them in the confines of a car, the context of the trip, and the frame of his shattered life at the time the trip began. It ends up being a strange, somewhat touching finale to a book that celebrates the beauty that can come from writing about horrible things.

[REVIEW] The Möbius Strip Club of Grief by Bianca Stone

Tin House Books, 2018

REVIEWED BY GABINO IGLESIAS

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Bianca Stone’s The Möbius Strip Club of Grief is a tricky, multilayered poetry collection that lures readers in with its ease of access and wild, entertaining premise before slashing their throats with sharp doses of pain, truth, and a its pull-no-punches exploration of grief. The books door open into the loud, colorful immediacy of a burlesque purgatory where everyone is either watching of being watched, judging of being judge (by other and by the inescapable self), performing or being part/witnessing a performance. It looks, sounds, and feels like a festive place, but the underlying pain is as present as a bad rash on the face. Take, for example, the stripper in “Lap Dance”:

I think everyone’s glad I’m dead, said the stripper

with the caved-in face. Her fingers were bone and no

sinew. She flapped her arms at the two wrens

caught up in the rafters, staring down

on the empty dance hall. Chirps rained like sparks

from the electric saws in their hearts.

No one here is glad anyone is dead. But

there is a certain comfort in knowing

the dead can entertain us, if we wish.

The vivid, somewhat chaotic first third of the collection is an illustrated map of the place. However, the spatial specificity begins to fade away as the writing begins to tackle a plethora of themes that reach beyond the confines of the imaginary place. Soon death, math, pain, Emily Dickinson, memories, insecurities, and even murder show up to make the universe of the place richer and to obliterate any sense of safety the imaginary walls may have granted the reader. Eventually, the writing inhabits different spaces that range from pure memory to poems that read like (de/in)struction manuals for loss, which is the case with “How Not”:

Be completely dispassionate about the theoretical five stages.

This is an old death, but it’s your death. Complete the stages

in blurring fits of inebriation. Eat everything in sight. Fight

with your mother. Marry Ben in the woods. Fly across

the country. Stand in the street with the raging legless

angel. Hold a brick wall very close to your face.

The success of The Möbius Strip Club of Grief comes from Stone’s ability to constantly surprise and entertain. Her mother, memories, literature, (self)destruction, grief, and confusion are some of the elements that give the collection cohesion, but they are always dealt with differently, so turning the page is always a new adventure regardless of the elements being dealt with.

As the poems progress, the reader becomes discovers the mother as an almost omnipresent figure, the poet’s knack for phrases that turn around and loop themselves, the brevity of some of the strongest poems, and even the bizarre, chameleonic nature of the collection. Then reader becomes part of it. Part of it comes from the fact that there is only so much grief we can deal with before starting to feel it ourselves. The second reason is that, toward the last third of the book, the writing touches on the universal, on the hidden realities that affect us, inhabit us, and shape us. The perfect example is “Apes,” probably my favorite poem in the book:

 

If it happened at all

it was the apes who won,

shimmering stark-naked

and sitting a little apart from Adam,

who was deep into his clothing

the cuff links and soft leather,

pulling the zipper up Eve’s back

and she, clasping the bra shut like a jewelry box—

 

What to do with this mind?

Throw everything

into the fire and scream

into the internet

that there’s nothing to do

but stand in the dark recesses

throwing a bright red dodge ball

against the bone facade

and fall in and out of love

with suffering?

The Möbius Strip Club of Grief is unique in its structure and execution, and proves that Stone is a voice to be reckoned with, a writer who’s not afraid of suffering and blood, naked flesh and exposed emotion, weirdness and ennui. Now enter the club…if you dare.

 

[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.

Assignments

BY MARION RUYBALID

A woman who I’ve always known as mother taught me how to wear a sari when I was ten. The purpose of my lesson was only partly for a connection with Bangladesh, my birthplace. Who knows when the excuse to learn such an involved task might have occurred if it wasn’t for a school project. My assignment was to research a famous person and dress the part. I’d picked Mother Teresa because she was from India and that was close to Bangladesh.

My white British mother took yards of white fabric and died a blue stripe on one side. When the cloth was ready, I stood in the middle of our living room wearing a tight fitting white tee shirt and underwear with a piece of white rope tied around my waist.

“Here’s where you tuck the corner of the cloth in,” my mother said. She pointed to the rope above my right hip.

I began to tuck clothing into the rope from right hip, to left, behind my body, and back around to the front of my right hip.

“You have to do that again.”

The process was already feeling tiresome and the cloth, though fairly thin woven cotton, had a lot of weight to it due to the amount fabric it was going to take to make me look modest.

“Okay, now make three pleats and tuck that into the front in the middle of your waist.”

I had no idea how uncomfortable a sari would be. Once I had what felt like a massive sailor’s knot against my stomach, I wrapped the rest of the cloth around the left side of my body and brought it around over my left shoulder.  It seemed impossible to imagine having to go through this process on a daily basis.

At ten years old, wearing a sari felt like a fun game. I was adopted into a British family who moved to a small town in New Jersey. I didn’t have much of a reason to think about what it might symbolically mean to wear so much fabric. It seemed elegant, and I felt like a slightly different version of myself.

When I entered graduate school at age thirty-three to complete my MFA in creative writing, I wanted to learn about memoirs and more importantly, my goal was to find a memoir written by a Bangladeshi author. I honestly didn’t even know if I’d find something in English, but I tracked down the title of a book called Meybela, My Bengali Girlhood, by Taslima Nasrin.

In Nasrin’s memoir, two different stories unfold, one is the story of Bangladesh’s fight for independence and the other is a little girl longing for women’s freedom.

Bangladesh gained its independence from India for the first time in 1971. Through a poetic voice, distant from the narrator’s emotions, the reader is educated about the historical climate of the country at the time. The atmosphere of daily life is blanketed with the constant feelings of unrest. However, despite many fears about the state of Bangladesh, there is hope for a future that will be better.

The narrator is a little girl during a formative time in Bangladesh’s history. Freedom for the country was supposed to mean promises of new practices in life, but as Bangladesh became free, change barely took place in a nation where women suffer from constant abuse. Her mother continues to eat scraps for dinner and isn’t respected. The narrator is raped by at least three different men, two of whom are uncles. Fathers want smart daughters and mothers want good religious wives for future mates. The desire to dream about a new life for the narrator is stifled in a culture that has no intention of changing.

The song “Joy Bangla! Bangla joy!” is chanted in the streets when the nation is finally free, but for the nation’s women, these words should have meant more. Women do not become free to fall in love and take jobs. Instead, their suffering becomes awkwardly intertwined with the nation’s freedom to show how even hopeful change may not result in transformation for everyone.

My own childhood didn’t include watching my nation be birthed. However, the circumstances of my actual adoption were at one time threatened. I was born in 1982 and there was talk about closing the doors to adoption. My dad, being a climber, planned routes over the Himalayan Mountains to get me out of the country if my British passport didn’t arrive. Nothing as extreme ever did take place because the paperwork to finalize my adoption did go through, but a few years later this would not have been the case. With my adoption, I was also freed from a culture that I still wanted to understand.

Years after my parents had moved away from Dhaka when I was nineteen years old, I went back for a visit. I was faced with the task of putting on a sari again. Yards of delicately patterned pink cloth surrounded a woman, who on the outside blended in with the women around me. People whispered about my perfect American accent and the way I walked so freely. They knew something was different about me even if I tried my best to fit in. Despite the sari, I knew what it was like to unravel the cloth and simply put on a pair of jeans and a tee shirt. True Bangladeshi culture for me would only be experienced through other people’s words.

Marion Ruybalid lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and seven children. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from UCR Palm Desert. Her work has also appeared in The Manifest-Station.

 

[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 & INTERVIEW] Am I Alone Here? by Peter Orner

Image result for am i alone here peter orner

Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: November 1, 2016
Number of pages: 276
Price: $15.25

REVIEWED BY Mandy Shunarrah

To label Am I Alone Here? as any one genre is to do it and the reader an injustice. Part memoir, part literary criticism, and all love letter to literature, Peter Orner’s essay collection is the kind of book readers can’t help but cherish. My copy of Am I Alone Here? has as many flags and sticky notes as the stylized book on the collection’s cover. I read it with splendor.

With each essay, Orner measures his life in books—namely how, as a book lover, the literature he’s reading informs and intersects with his life. Reading is the lens by which Orner looks back on teaching law in Prague, the dissolution of his relationship with his ex wife, and his now-deceased, emotionally unavailable dad who haunts the stories like the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Bibliophiles will recognize the seamless neural connections that inextricably link existence and books in each piece.

You need not have read all the books and authors Orner mentions to appreciate the resounding influence literature has had on his life. He only tells you what you need to know to understand each essay and doesn’t burden the reader with extraneous details. Even if you haven’t read the stories the essays hinge upon, you get the impression you’d enjoy them just as much as Orner does. In none of these essays is Orner attempting to prove a supposed superior taste in literature—you can tell he genuinely delights in these stories and wants to share them with others who might enjoy them, too.

When you read Am I Alone Here? you feel as though you’ve read a hundred books and lived as many lives. For bibliophiles, the question of whether we are alone here is a rhetorical one: a question we ask ourselves with every book we read. The question “Am I alone here?” is at the heart of why we read and why literature is an art essential to life.

I talked to Peter about his reverence for the written word and the process of writing his first full-length work of nonfiction. (This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Mandy Shunnarah: Tell me about how these essays came to be. Since this essay collection bends genres and your past works are fiction, I’m curious to know if these essays poured forth organically or if a change of direction was something you’d been planning.

Peter Orner: Writing, any kind of writing, is hard for me. I’ve always felt it was like squeezing blood from a stone. These essays began (and ended too) with me sort of talking to myself in the very early hours of the morning. I think of them as morning notes to myself. I never plan very much. But after a certain point I realized these notes were speaking to each other.

MS: When you would discuss where you were in your life at the time you were reading a particular book or story, I believe the youngest age you mentioned was 19. Were there any books you felt a connection to before that time?

PO: You know that book about the little bird who’s born while his mother is off getting food? And he flies around asking every other animal and a bulldozer, too, if they are his mother? [Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman] I remember holding that book and wanting to hear it again and again. What a sad, beautiful book that is. I think it all started with that one. What would a psychologist do with this answer?

MS: It’s clear you’re an expansive reader. Was it difficult to choose what authors and stories you would include in the book? Are there other books you’re deeply fond of that didn’t get mentioned in your essays?

PO: So, so many. In the introduction to the book I list a few including Bessie Head (wonderful, deadly writer from South Africa/Botswana), Evan Connel (the great story writer from Kansas City), Calvert Casey (a Cuban Irish story writer), and Penelope Fitzgerald (the British novelist whose work, all of it, floors me)…There is also a piece I’ve been working on in my head about Primo Levi for many years about reading Levi in a cemetery in Bolinas, California. One day I’ll actually write it. Or maybe not; it is better in my head.

MS: Since completing Am I Alone Here? have you read anything you wished you’d read sooner so it could’ve been included in the collection?

PO: I recently read Patrick Modiano’s weird memoir, Pedigree, and took a lot of notes in the margins. Got me thinking. And earlier this year I discovered the work of the American story writer and novelist William Goyen. Goyen’s been largely forgotten. He deserves some serious resurrection because he’s an original. He’s fearlessly vague, and like Modiano, obsessed with memory.

MS: Your contentious relationship with your deceased father is a recurring theme in many of the essays. Did writing about him after his passing help you understand him in a way that wasn’t possible while he was alive?

PO: I wish I did. I think I’m more confused about him than ever. But I’m suspicious of answers in general, and much prefer questions. Will I ever get to the bottom of the strange person who was my father? Probably not. Writing about him made that question less even less answerable.  

MS: What are you working on next? Since you’re primarily a fiction writer, do you anticipate writing nonfiction again in the future?

PO: This will be my last book that incorporates specific aspects of my own life—he said, hoping it was true. I live and die by fiction… But in a way nonfiction is just fiction with a little more literal facts. Either way, like I say, it’s all hard for me.

 

 

 

Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though she calls Birmingham, Alabama, home. She writes personal essays, book news, and historical fiction. Her writing has been published in The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, PANK Magazine and Deep South Magazine. You can find more of her work at her website, offthebeatenshelf.com.

[REVIEW] French Perfume by Amir Tag Elsir

Brooklyn: Antibookclub
2014

REVIEWED BY ERIC NOONAN

Amir Tag Elsir is a Sudanese gynecologist living in Qatar; in an interview with Arabic Literature (in English), he says he plans to return to the Sudan when he retires.  An exilic quality in Elsir’s vision, together with a stripped-down style, recently prompted a Guardian reviewer to claim that his novel Ebola ’76 – also published in English translation last year, by Darf – lacks empathy, and that this author writes his characters with “apparent disdain.”  If this is true, then we might be excused for stating that such antipathy is an attractive feature (albeit a demanding one) of Elsir’s oeuvre, because he replaces humanist values and psychological realism with an unflattering critical perspective.  French Perfume is Elsir’s fifth book to come out in English.

When Katia Cadolet, a beautiful Parisian nurse working for a relief campaign in Zimbabwe, accidentally discovers that a foreign pharmaceutical firm has been manufacturing bogus malaria pills for export to Africa, she becomes an international celebrity and embarks on a publicity tour of the continent.  As Katia’s arrival in the Sudan approaches, a local administrator delegates responsibility for her visit to a retired railroad maintenance supervisor named Ali Jarjar, tasking him with securing suitable accommodations for Katia in the district where he resides, a working-class neighborhood called Gha‘ib (literally, “Occluded”).  Ali, a “tall, plump, and almost bald” bachelor with a trail of jilted spinsters in his wake, quickly grows obsessed with “the Frenchwoman:” he trolls her online; paints his house blue – her favorite color – inside and out, along with all his possessions; downloads, photoshops and prints pictures of her; spends funds earmarked for her fête on bridegroom attire; exchanges wedding vows with his pictures of Katia in a secret ceremony; and finally escorts the photos into the city and introduces them as his wife, who, he says, is expecting a child.  Utterly deranged, Ali is about to claim that spousal jealousy brought on his eruption into violence, accusing his victims of causing Katia to be unfaithful, characterizing himself as a cuckold (he reenacts a scene from a movie he saw in youth) – a role onto which, in his insanity, he projects the collective rage whose repository he has become, as he murders a “male jinn” in the street with a kitchen knife and stabs a photo of Katia, then gets arrested, just in time to watch the nurse herself descend from her car while he’s being driven to jail.

Ali’s running commentary on the ills of his society is the reasonable discourse of a man whose actions pierce the curtain of normalcy and expose the insane reality beyond it: “My cell phone rang briefly with what the screen termed a dropped call.”  Loneliness gets the better of Ali and infects his mind, and yet he’s lucid: “Being a madman who mates with a female jinn was much better than being a madman who weds no one at all.”  Ali’s plunge into homicide reflects the decline of his world, taking place along with the death of a community leader (“it was hard to fit him into the grave”), the battery of a legendary beauty (“‘I will kill myself before he touches me again’”), the forced conversion to Islam of a Coptic Christian (“he told them he was going off ‘to die’”), the indenture into the Luxembourg porn industry of a young emigrant (“he realized the size of the dunghill awaiting him”), and the fraudulent appointment to government office of a candidate whose only qualification for the post is a friendship with his predecessor (“‘I’m only a former combatant’”).  William M. Hutchins has translated the Arabic text into a blend of tech jargon, social satire, translatorese (Ali sometimes speaks like a clumsy English version of an Arabic poem), braggadocio, and storytelling that captures the dramatic and cosmic ironies at work.  With its quasi-folkloric antihero, French Perfume is a shaky video of a society in disorder, and one hopes that more of this excellent writer’s work will appear in English soon.

 

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