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John Venegas

John Venegas is a half-Mexican writer and editor, living in the San Fernando Valley, with a BA in creative writing from California State University at Northridge. He is the Lead Editor and Book Review Editor for Angel City Review and assistant editor for the #recurrent series at CCM. He sells pool supplies, works as a handyman, and tutors students to pay the bills. He likes long walks on the beach, going to the opera, and really stupid dad jokes.

Book Review

The Warren

by on January 12, 2017

9780765393159The Warren, by Brian Evenson

 

For a consumer of science fiction, the genre has become an increasingly bloated thing saturated with the grandiose and the absurd.  Most movies in the genre are shameless reproductions of better films from several decades ago.  Many novels that have large scale exposure in the genre are either bogged down in YA tropes or intended as little more than spec scripts written in prose.  This is particularly unfortunate in the case of literature, because well-written text can accomplish things that a monstrous CGI budget can only dream of.  In the rush to dazzle and explode, even on the page, so many science fiction works seem to lose sight of how to remain relatable and effective.  Enter The Warren, by Brian Evenson.  In eighty six pages of masterful writing, The Warren takes us back to the true potential of the genre, simultaneously asking cosmologically existential questions and lacing those questions with fascinating and unnerving intimacy.

The Warren is the story of an individual named X who is living alone in an underground facility, which itself exists in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  He not only faces the prospect of potentially being the last of his kind but also the responsibility of staying alive for the sake of the numerous “personalities” that have been implanted into him.  Upon finishing the novella, one of the first things you will be confronted with is the sheer amount of ground covered in spite of the work’s size.  Any veteran of the genre will be familiar with the themes present here – isolation, identity, technology, survival, memory and the passage of time, trust, humanity – but that they are all present without getting in each other’s way and while being well and truly addressed, rather than glossed over, is incredibly impressive.  The only way this is achievable is through efficient use of language, and Evenson does not disappoint.  No time is wasted in the read.  The pacing moves quickly and the reader is only presented with exposition in ways that drive the plot forward.  If you have read any of my previous reviews, you may have noted that I have a particular fondness for texts that do not hold the reader’s hand as they move, ones that trust their readers to have the wherewithal and experience to make their own conclusions.  The Warren is an exemplar of this technique.  It drops you right into the thoughts and actions of the “protagonist” and allows you to pick up the nature of the situation and environment through context and subtle presentation.  In a sense, this is mandated by the audacity of trying to cover such a weighty story in so few pages.  But the novella never disappoints.

What was true and what was rumor, it was difficult to say: it is impossible for me to be objective about the opinions of all the selves contained within me, for I hear not only their words but feel along with them the weight of their conviction.

This kind of delivery lends itself beautiful to one of the most important parts of this kind of fiction – generating atmosphere.  Both the reader and the protagonist are dropped into a world that feels familiar enough to make some sense but strange enough that neither are sure anything or anyone can be trusted.  Senses are constantly on edge, sometimes through fear but just as often through the triggering of an insatiable hunger for more information.  Very little in the text behaves the way you would expect it to, not out of a need to be contrarian but rather because we have been trained to treat the symbolism and tropes of the genre as mandatory and predictable.  The combination of these effects lead to a text that can be read quickly or slowly without sacrificing any energy, and which can be read over and over again through different lenses.  Is X suffering from dissociative identity disorder or is he really a vessel for different consciousnesses?  Is there ultimately a difference?  People in our world are beginning to realize the significance of allowing people to define their own identities, so does X have any say in what is or isn’t human?  Is the story X constructs to make sense of his reality any less valid than our own?

There are times when I look back at this writing and do not recognize what I have written. There are moments, whole pages even, that are written in my hand, to be sure, but that I have no memory of writing. When I awake, I sometimes find myself deep in the warren before the writing desk, with the charcoal grasped tight in my hand and no memory of how I arrived there.

My favorite thing about The Warren is also something that I did not pick up on until reading through a second time: the novella, among many other things, is a meta-commentary on story-telling.  To be fair, in our post-post-modern world, this is an increasingly common thing.  But Everson tries his hand at it in a way that blends seamlessly into the story being told and the atmosphere being created.  X is, in a way, a carrier of stories, one of the last ones.  So much of the human response to mortality and the vastness of the cosmos comes in the form of stories and our hope that said stories will survive beyond us, as if those stories are a form in which we can continue to exist.  One of science fiction’s strengths is its ability to show us of the scale of things.  Ingenuity, hope, and terror are all equally valid responses to that scale, and they are not mutually exclusive.  The Warren raises the stakes and reminds us that when we look out into the void or into ourselves, what we find is not beholden to our expectations.

 

The Warren is available now through Tor.com

Book Review

Bottom’s Dream

by on January 5, 2017

BD-Einband-15-11-18.inddBottom’s Dream, by Arno Schmidt

Translated by John E. Woods

 

I have always been wary of books that demand attention. Garish covers, deliberately awkward page or font sizes, titles that sound like lines from failed experimental poetry – the need to stand out is understandable, especially in a literary market, but all too often it stems from a lack of substance on the page.  So when Zachary Jensen, ACR’s editor-in-chief, asked me to review Arno Schmidt’s fourteen hundred page, fourteen pound Bottom’s Dream, I was rather skeptical.  After I realized I would have to put my back into holding the thing up to read, I opened to a random page and found what I assumed to be a garbled mess, as if someone had ground up a dozen novels in a blender and randomly rearranged them character by character.  When I got home and sat down in my reading chair (yes, I have a reading chair), I was unable to read the book in my normal, comfortable fashion.  The top of the page was too far away. The book’s center-mass meant my arms had to extend out to hold it. The edge pressed into my thigh like an impatient dog, eager to play. In the book’s afterword, translator John E. Woods describes a conversation with Schmidt in which the author wonders why anyone would want to read the entirety of the novel. For Woods, the answer lay in the act of translation, of meeting and equaling an arduous task. For me, Bottom’s Dream became something of an obsession, a physical and psychological white elephant that squatted in my thoughts, filled my vision, and defied just about all of my expectations. This text is a leviathan ouroboros, locked in a constant, cyclical metamorphosis and magnifying a simple, organic process to an impossibly vast scale so that we might see the inherent complexity within.

Aristotle’s concept of beauty, particularly the idea that one cannot assess beauty without taking into account the whole of the thing being examined, is deeply resonant here.  When I opened to the random page and found the madness on display, there was no way I could have appreciated what was happening.  That is not to say that sections of this novel cannot stand alone, because many of them can, but engaging with Bottom’s Dream is a process of translation, transliteration, and seminal deconstruction.  Reading this version is akin to being included halfway into the process of decoding the Rosetta Stone or the Dead Sea Scrolls. On that note, I have nothing but respect and admiration for John E. Woods and what I imagine must have been both the height and the terror of a translator’s career. The novel has a reputation for being “untranslatable” and, even in an English version, the text is as intimidating as it is enticing.  The reader, if they wish to engage with the novel, simply has to start from the beginning and naturally grow accustomed to the manner in which the text presents itself.  Strangely, this actually lends itself to finding the end.  The reader builds forward momentum as pieces of the work are effortlessly linked together and the de-encryption becomes a bread crumb trail leading toward revelation.

Piquefully wrencht at My gate=key hand : !) / (Whereupon W, (half awakened & puzzld) : ››Silly dolly !‹‹. (P, actually a passable thorobred=literatus), made more=notes in His allen : ….) / (And Fr came sprinting back)

If you are not used to the experimental in literature, that quote must seem at least a little insane.  But I encourage you to remain calm and take in the whole of what you are seeing.  This is literature almost decoupled from a temporal constraint.  The multiple, seemingly redundant and “incorrect” uses of punctuation are options given to you.  The misspelled words and phrases coupled with = are themselves deconstructions of the very languages being used to relay the ideas.  This is text as it is being formed in the author’s mind, and as it is being reformed in the reader’s mind.  On the one hand, we are presented with the writing and the rewriting, as deliberate choices are made and reconsidered in real time.  On the other, we are watching the diagraming of the text on the page, complete with concrete and abstract notes that trail off into infinity.  It is the literal manifestation of the cycle of subjectivity in literature.

Amidst all of this individualistic wordplay, there is something tangible going on.  The novel, to put it simply, has a plot.  An aging writer meets with married translators to discuss the translation of the writing and themes of Edgar Allan Poe.  In that discussion, ideas of existentialism, sexuality, and raw sensation are all at the forefront, as anyone familiar with Poe’s work might expect.  There is a palpable and uncomfortable sexual tension between Daniel, the closest thing the novel has to a protagonist, and Franziska, the sixteen year old daughter of the translators.  Questions of perspective and privacy, ideology and boundaries, lace every interaction and line of dialogue.  In the end, Bottom’s Dream can easily be seen as a mammoth meta-commentary on the acts of writing and reading, of probing into the most guarded moments of characters, or of shouldering the responsibility of constructing lives to be lived on the page.  Arrogance and sexism rear their ugly heads again and again, particularly in some of Daniel’s words, but the novel is not concerned with portraying any of its characters as wholly innocent or wholly noble or wholly despicable.  They are like the text that they exist in, sitting in a kind of quantum superposition, dependent on observation for any kind of reality.

›In a similar frame of mind was jacopone of Todi; when, enraptured by those tongues of fire and penetrated by rays of divine light in its fullness, he wanted about as if out of his senses; now singing; now weeping; from time to time venting his emotions in sighs.

When more traditionally leaning prose asserts itself, such as in the above quote, the text makes use of its momentary (and illusory) stability to be very clear in its portrayal of ambiguity.  And yet it is an ambiguity that should feel familiar to anyone who reads anything with even a modicum of complexity.  Is it all that strange that someone might feel the need to sing and weep? To expel emotion?  Is it really a contradiction that divine fire and light, while empowering, also engender madness?  Do the venting sighs at the end of the quote need to be either relief or resignation, or can they be both?  Bottom’s Dream never tells the reader how to feel about any of its meticulous jumble of language or its uncomfortable situations or any of its fourteen hundred pages.  It really doesn’t even ask the questions in a direct way.  It prefers to present the reader with an endless assortment of moments in which you feel compelled to ask.

One of the many questions to be asked is why the novel uses side columns throughout its length.  These columns appear on either side of the text and sometimes their boundaries are momentarily ignored or utilized in an unconventional way.  And far from being explanatory or supplementary, these columns include more of the same text, neither independent nor dependent from the main body.  It wasn’t until the end of the novel that I realized that, when reading in the traditional Western left to right fashion, Bottom’s Dream opens and closes with text in these columns.  Its very first and very last words, excluding titles and epigraphs, are:

: ›Anna Mooh=Mooh!‹ –

and

(: No wheel to my wagon. Still I’m rowling along.)

Given the novel’s use of language, character, and structure’s thus far, it is easy to assume that the columns are providing yet more space for contribution and interpretation.  They allow Schmidt to include thoughts that hover around and weave through the main story, providing commentary and tangents at the same time.  There is something curiously Joyce-esque in this technique, but its use here is far too unique to be labeled as merely imitative.  For me, the use of columns is a tangible reminder that there is never one voice or thought process dominating Bottom’s Dream.  Like looking at a stone pillar or edifice with inscription on multiple sides, reading the text gives the feeling that it can be rotated to present entirely new information that has only been hinted at previously.  The novel is an amalgam of history in literature, with layers etched on top of and around one another, bursting at the seams and, as the earlier quote suggests, venting the pressure of its emotions.  In a strange and poetic sense, the presence of the columns and the sheer size of the novel make it feel like a physical edifice of alien design.  Even when translated, the text emanates the presence of disturbed geniuses of the past, including Joyce, Poe, and Schmidt himself.

The novel gets its title from a quote from another literary titan; specifically, William Shakespeare and his A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The beginning of the quote is actually used as something of an epigraph at the start of the novel, but the epigraph ends before the title’s reference can be included.  The remainder of the quote reads “I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream: it shall be called Bottom’s Dream, because it hath no bottom;…”.  I do not know why Schmidt left this part of the quote off of his epigraph.  Perhaps he felt that to finish it would reveal too much or be too unsubtle a reference.  But I find it incredibly apt now.  On several levels, this novel feels like it has no bottom.  There is no concrete surface on which to land and situate one’s self.  This is not a work that will leave you with closure or a tightly wrapped gift of understanding.  It is a dream, the meaning of which will never retain stability for any length of time.  It is unwieldy and unconsciously aggressive, filling empty spaces with its own shifting, distorting mass like a tidal wave.  I encourage you to approach this novel only if you enjoy the swarming possibilities of language and have the patience to let the rip tide pull beyond your comfort zone.

 

Bottom’s Dream is available now through Dalkey Archive Press.

Book Review

Flowers Among the Carrion

by on December 27, 2016

patecoverFlowers Among the Carrion: Essays on the Gothic in Contemporary Poetry, by James Pate

 

If you mention the word “Gothic” in many circles today, there is usually an automatic association with architecture such as those from European Catholic churches.  Some might think of a novel, such as Shelley’s Frankenstein or, adding a dose of the American South, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  But Gothic poetry rarely receives recognition, usually finding itself subsumed into some larger movement and treated as little more than the result of a poet’s depressive moments.  This is nothing short of a shame.  Poetry is, by its very nature, a medium that allows the reader to engage with language on a primal, deeply intimate level and address the profound questions of reality in deceptively simple ways.  The Gothic (and that is to say the truly Gothic, with its inherent existential crises and its use of the sublime) is and should be right at home within poetry, given the freedom to express that which both seduces and terrifies us.  In his essay collection Flowers Among the Carrion, James Pate explores several beautiful, powerful examples of Gothic poetry and he argues for their relevance and value within the zeitgeist of today.

In this collection, Pate writes about the work of four Gothic poets: Sade Murphy, Johannes Goransson, Joyelle McSweeny, and Feng Sun Chen.  Right from the start, the breadth of perspective is both impressive and engaging.  This is not poetry coming from white English males, which is immediately refreshing.  One of the central thematic aspects of Gothic literature is its questioning of presumed human significance, and this questioning is experienced across gender, racial, and national lines, through the whole of the species.  What Pate does use more traditionally recognized Gothic writers for is to frame the discussion, either through the use of apt quotes or occasional comparison.  The effect is to unify the Gothic and show it as an evolving entity that has greatly benefited from the addition of new, previously unrecognized voices.  This in turn helps new readers engage by exposing heterogeneous literature that offers several layers of connection.

We want something – God, History, and Reason are the usual suspects – to mend the rupture, to fill in the gap.  We want the seamless whole.  But the Big Ideas don’t answer those basic questions anymore, no matter how many white-knuckled attempts are made.

This effort of increasing visibility is greatly helped by the quality of writing in the essays.  Though the collection is short, Pate takes his time dissecting what he finds significant and delivers his analysis in a way that does not condescend or dumb down.  He addresses existential questions and inversions of traditional symbols.  Most importantly, he respects the process of using truly beautiful language to represent the horrifying and the psychologically imposing.  Pate presents the reader with an accurate and concise historical framework in which to view these authors, and this efficiency is consistent throughout the essays.  He raises fascinating points but trusts the reader enough to allow the reader to come to their own conclusions.

Many Romantics were influenced by Platonic thought, but this doesn’t take away their materialism – it simply complicates it, suggesting that materialism is never a given…

Of particular note in this collection is the manner in which Pate writes about it.  It combines the freedom of a thought-piece with the intellectual rigor of academic papers and strikes an appreciable balance between the two.  There isn’t a single citation of secondary sources throughout the book, and there isn’t the need for one.  Pate is interacting with the poetry on a personal level and relaying his subjective perspective.  At the same time, the reader is never given cause to question his experience and knowledge of Gothic poetry.  He focuses on vital phrases and diction choices and is at no loss for words when deconstructing them.  The result is something that feels comfortably informal and approachable, while passionate enough to be taken seriously.

When the Internet exploded onto the technological and socio-economic scenes, it was met with boundless optimism and a surety that promised its power to allow humanity to ascend.  This is poignantly similar to the ages of Reason and Enlightenment, where the new information swelled the breasts of intellectuals and showed seemingly infinite possibilities.  Gothic poetry serves the same purpose now that it did then.  It questions, not out of pessimism but out of a healthy skepticism that challenges movements that consider themselves unstoppable.  It is the manifestation of human doubt, of a primal understanding that, while we have come a considerable distance, we have a responsibility to check our egos against the vastness of existence.  Pate’s essays do a stellar job of helping us reconnect with this necessary experience, and of helping us to acknowledge and appreciate the beauty in the process itself.

 

Flowers Among the Carrion is available now through Action Books.

Book Review

You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior

by on December 15, 2016

ebeidYou Ask Me To Talk About the Interior, by Carolina Ebeid

 

It is perhaps most difficult to see beauty when it lives in and around something horrid.  But the focus of vision does not preclude it from existing.  A pristine sky is unconcerned with tragedy and violence beneath it, and there is a strength in character, I think, in having the capacity to recognize both simultaneously.  That strength flows through You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior, a poetry collection written by Carolina Ebeid, in abundance.  This book is a fundamentally intense and vivid exploration of the universe we exist in and distort for ourselves, and one that embraces the echoing dualities of our lives not as contradictions but as ends of cyclical spectrums.

The poetry of this collection is not beholden to any one style.  The traditional mixes with the experimental as if the words are trying on different outfits.  Some poems exist in the tightest, most suffocating confines, while others sprawl out and leave luxurious gaps between their limbs.  The deliberate control over spacing and line breaks is regularly impressive throughout the book and, as one would expect, this allows for endless reengagement.  The greatest risk in this situation for a poetry collection is that the poems may end up feeling disorganized and hastily slapped together to fill space.  But Ebeid’s work handles any potential worry along such lines by utilizing a powerful and consistent tonal and thematic undercurrent.  Almost every poem utilizes evocative natural imagery and the duality beauty and grief.  This experience grips the reader in an intensely emotional way, forcing us to feel everything.  This is not a drug meant to banish pain or a device meant to torture.  The poetry embraces life in its sublime extremities.

In order to accomplish these sensations, Ebeid juxtaposes the almost unnervingly intimate with the sensory overload of the vast.  The various speakers of the collection are skeptical mothers, witnesses and victims of carnage, hopeful dreamers, and more, not to mention amalgams of all different types.

When I fell in love, I spoke / as a child & and dressed as a child

I lifted a lavender / heart, not the form inside / your rib cage

Again and again we find a contradiction-defying inclusion of innocence and experience as the poems move at random through time.  Whole lives are incorporated in this way, especially if one imagines speakers moving from poem to poem.  This collection, I feel, will get no small amount of recognition for its laments and remembrances, and rightly so.  But it includes much more than passive, negative reaction, and is all the stronger for it.  The full gamut of emotions is at play here and there is no shortage of critique.  Hypocrisy and inaction are exposed for the complicity they are, and traditional systems of comfort or explanation are challenged.

rings of white gold bring attention / bring persistence bring faith / in the persistence of what seems / most fated to die says the book

Aside from the sheer richness of the wordplay, I think one of my favorite aspects of this collection is its recognition of poetry as an interactive experience.  The use of varied structure and minimalist language provide the groundwork, allowing the reader to unpack and fill space with her own perspective.  But the poems will, at times, even directly engage the reader.  One stanza from the last poem in the collection reads like this:

reader, / I am emptied of me & you / of you / yourself keeps swarming out / until we are standing in a wide pool

Normally, this kind of direct address is frowned upon as lacking subtlety or wit.  But I think the poetry here more than makes its own case.  The speaker wants you to remember that you are reading.  Just as you are encouraged to embrace the good and the bad, the beautiful and the tragic, and the full extent of nature and humanity, you are also reminded that you are both inside and outside of the work itself.  It leaves the reader with a responsibility to carry this perspective with them beyond the closing of the book.  One could even read that stanza in a challenge.  Is the pool blood or some other essential?  Now that the speaker has emptied herself of herself, do you not have the responsibility to do the same?  The swarming out certainly indicates that the process has begun.

I highly recommend this collection for anyone who seeks, if you will pardon the cliché, food for thought.  The poetry here is infinitely digestible.  It is the kind of literature that you can and should keep reengaging with after thorough bouts of contemplation.  It operates on the vividly physical and the imposingly metaphysical, asking deeply complicated questions.  But it does not shrink from its own challenges.  It hints at origin points of answers and lays bare its suspicions.

 

You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior is available now through Noemi Press.

Book Review

Suite for Barbara Loden

by on December 13, 2016

suiteforbl-cover-front-235x299Suite for Barbara Loden, by Nathalie Lèger

Translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cècile Menon

 

A little backstory: In 1970, Barbara Loden wrote, produced, directed, and stared in a film called Wanda, which was semi-autobiographical, inspired by the true story of a woman who thanked a judge for sending her to prison, and the only feature film that Loden would ever write or direct.  Despite winning some early awards and critical acclaim, it was never widely distributed or seen in the United States.  As of today, thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated and appreciative individuals, the film has seen a restoration and is gaining some of the notoriety it deserves.  Enter Nathalie Lèger and Suite for Barbara Loden, a short novel that hybridizes literary styles in order to tell the not so simple stories of Barbara Loden, of Wanda, and of Nathalie herself as she attempts to construct the text from within and without.  The result is nothing short of wonderful.  As readers we are presented with a book that can exist in multiple spaces, resonating with frequencies that are simultaneously attuned for feminists, writers, survivors, and their allies.  It is a book from which humbling messages can be gleamed or which can satisfy on a purely linguistic, structural level.

The hardest thing is the words, how long it takes, he says, taking a sip of his drink, the concentration you need to work out what goes with what, how to put together a single sentence.  I had no idea that shaping a sentence was so difficult, all the possible ways there are to do it, even the simplest sentence, as soon as it’s written down, all the hesitations, all the problems.

The moment that quote is describing is an encounter with New York Yankees legend Mickey Mantle, and it elegantly encapsulates much of what is going on in Suite for Barbara Loden.  The idea applies equally well to speaking or to writing, really any use of language, once your mind has been exposed to the possibilities of discourse.  Through its own structure it displays the very concept it is explaining.  The commas are the hesitations.  The “concentration you need to work out what goes with what” is immediately evident – despite the constant pausing and reluctance and reconsideration, the sentences are grammatically correct throughout.  Moreover, the spirit of the quote, even though it is put in the mouth of Mantle, flows through Loden and Lèger as character and narrator of this text.  The care and deliberate choices being made give shape to truly unique and emotionally ensnaring read.  And this permeation, this blurring of boundaries between entities and experiences, eventually leads to an immersion that combines the pieces of the text in eye-opening ways.

To sum up.  A woman is pretending to be another (this we find out later), playing something other than a straightforward role, playing not herself but a projection of herself onto another, played by her but based on another.

The layering of reader, author, narrator, characters, and characters created by characters in this book is beautifully reflective and reality-distorting, akin to looking into one of two opposing and parallel mirrors as they echo into infinity.  This extends to the book’s relationship to its visual counterpart.  Like the film, the book never insists upon itself or makes claims at profundity.  The language used, while consistently harmonious and contemplative, is never superfluous or pedantic.  Several parts are delivered in a manner all too familiar to anyone who has written and read screenplays, though the attention to evocative detail in these sections is indicative of both a skilled prose writer who cannot abandon her craft and of a talented screenwriter who has a singular vision to put to page.  Despite switching characters and focalization, the text’s pacing and tone make its constituent parts feel unified, further reinforcing the storytelling continuum that exists at the book’s center.

I know from experience that to gain access to the dead you must enter this mausoleum that’s filled with papers and objects, a seal place, full to bursting yet completely empty, where there is barely room for you to stand upright.

Have you ever been in a room that contains people talking, and perhaps you are even part of the conversation, and the quietest person in that room says something that catches you totally off guard with both its conceptual power and its simultaneous humility?  That is the closest non-literary experience I can associate with reading Suite for Barbara Loden.  I never cease to marvel at or enjoy texts that, in a relatively short space (this book isn’t even 120 pages), manage to capture the essence of depthless experiences.  The book, like the film and actress it shadows, is an intricate, multi-faceted metacommentary on feminism, misogyny, film, personal identity, and, in the book’s specific case, writing.  It wears the bruises of abuse and dominance as evidence of a contradictory, self-serving system that trips over itself in the effort to perpetuate.  It explores the empathy and the obsession required to write and to understand someone else’s story.  I sincerely hope that this book is spared the confused ignominy that kept Wanda as a relative unknown for so long, because it deserves to be read.  By simply existing as it does, it earns its voice.

 

Suite for Barbara Loden is available now through Dorothy, A Publishing Project.

Book Review

Bruja

by on December 8, 2016

bruja-frontcover-final-1170x1783Bruja, by Wendy Ortiz

 

There is quite the argument going on about the significance of dreams.  Psychological and neurological studies of dreams often lean toward the conclusion that dreams are nothing more than the random firing of neurons displaying a kaleidoscopic patina of memories, fantasies, and nightmares.  I am sure that many of you, and I include myself in that number, have felt a deep and poignant significance to dreams, especially as they relate to the creative process.  In Wendy Ortiz’s dreamoir, Bruja, she finds an utterly fascinating middle ground between the two perspectives.  Except that even “middle ground” is insufficient; rather, she presents an inclusive, paradigm-shifting theory in narrative form, one that embraces the interconnectedness of stories, focalization, the unconscious, and how we construct reality.

By the nature of our physical senses, our perceptions of reality are inherently reconstructions.  Every conscious (and many an unconscious) moment, our minds take in information from the immediate past and assemble a structure that helps us to make workable sense out of existence.  In a very real sense, reality is a story we tell ourselves.  Bruja utilizes this concept to its fullest extent, but with an important constraint – it chooses to abandon any pretense of agreed upon linear structure.  By tapping into the dreams of the narrator, the text accepts the at least partially arbitrary nature of time, cause and effect, and significance.  While nominally organized by monthly chronological order, each section of the story delivers dream after dream, exhibiting the impossible alongside the cyclical and the seemingly random.

A silver shimmer moved through the outdoor fountain. A huge swordfish pushed through the water and hit air. Panic set in—the swordfish was the size of a small truck. I wanted to look but also wanted to run. I knew that many things would suddenly be growing huge in size. I wasn’t sure where to go.

This tone of delivery is thoroughly consistent throughout the book and it is beautifully appropriate.  The absurd and the amazing are presented as matter-of-fact and curious.  This flavor is not blasé and it is not meant to be; this comes from a perspective that routinely witnesses the miraculous and the terrible and which understands that they are not mutually exclusive, as if acknowledging the awe-inspiring while being ready to “run”.

One of the recurring elements in Bruja is packing and repacking luggage.  It is usually delivered in an almost throwaway fashion, at the opening of a section, and it frames the text that follows.  It is among the most significant symbolic acts in a text that one could argue is made entirely of symbolic acts.  The ideas of always being on the move, of refusing to settle, of living moments of lives rather than merely a life, are all tremendously powerful.  These ideas run smack into those of dreams as the narrator is quite literally packing and repacking these memories and fantasies and nightmares, rearranging them to see how they fit inside the container that is her own mind.  There is, at times, an almost desperate, obsessive-compulsive drive to accomplish this.

I packed my bags at least three times. I was booked on a trip to New York but I wondered if I would ever make it because the damn bags needed to be packed and unpacked and packed again.

What the text is describing, among other things, is the process of trying to make sense of a life and its myriad possibilities.  The narrator’s lovers meld together into a psychosexual amalgam, then fray apart into their own fragments in time.  The narrator is at times passive and submissive and at other times violent, ecstatic, and enraged.  Moreover, the experiences regularly refuse simple binary opposition – the text never renders judgment on behavior or beauty, because it cannot and remain honest.  The first thing I did after finishing the book was read it a second time, backwards, and not an ounce of meaning was lost for me.  Bruja remains loyal to one of its central themes: denying the linear mandatory primacy.

We had no sense of time; there was just the walking back and forth in this mysterious and beautiful place, knowing the beach was within walking distance.

I know I have been waxing philosophical in this review, but that is because I find Bruja so fascinating.  Even its title feels wonderfully apt; bruja is the Spanish word for witch, and Ortiz has commandeered it to encapsulate the experience of a woman who, by coming to understand secret knowledge about the universe, manifests the power to manipulate reality itself.  But, critically, the text never treats reality as an illusion.  The traumas, the loves, the living that is shown and hinted at throughout the book are no less real for their continual metamorphoses.  The malleable nature of experience does not render experience invalid or ineffectual.  Bruja conveys all of this with a simple, graceful elegance, baring the vulnerabilities of a soul without fear of rejection or the pride of showmanship, but with a hope that the presence of the reader will manifest even more possibilities.  It never forces you to reject your conclusions, but after reading it, you will be unable to accept your perspective as the only one.

 

Bruja is available now through Civil Coping Mechanisms.

Book Review

Lost Privilege Company

by on November 17, 2016

lpccoverfinalLost Privilege Company, or the book of listening

By The Blunt Research Group

 

It is not hard to get people to think about their legacies.  For many of us, it is one of the driving factors of our lives, sometimes passing the boundary of obsession with how we will be remembered.  But I think the question of legacy is far more complicated that most are willing to acknowledge.  It exists beyond mere perception and the excuse of plausible deniability.  I believe The Blunt Research Group is operating under such a notion with their collection Lost Privilege Company, or the book of listening.  The group, the members of which importantly remain nameless in the book, have taken up the cause of creating wonderfully imperfect echoes of voices long past.  In doing so, the reader is asked to disengage from self-absorption and consider what is truly happening around them.  Lost Privilege Company, or the book of listening is a combination of poetry collection and an almost polite manifesto, one that holds up the fragments of lives and souls and memories so that we might look upon what we have wrought.

The poetry of Lost Privilege Company is created and delivered within a fascinating and horrifying constraint – every phrase of the poem comes from the case files of imprisoned juveniles, a disproportionate amount of whom were children of color.  Many of these children were offered up for pseudo-scientific experimentation and left at the mercy of eugenics researchers who sought evidence to confirm their deeply prejudiced beliefs.  Make no mistake: this is not a conspiracy theory or something out of an Orwell novel.  As the introduction to the book explains, such “science” is a very real part of American (and especially Californian) history.  This context, the pulling of lines from case files, adds a deeply unsettling and immersive quality to the poems.  To be sure, the poems are beautiful on their own, crafted with intimate care and profound connections, but the atmosphere around each of them is akin to having discovered the case files yourself and being forced to confront the ashes of potential beauty.

     as a method of discipline

the boy’s mother put coal oil on paper           lit it
and held it to her children’s feet

The “inmates” are described as having been incarcerated for antisocial behavior and delinquency, and each poem is constructed as a tribute to one of the children.  The refusal to obey traditional structure pays homage to those who, even at a young age, would defy the enforcement of social norms.  The interspersing of lines from the wards throughout each poem echoes the judgment and psychological intrusions that these “professionals” would force upon the children.  The fading of names behind the text of each poem is a beautiful, bone-chilling, and multi-level reminder of how little is left of the victims.  Many of these children were sterilized.  Many of them died.  Many had their sanity and identities discarded for the sin of nonconformity.  But the files, and now these poems, are what remain.  Doubtless for many cases, they are the only recourse to memory left.

   not a dirtier boy   in the house vile
and effeminate

taking short cuts across orchards

The second half of the book is given over to a space called “the book of listening”.  Here, the form changes from poetry to prose, or perhaps prose poetry.  It makes no attempt to define itself.  Each page of this section contains a stand-alone thought, or sequence of thoughts, that never plays out in more than a paragraph.

Having somehow gained permission to listen to an unknown voice, must one pledge not to harm or betray that voice?  What would that mean?  And would it ever be possible not to break one’s vow, one’s oath, to the voices one has solicited?

In our sociological environment, one that has yet again proven itself to be full of echo chambers and unknown voices, I find the thoughts presented of Lost Privilege Company to be beautiful and poignant.  The text questions and questions, leaving little unexamined, exploring good intentions and responsibility, as well as whether ignorance is any excuse.  Are we absolved of the sins of our fellow humans simply because we were not aware of the atrocities or the hate that spawned them?  What obligation do we have in the aftermath of such things, even (or perhaps especially) when all that is left are the pieces of past?  I described this section of the book as a “polite” manifesto, and I really mean that.  This is not meant to indoctrinate or make demands.  Rather, it asks questions and leaves you to sit in your new awareness, having pricked the bubble of your comfort zone.

In reading this book, I am reminded of a quote that is very debatably attributed to Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  To be clear, this quote is hilariously and depressingly ironic because of its gender bias and because that kind of willful inaction in the face of tragedy is a hallmark of the conservatism Burke championed.  But the spirit of the quote, the idea that inaction is dangerous and creates complicity, is powerfully echoed in Lost Privilege Company.  The book stretches out its hands, full of the remnants of the otherwise unremembered, and asks you what will you do now.

 

Lost Privilege Company is available now through Noemi Press.

Book Review

States of Terror

by on November 15, 2016

statesofterrorStates of Terror, Vol. 3

edited by Matt E. Lewis and Keith McCleary

 

It is incredibly easy to become desensitized to the “horrifying”. Mainstream horror, regardless of the medium, all too often mistakes disgust for fear and utilize the grotesque and the visceral without understanding the difference between discomfort and dread. True fear is a thing intimately familiar and yet fundamentally alien, a state of mind that taps into the primal need to survive and defy the vastness of an unfathomable cosmos. Whether we run from the psychopath with a meat cleaver or stare into the eye of a Lovecraftian abyssal, we are reacting to the same drives, the same existential nightmares, and the same fear of oblivion. But when we are exposed to gore or brutality or monstrosity that exists for its own sake, we are subconsciously and unintentionally encouraged that fear is merely a fantasy, a high to be tasted rather than a vehicle to explore what it is to be mortal and of dubious significance.

 

I believe this perspective is why I enjoyed States of Terror Vol. 3 so much. The book is an anthology of independent short stories that plays out like a menagerie of forgotten dreams. Each story takes up its own “monster”, its own fear-inducing subject, and brings it to life like a scientist too wrapped up in the means to comprehend the ends. But the goal is not to cause fear. This anthology is much smarter than that. It generates real fear through its storytelling, as a byproduct of the tales being told. It does not tell you that you should be afraid. Through consistently quality writing, it describes things that are genuinely terrifying and allows you to confront them yourself.

 

and forced more and more of my hand inside the widening and convulsing opening I created, working the lower jaw down farther from the upper until at last with a little elbow grease and a heave it gave way with a crack,

– Justin Hudnall, “Hierarchy of Meats”

 

In order for the fear to not be the ends, the characters must be multi-dimensional. States of Terror takes this idea and fully embraces it, not only giving their characters depth but fleshing out the emotions and psychologies of both predators and prey. There are no damsels in distress, mindless heroes, or inexplicable villains. Moreover, the lines between the supernatural and the psychological are so blurred they might as well be nonexistent. Some stories present very human dangers and distrust. Others present nightmares given form, existing to spite the notion of the impossible. Many stories can be seen as the minds of victims processing trauma. All of the stories make a point to give that which are afraid of a relatable dimension. The things that drive the monsters are the things that drive us, and the reader is left unable to honestly say where one ends and another begins.

 

Hunger: a stone. Ache in the gut, twist in the spine, red behind the eyes. Sharpness of the teeth hunger. Frog bird frog fish mud hiker stork coon possum frog—sharper sharper sharper every bite. My stomach, not: fullness. An elsewhere hunger in words.

– Gabriella Santiago, “Words and Things”

 

That ambiguity is the source of the most fundamental dread in States of Terror. Our own minds are often the best tools with which to scare us, allowing our imaginations to conjure the most personal of demons. This anthology understands this and, while it uses ideas and creatures with some notoriety, it draws the reader in and leaves the reader staring at mutated fun-house reflections.

 

On a more basic level, States of Terror, Vol 3. is just plain well-written. It never really insists upon itself and it uses spine-tingling creepiness to create layer upon layer of atmosphere. Some stories are very traditionally delivered, with concise effectiveness and little to no wasted space. Others play with language as the inconstant medium that it is, denying the reader an easy pace and drawing every word and phrase into focus like the digits and limbs of a corpse that has been bent into a disturbingly creative new shape. The changes in style really help the readability of the whole anthology. None of the stories feel like duplicates. Those that have more familiar elements engender the feeling of exchanging sweat-inducing tales around a campfire. Those that are more experimental are like the instant of waking up in the middle of the night and hoping that reality is as you remember it.

Her that looked like me but was cold and hairless. Felt the growing cold and the swift darkness. Dragged her into the light, the orange beacon where stones were thrown and I tasted salty descending. Slowly. Into the warmth of the ruddy whispers and watched her boil.

– Janice Lee, “Growing Colder”

 

One thing about this book that cannot be overlooked is that, while it is the last of a three part series, it stands entirely well on its own, not unlike the stories that comprise it. I have not read either Vol. 1 or Vol. 2, and while reading Vol. 3, I never felt like I was missing part of the experience. That said, the quality of Vol. 3 is such that I now fully intend to read both of the first two volumes. States of Terror, Vol. 3 is fun and dread-inducing and it remains quality literature throughout, never forgetting what it set out to do.

 

States of Terror Vol. 3 is available now through Ayahuasca Publishing

Book Review

The Orchid Stories

by on November 2, 2016

tumblr_odeja9lykb1s9mfo5o1_1280The Orchid Stories, by Kenward Elmslie

 

If there is any hope of fully understanding what language and literature are capable of, then nothing can be held as sacred.  Not sacred in the sense of subjective moralities, but sacred as an unquestionable, inviolate principle.  There are, in my opinion, no universal truths about literature and language, despite centuries of philosophers and critics searching for them.  “Universal truths” attempt to confine and restrain things of perpetual motion, and with them, we would not have works like The Orchid Stories by Kenward Elmslie.  The word that I keep returning to when considering this text is “multidimensional”, and I mean that in the vein of a true reality altering context.  This is a novel, or it is a collection of interrelated short stories, or it is both.  This is a kaleidoscopic cavalcade of language that twists and inverts and prisms, immune to easy interpretation and existential consensus.

I am not using hyperbole when I say that there may be no practical end to the metaphors I could use to describe the experience of reading the language of this book.  A shaman, high on narcotics, experiencing the dilation of time and space.  An artificial intelligence processing a rapid succession of human behaviors and attempting to compile a working grammatical base for the English language.  A homeless man walking along a crowded city street, shouting his fever and frustrations at the giant buildings and the ants that mill about them.

“A feeling of immense power surged through me, as if outward moving weather map arrows were under my control, and were speeding from the Arctic Circle, in all directions, gathering momentum, darkening skies above valleys and mountains into a huge black bruise.  Ach, the bigger the surge, the fainter the tune, the bigger the mystery, the sadder the letdown.”

So much of the book is written like this, with rushes of sensation abruptly punctuated by confounding comparisons and deeply intimate but untranslated conjecture.  It is infuriating and fascinating in the same breath.  The Orchid Stories is written with an entirely unique sense of language, one that shares vague similarities to that which dominates our culture but also one that operates on an entirely different level.  The effect of this is that the book is ultimately unconcerned with anything but the conversation that is writing itself.  This is a book written for writers, borrowing established literary conventions and putting pieces of them in a fashion reminiscent of a child building a franken-toy out of plastic limbs and repurposed joints.

The structure of this text is not, in the strictest sense, unprecedented.  Many other authors, of which the most well-known is probably Joyce, have blended styles and techniques to deliver narrative in a way that never permits the brain to relax and become complacent.  But Elmslie extends this ethos to the narrative being told.  The text will tell part of one story in prose, then jump to another part of another story and tell it as the script of a play, then digress into some truly beautiful poetry, only to return to the original prose, as if completely incapable or unwilling to present one narrative perspective.  If this sounds intimidating or frustrating, that is because it is.  But it is also the kind of thing that those with a love of the complex potential for language live for.

“I looked up.  Attack of ‘trapdoor-it is’ – nostalgia for the ‘Native Innards’ box reposing back in Hode…

Wisps.  Streaks.  Puffing up.  Laser vibrations / constricted on my thumbnail.  Instant intensity! / Circles in assorted colors widen – steady flow. / Hurts my eyes.”

And in taking the time to carefully read, a reader realizes that the story being told, while open to interpretation, is not sacrificed for its unconventional delivery.  The narrator(s) of the story deals with very real trauma and multiple methods of processing it, and the text itself can be seen as the mind’s attempt to grapple with that trauma, in the mold of Kafka or Vonnegut.  The multitude of cultural and geographical references help to engender the feeling of a narrator freed from anchoring at a particular point of spacetime, as does the constant references to physical motion.  The narrator, and the text through which we experience the narrator, never cease their momentum.  Even character identities are not stable.  The Bubbers become the Mummys with little to no explanation.  The narrator is never given a name, leaving only his language for us to identify him.  This is the impermanence subjectivity of meaning woven through the whole of the text, and it reflects the inconstancy of dealing with pain, confusion, and the need for clarity.

I highly recommend this book, unless your preferences are limited only to popular writing.  The Orchid Stories is complex and demanding.  You cannot read this text quickly and begin to grasp its depth.  It is as if it was written specifically to defy a quick glance, with careful sequences of words that are delightfully absurd enough to make your brain instinctively pause and process meaning.  It has the same addictive qualities of any series of engaging puzzles or riddles or word problems, leaving you satisfied upon coming to a conclusion and yet eager to parse more.

 

The Orchid Stories is available now through The Song Cave.

Book Review

Defiant Pose

by on October 27, 2016

defiantpose-coverDefiant Pose, by Stewart Home

 

Editor’s Note: This review contains NSFW material.

Mary Louise Pratt introduced the definition of what she referred to as “contact zones” into the study of the critical theories of literature.  Contact zones are the spaces where two or more cultures “meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power”.  The literature produced in such spaces can push boundaries and destabilize comfort zones like no other kind, because it exists as racial ideological confrontation in text form.  It challenges for the sake of challenging, often co-opting symbols and idols of the cultures creating the contact zone in order to mold images and ideas that can be beatific, horrifying, or both.  Defiant Pose by Stewart Home is such a piece of literature.  It is a visceral, transgressive, surrealist exploration of culture and counter-culture, one that subverts everything it comes into contact with, even itself, and one that pins the reader’s eyes open.

Defiant Pose revolves around the character of Terry Blake, an English skinhead anarchist who relentlessly presses on in the pursuit of ideological disruption and sexual gratification.  To be clear, the use of skinhead here refers to the original definition, that of people motivated by an attachment to the working class and a general disgust with bourgeois and hippie culture, often associated with the punk scene and anarchism.  It does not refer to the Neo-Nazi cultures that have borrowed aesthetics from the skinheads.  Terry is an idealized avatar of this original skinhead culture, from his tireless dedication to his cause to his vast knowledge of competing ideologies to his almost supernatural sexual prowess.  He is dominant in almost all things, able to out argue, out fuck, and outwit practically any obstacle in his path.  As the novel lays out its story, it reads less like a fictionalized account of rebellion and more like a counter-culture wet dream.

Love juice boiled through his prick like workers pouring out of a factory after a mass meeting has decided on a strike

And this is entirely intentional.  The novel is absurd, rife with coincidences and red herrings of meaning, leaving the reader as energized and frustrated as Terry is in the rare moments where he is denied sexual release.  The effects of this are fascinating.  Defiant Pose simultaneously serves as both glorification and critique of this style of counter-culture, aggressively exposing itself and its subjects to the reader, to shock and satirize.  The novel is consistently pornographic, describing sexual encounters in detail and yet never losing the absurdist, surrealist nature in such descriptions, flaunting its sexuality in the same manner an action movie might pseudo-worship violence.  The work is completely unconcerned with accessibility for those who are unwilling to shore up their sensibilities and consider why these depictions may carry commentary in and of themselves.

This forced intimacy is very much the product of contact zones.  Heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality are all utilized to show how they are zones on a non-linear spectrum, rather than wholly identifiable and separate concepts.  Anarchism, nihilism, fascism, communism, and capitalism are all at war (quite literally, eventually) with one another, and each is gutted to reveal the hypocrisy and inconsistency of its inner workings.  There are consistent appropriations by these allegedly distinct entities or schools of thought, ranging from a Neo-Nazi who is caught having homosexual intercourse with individuals of ethnic minorities to a police officer whose public image is against racism but who instigates riots and hate crimes in a convoluted plot to better protect his community.  In particular, the Union Jack is used again and again, specifically with the intent of co-opting what it represents.  Terry wears it as a pattern for his underwear, and the coalition he engineers wears it as they go into battle.

Hundreds of soul brothers had donned Union Jack t-shirts in a move they knew would put the fear of God into the partisans of the League of Racial Loyalists. Imagine the confusion of the average fascist once he was confronted by a multiracial army clad in what the bigots believed was their own triumphal flag!

There is a dissonant pride in both Terry and the mob at their success of pillaging the symbol to wear it over what they consider important to them.  For the mob, the Union Jack now protects their bodies like the crosses that medieval crusaders would paint on their hauberks and shields.  For Terry, the Union Jack cradles his penis and stares his sexual partners in the face any time his pants are removed.

Defiant Pose is a novel that has attracted and will attract a wash of criticism.  Accusations of racism, sexism, and moral depravity have been levied against it and, to be absolutely clear, all three of those things are abundantly present in this novel.  But those accusations are also missing the point.  These elements are tools used to make social critique and commentary.  The text is a kind of mimetic, fun-house mirror, intentionally distorting and objectifying but still ultimately showing a glaring reflection of a society with deep-seeded, otherwise ignored flaws.  When Joyce Grant, Terry’s girlfriend and the only person that he concedes occasional sexual dominance to, willingly engages in orgies or pisses in Terry’s mouth, she is owning her own sexuality.  When Brian Smith, a racist nationalist who cannot reconcile his fears and his closeted homosexuality, tries to “valiantly” inspire his tribe into battle, he is violently reminded that his perspective and actions have consequences.  This fun-house effect continues even unto the end of the story, which I will not spoil here, because while the novel is twenty-five years old, I would argue not enough people have read it.  The ending is completely unexpected and yet somehow wholly appropriate as a capstone for the text, both absurd and enjoyably frustrating.  In light of the recent “Brexit” vote and the rise of Donald Trump and the “alt-right” in the United States, I find myself glad that Defiant Pose is screaming its perspective into the saturated air and forcing us to come to terms with that which we would normally shun.

 

Defiant Pose is available now from Penny-Ante Editions.

Book Review

Reel

by on October 19, 2016

downloadReel, by Tobias Carroll

 

Tobias Carroll’s Reel is a fascinating observation on interconnectedness, cause and effect, and the absurdity of the arbitrary values we imbue upon moments of our lives.

This novel shows a penchant for defying prediction.  Its plot is cleverly arranged such that there are teasing moments where the reader is encouraged to guess at what might come next, only for those guesses to prove completely wrong.  This is not a case of twists for the sake of twists; rather, the sequences of events play out as the lives of two people would, unexpected because real lives are just that.  Despite the connective bookends at the beginning and end of the novel, there is a consistent rejection of storytelling conventions that never calls attention to itself and therefore avoids causing the story to stumble.  Red herrings are raised again and again (one in particular would make Chekhov roll in his grave), but even calling them “red herrings” is problematic, because they are more akin to the details that two obsessive, meaning-driven people like the protagonists would consistently take note of.  We as readers immediately attach meaning and have to confront the fact that any disappointment in the lack of significance for those elements is both our fault and misplaced.  In this, Reel serves as a meta-commentary on art and its consumption, beyond the surface layer the protagonists’ employment.  The novel highlights the subjectivity of experience and how easily such experiences can be manipulated or even randomly and irrevocably altered.

While nothing happens in the novel that would easily fit under the definition of absurdist, it still leaves such a taste in the mouth, which leaves considerable food for thought.  The sequence of the plot plays out in what I can best describe as a romantic comedy in reverse, where the fated meeting of the protagonists occurs early and the story ends with an unexpected, almost deus-worthy connection.  The effect of this is powerful in how it asks the reader to look beyond quick impressions and dismissive leaps to presumptive conclusions.  In its own way, it subtly shows the consequences of not exploring the truth depth in people and how that lack of curiosity and engagement engenders feelings of isolation and stagnation.  At yet, despite that, the characters of the novel are profoundly affected by their interaction, even when that interaction is brief and unpleasant.  Imagine how often your mind discards other people from its memory, even those who momentarily frustrate or obstruct you.  In a true hallmark of quality storytelling, Reel highlights the potential of imagining people complexly, and without being preachy about it.

One moment of particular note is the catalyst for the story’s action.  Early on, Timon, one of the protagonists, attempts to start something like a mosh pit, though his efforts to make it inclusive are highly suspect, and he ends up alone, thrashing and wantonly impacting people for what is probably close to half an hour.  The moment is beautifully symbolic for reasons that will become apparent when you read Reel, but for me, by the end of the novel, one idea inspired by that moment stuck out from the rest.  There is, I think, a subtle class commentary underpinning much of this novel.  We the readers are essentially presented with the effects of boredom and how it drives so much of what those of the middle and upper classes do.  Timon in particular, while acutely aware of his depression and dissatisfaction, seems curiously oblivious to his privilege, especially and most immediately with regards to the fact that he has a wealthy family to react against in the first place.  This is not to take away from very real fear of being coerced into becoming something he does not want to be, but his one man mosh pits still resonate with the idea that his struggle is as much a form of acting out as it is any real expression.  In this, I think Carroll’s work is much more self-aware than other books that have societal disillusionment as a theme, such as Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.  Timon might not feel the significance of receiving wads of twenties for lunch with his grandfather, but the reader definitely does.

I think the last word should go to Marianne, the novel’s other protagonist.  She is a woman of displacement, or perhaps it is better to say that she is a woman of repeated placement.  If Timon represents a locus of indecisiveness, then Marianne is a commitment to action.  She and Timon are very similar in many ways, especially concerning their mutual uncertainty and their talent for over-analysis, but Marianne possesses a strength that I think the novel is suggesting would do many people like her some good.  She makes decisions for her own reasons, even if she deeply questions those decisions and reasons, rather than allowing herself to be dragged along for the ride and submitting what little control she has.  There are, of course, unintended consequences to this, and she is no less guilty of presumptiveness than Timon, but the same could be said of anyone and anyone’s actions.

Overall, Reel is both an easy read and a deeply philosophical book, which is no meager feat.  It leaves you wanting to consider other people in more substantial ways, if for no other reason that you understand wanting to be treated as a person with depth.

 

Reel is available now through Rare Bird Books.

Book Review

Origins of the Universe and What It All Means

by on October 13, 2016

9781938103919-frontcoverOrigins of the Universe and What It All Means, by Carole Firstman

 

Mob justice, internet shaming, and the court of public opinion – we live in a time where much of what we considered private has been and will be exposed, for better or worse.  Sometimes, it does tremendous good, shedding light on genuine evil that is operating in the shadows.  Other times, it can be a thing of true cruelty, unfairly and brutally harming someone beyond what a transgression might actually call for.  And often times we are wildly inconsistent about what we are or are not willing to excuse.  The real failing in all of this comes when we fail to imagine people complexly, when we give in to the impulse to treat our heroes as infallible and our villains as inhuman.  Carole Firstman’s Origins of the Universe and What It All Means stands in subtle yet brilliant contrast to that overly simplistic worldview, taking its readers to a place where they must consider the full extent of what it means to be human.

On the surface, Origins is a memoir.  But much of the real substance of the novel lies in its exploration of cause and effect, particularly with regard to how they relate to the narrator’s self-image.  The symbolic wealth present here is hard to overstate – the resonance of the biological tree of arachnids, the scientific descriptions of the effects of brain chemistry, and the repeated use of evolution to frame the narrator’s thoughts are clever and powerful.  As we watch the narrator delve into her relationship with her father, we are very much presented with the daughter of a scientist, a daughter who has inherited his near obsessive need for methodology and objective pattern.  She is detail-oriented and precise, turning over her memories again and again to look for patterns or new evidence.  But she is also very much a daughter of her mother, a character who, while not receiving nearly as much exposure as the father, presents an influence just as strong as his.  The narrator cannot simply excuse her father’s behavior, either as a consequence of his mental state or as the product of some ideology.  She has strong, instinctual emotions, and an emotional intelligence that her father seems to lack, and she is forced to come to terms with the internal duality this creates.

Dad created a perfectly detailed but flat rendition of a non-human organism. He created the center of his montage universe. Mom created an imperfect portrait of the woman who came before us, a rendition that oozes with sharp-tongued personality.

Structurally, Origins does a fantastic job of using this duality again and again to energize everything from pacing to plot.  Tangential memories are frequent and always feel vital to the main story being told, without feeling overt in their relevance.  Deeply introspective and confessional moments are cut with descriptions of action that are allowed to speak for themselves.  Conversations and other dialogue are used sparingly but usually with impeccable timing and layer upon layer of meaning.  If the narration can be said to spare little expense in expounding on possibilities, then the dialogue can be said to be both minimalist and extremely effective.  This efficiency extends to the chapters themselves, which are arranged to serve as both independent individual stories and part of a greater whole.  Any one of these chapters could be excised from the text and presented as its own work to proper acclaim.  And yet somehow the overall novel feels like a real novel, rather than an anthology.  The chapters also manage to reinforce the clinical, scientific nature of the text.  In their self-existence, they can stand as small specimens to be examined and studied.

The thing really being examined at the heart of Origins is the narrator’s relationship with her father, and the whole of the experience, from the reader’s standpoint, is beautiful and upsetting.  There are several heartbreaking or genuinely uncomfortable moments where, were this a work of rote fiction, we would likely see the narrator’s father descend into some villainous madness.  But there are moments where he is every bit a hero, whether in something small like picking up his daughter from school or something huge like saving her life in an earthquake.  The narrator genuinely does not know “how to feel” about the man, and she seems to slowly come to a place where she realizes that she must feel all of it in order to remain honest.  This in turn allows her to realize that she in turn is not the “protagonist” of existence, an understanding that most of us fail to acquire.  Firstman’s use of this is exceptionally powerful in a first person novel, and watching her narrator understand that events happen, rather than happen to her, is valuable and profound.

Wait. I take that back. Truth be told, I actually do understand why he is the way he is. What I wonder is why I ended up with such a parent.

I think my favorite contradiction in Origins is the simple rejection of simplicity.  Firstman does not attempt anything revolutionary with language or adorn her words with copious flourish.  The narrative is relatively straightforward in a climate where experimental is increasingly the order of the day.  But like the narrator, I was left humbled and appreciative of the fact that, despite my brain’s attempts otherwise, the universe and its meaning cannot be reduced down to basic concepts such as good and evil.  The novel isn’t claiming that such concepts do not exist or are irrelevant, but it is pointing out that we all exist as a combination of those concepts, and many, many more.

 

Origins of the Universe and What It All Means is available now through Dzanc Books.

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