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Michael Browne

Michael Browne is a music publicist and writer living in West LA. His writing has recently appeared in Fractal Magazine and Entropy. He is a contributor at NoEcho.net.

Book Review

Sonata in K

by on February 22, 2017

Sonata in K by Karen An-Hwei Lee

 

Sonata in K is the debut novel by San Diego based poet Karen An-Hwei Lee. Naturally, much of Sonata in K feels exceedingly poetic at times – the prose majestic and ornate – but the real pleasure derived from reading Sonata in K comes from the inventive imagination behind this kaleidoscopic work.

Sonata in K is a finely crafted intellectual novel packed with lush and decadent language that brings the 20th century Czech writer back to life in tender detail. The prose possesses an elevated, intellectual quality to it that never wanders too far into abstraction and always dazzles. Lee also doesn’t shy away from a cornucopic use of language. Ever the polyglot, Lee incorporates German, Hebrew, Spanish, and Japanese (to recall just a few), that accrete to form a text that is rich in language, culture, and ideas.

However, the novel’s great successes are not only to be found within the ornate prose. Sonata in K is a living, breathing, ornament of self-consciousness, intertextuality, and playfulness that when combined with a simulacrum (or maybe not) of Kafka, becomes a wholly original literary enterprise. The playfulness of the novel is apparent from the preface, where the reader is told that “K is not K.” and that “Kafka-San is not Franz Kafka.” The reader only has to venture a few pages in before understanding that these declarations are nothing more than a playful ruse. Kafka-san is indeed Kafka, albeit reimagined, reincarnated, possibly holographic, or all of the above.

The novel follows a Nisei interpreter named “K,” who has been chosen to be a translator for the recently revived Kafka or “Kafka-san.” The story is set in modern day Los Angeles and takes place over the course of a few days, as the interpreter “K” escorts Kafka-san to and from a hotel to meetings with the very kafkaesque studio executives Mann No. 1 and Mann No. 2. The meetings between Kafka-san and these men become more absurd as the frequency of the sessions increase. Kafka-san begins to find himself tangled in a web of bizarre script ideas involving a rhinoceros in love that the men allege the origins of to Kafka-san. In a subtle indictment of the entertainment industry at large, when talking about Mann No. 1 and Mann No. 2 Kafka-san remarks:

Couldn’t tell whether they were ingenious artists, con-artists, or hooligans.

As a playful allusion to Kafka’s harsh authoritarian father Hermann, Mann No. 1 and Mann No. 2 represent some of the biggest thematic ideas of Kafka’s works. They are a representation of the absurd and enigmatic bureaucracy of the entertainment world. These menschen also possess a vague and possibly illusory authority over Kafka-san, as it is hinted that they were the ones who brought Kafka-san back to life, and therefore have the power to send him “back into the ether.”

During his stay in Los Angeles, K and Kafka-san visit LA Live, Koreatown, and the Malibu coast – among other notable locales – making many gastronomical stops along the way. He marvels at the eradication of tuberculosis, the local hockey team, the apocalyptic levels of smog, underground aquifers, and pasteurized cream. The oft-jaundiced view of Los Angeles is satirized here to an extent, but by the end of the novel, despite the “shmutz of Angeleno air,” Kafka-san seems to be reinvigorated by the city:

Never felt it so keenly, not in the days of my youth, under the household tyranny of my father. Hermann. The original Mister Mann, yes. Yes. Never when I was flying kites as a university student, this shop-girl or that shop-girl… Now, I am weary with a maelstrom desire to live.

Sonata in K is also in constant conversation with the letters Kafka wrote during his life that were then published posthumously. There are allusions to these letters throughout the text, and most notably in the letters from Kafka-san to Max Brod that appear scattered throughout. Letter topics range from marveling over his 129th birthday, to the presence of thousands of bottles of mineral water at a cafe, to radishes not being radishes, and the knowledge that his sisters have since passed away. In particular, the astonishment over the thousands of bottles of mineral water alludes to a letter Kafka wrote while living out his final days in the Viennese sanatorium, where his tuberculosis gave him a “desire for good mineral water.” This sharp intertextuality is one of the many aspects of Sonata in K that makes it such an intellectually stimulating and pleasurable read for both the scholarly and casual Kafka enthusiast.

That said, one does not need to be wholly familiar with the late Czech writer to enjoy Lee’s remarkable debut novel. Sonata in K provides a banquet of elevated ideas and consciousness that should place it on many best of lists within the indie literary circuit. Through Sonata in K, Lee has given us a richly inventive text that will not only please fans of Kafka, but also the polyglot, the satirist, the poet, the stylist, and yes, the Angeleno foodie.

 

Sonata in K is now available via Ellipsis Press.

 

Book Review

Baloney

by on January 10, 2017

9781552453391_cover1_rb_fullcoverBaloney by Maxime Raymond Bock

Translated by Pablo Strauss

 

Baloney is a new novella by emerging French-Canadian writer Maxime Raymond Bock, translated from the original French by Pablo Strauss. The book presents a fascinating character study of the utterly unremarkable but prolific fictional poet Raymond “Baloney” Lacerte, as he navigates various poetry circles and a vaguely imitative bohemian lifestyle. From the first opening lines of the book, we understand that we are being introduced not to a poet of great stature or prominence – but the exact opposite – a kind of faux-poet whose nickname within the East-Montreal poetry scene was “Baloney,” and whose complete poetry output was perceived as such. The unexceptional nature of Lacerte seemed to have been stamped on him upon his very birth, a day that saw “ninety-four other people” born in Quebec on November 18th, 1941. The novella begins thusly and like all masters of opening sentences, Bock has given us everything we need to know about our protagonist with beautiful restraint and an unmitigated frankness that colors the entirety of this wonderful entry from the Quebec literary scene.

The novella is narrated by a struggling – and much younger – poet, who meets Lacerte at a poetry reading. The narrator, who remains without a name throughout, has lost his knack for poetry and has traded in his creative faculties for the banality of family life and a career. After meeting Lacerte the narrator finds a strange degenerate company in him. He hopes that by merely being around Lacerte, he’ll be able to foster the creative spark he lost to the creative wasteland of family life. Upon going through Lacerte’s archive of writings however, the narrator soon discovers Lacerte’s writings to be “meagre pickings,” and “Just plain bad really: even as a failed fellow poet, I couldn’t find another way to slice it.” The narrator resigns to the fact that Raymond “Baloney” Lacerte was indeed, baloney. A fraud of the highest order. Regardless of this discovery, the narrator maintains a closeness to Lacerte until his final days, for reasons that remain unqualified and unknown even to the narrator.

Stylistically, the book often feels like a picaresque novel, as it chronicles Lacerte’s bohemian adventures. From running away from a lumber camp as a child, to a bizzare and derelict life in South America, to the East Montreal poetry scene, the novella is void of any true plot and replaced by the fractured events of Lacerte’s life. A lifelong poseur and true anti-hero, Raymond “Baloney” Lacerte rests on the periphery of the poetry world – and the actual world for that matter – never quite getting the recognition he desires, despite an extensive output that the narrator calls at one point, “typical hackneyed mad-genius writer shit.” Raymond “Baloney” Lacerte is the poster child of the deadbeat artist. A career faux-poet. Interestingly, Bock does well to not insert any sentimentality into our reading of Lacerte. If there is any empathy directed toward Lacerte, it is directed toward his utter disconnection from his family. A family where the closest member Yves – Lacerte’s brother – has been dead for fifteen years by the time the narrator meets Raymond. Otherwise, there is nothing but what the narrator calls a “morbid curiosity,” for a writer that spent all his life “borrowing, imitating, slipping through the cracks pretending, and pretending only to himself.” At its best, Baloney reveals the artifice of the poet lifestyle as some kind of game to be played, as something easily hacked, and evidently, a kind of con. Ultimately, Lacerte is a kind of has-been picaro figure: bumming and conning his way through life, while undergoing very little change, and possessing a cliche wanderlust that nearly gets him killed in South America. All of the cliche bohemian / “beat” traits abound within Robert “Baloney” Lacerte, to a degree that borders on the satirical. “Baloney” Lacerte is a “beat” but without the spiritual hunger and transcendence – without anything at all really.

The relative brevity of Baloney allows us just enough time with a character as unfortunate as Lacerte. It’s almost as if Bock cleverly did not deem Raymond “Baloney” Lacerte worthy of any more of the reader’s time. There was no room for elaborations or chapter long diversions. Bock felt like there was simply nothing more to be said, and that is perhaps the most powerful statement made here: Lacerte’s unremarkable life is easily chronicled within eighty-eight swift pages, and that’s that. Move along.

Baloney ultimately reveals the sometimes hyperbolic idealism and fetishism of the poet lifestyle as empty, via the con of Lacerte’s life as a “poet.” Baloney also nicely cements Maxime Raymond Bock’s position at the forefront of an exciting literary scene in Quebec, and thanks to Pablo Strauss’ surefire English translation, should put Bock on the literary radar of anglophone readers as well.

 

Baloney is now available via Coach House Books.

Book Review

My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor

by on November 22, 2016

9780306824067My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor

by Keith Morris (with Jim Ruland)

 

Keith Morris, founding member of the classic Los Angeles hardcore punk bands Black Flag and Circle Jerks, has just released a new memoir that takes us back to the embryonic days of the Los Angeles punk scene. A career renaissance man, My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor, charts Morris from his youth in the sleepy south bay town of Hermosa Beach, to his notorious stature as frontman of Black Flag and Circle Jerks, to his battle with diabetes and formation of OFF! My Damage strips away the legend of Morris and sheds light into areas of his life that have been unilluminated until now. With so many rock memoirs being bloated exercises in ego and hyperbole, My Damage takes the road less traveled and paints Morris as humble punk rock guru. The book ultimately solidifies Morris amongst the most likeable guys in a musical landscape that is filled with so many titanic egos.

My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor was penned by Morris, with Jim Ruland (founder of local So-Cal reading series, “Vermin on the Mount”) lending a contributing hand. The book is written in a fairly conversational tone, with Morris’s deadpan, self-deprecating humor appearing in flourishes. The delivery is as blunt and direct as Morris’s extensive musical catalog, and Ruland does well here to not obscure Morris’s true voice in favor of more richly stylized prose. The result is a wild and no holds barred trip down memory lane to the beginnings of Southern California hardcore punk, and a look at the life and survival of one of its main progenitors. My Damage is not unlike other rock memoirs. Passages and anecdotes of spiraling excess (Morris smoking crack with David Lee Roth), battles with alcohol abuse, inter-band rivalries, and cautionary tales of the music industry are all here. What separates My Damage however, is the tenderness by which Morris describes his battles with addiction, diabetes, and a world that has been perpetually “up his ass.” Unlike so many of Morris’s peers, his tone is charmingly affable throughout My Damage, which gives it an endearing quality that is lacking in the memoirs of Morris’s peers.

My Damage not only chronicles the personal struggles of Morris, but also charts the nascent hardcore punk movement that helped shape not only the underground and DIY ethos of the scene in Los Angeles, but worldwide. We are given intimate accounts of the seminal Black Flag and Circle Jerks, the untapped promise of Morris’s oft-forgotten Bug Lamp, as well as his late career revival via his current outfit, OFF! For fans of the hardcore punk movement, My Damage provides more than enough to satisfy. Recording sessions for classic records like Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” EP, and the Circle Jerks’ debut Group Sex, are all told in wonderful detail.

Morris also reflects upon Black Flag’s infamous early performances, including the legendary Polliwog Park performance, which cemented Black Flag’s reputation as anti-establishment torch bearers and all-around threat to the safe and sterile Reagan suburbia. Morris also looks back on encounters with the police, with some confrontations resulting in extreme violence and abuse. There are stories of riotous gigs in Hollywood, and of police rushing into venues in riot gear. Through these anecdotes, My Damage proves itself to be a chronicle of a different time, a time that is perhaps hard to understand in 2016, where a punk rock “threat” sounds absurd and infantile. The music Morris made with Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, was a very real perceived threat to Reagan’s America, and was truly transgressive on a level that is hard to comprehend.

Lesser known facts about Morris abound here. His somewhat untold story as self-proclaimed “A&R boy” for Virgin Records in the late 90’s and early 2000’s is described in some detail. His struggles adapting to the office world of fax machines, copy machines, and conference calls are particularly comical. His short comments on being sent by Virgin to see a Vampire Weekend showcase in New York City and being so disappointed that he left mid-set because they sounded like “Paul Simon’s backing band when he discovered world beat,” provided some laughs.

Beyond all the band tensions, touring mishaps, stoned rampages, and weighing in on the dross of the music industry, Morris’s fights with diabetes and addiction really take center stage here. In his conversational candor, Morris recalls falling into a diabetic coma in Norway, just hours before he was set to perform with Norwegian punk legends Turbonegro. There’s also the time Morris passed out and crashed his car while driving to Amoeba Records, due to toxic levels of acid in his blood brought on by the diabetes. His battles to remain sober are inspiring, and are written here to the point where his struggles become universal and relatable.

Ultimately, My Damage has something for even the most fringe fan of punk. For those looking to get an insight into the early hardcore punk scene, there is more than enough. For those looking for a cynical take on the music industry, that’s here in spades. For someone looking for an unlikely source of inspiration when it comes to battling diabetes and kicking drugs and alcoholism, look no further. My Damage holds no punches, and where it outshines other memoirs is in its ability to present true human spirit in a way that isn’t overreaching or self-aggrandizing. With My Damage Morris cements his place as the ultimate punk rock every-man. And we love him for it.

 

My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor is available through Da Capo Press.

Book Review

Hardly War

by on September 27, 2016

hardly_war_final_for_website_largeHardly War by Don Mee Choi

 

Hardly War is Korean-American poet Don Mee Choi’s latest offering and is a work that is boundless in its formal scope and the traumatic history it details.

The collection chronicles the Korean War through poetry, short prose, photographs, bits of letters, a postcard – and remarkably – an opera. Hardly War is a text that is in perpetual conversation with other texts, other histories, other forms. Choi alludes to and cites Korean avant-garde poet Yi Sang, children’s songs, films, Gertrude Stein, and French literary theorists. The dizzying degree of self-aware and referential academia within the collection might prove troublesome for some readers, but  combined with the hybridity of the forms, and the accretion of allusions, quotes, and snippets, Hardly War becomes something more elevated than your typical literary experience. Hardly War is a brilliantly prismatic work, that proves itself to be a challenging but ultimately rewarding book.

At times Hardly War feels vaguely intrusive and deeply voyeuristic. Almost like Choi is giving the reader access to her family’s deepest and most wounded personal artifacts. The accumulation of the various hybrid forms and pieces of postcards and photographs – some with little to no translation or caption – amount to something like a vicious and mad index of the Korean war. The result is a deeply intimate look at the geopolitical climate and national identity of a Korea in turmoil during the 40’s and 50’s.

The photographs that scatter across Hardly War were taken by Choi’s father on his various trips as a war photographer throughout Southeast Asia during the Vietnam and Korean wars. Many of the photographs used in the collection don’t depict the violence of war, leaving one to wonder how much violence Choi’s father saw – or rather – was able to capture. Many of the photographs depict the faces of children or high ranking military officials. There are relatively little images of death – apart from some men posing with a tranquilized tiger – and nothing of explosions or gunfire. The closest we get to a semblance of war is a photograph of two expressionless children gazing into the camera, standing in front of a tank. The photograph is neither disturbing nor graphic, and the children don’t appear to be in any immediate danger. We aren’t even sure which side of the war they represent. An uncharacteristic war image to be sure, but as Choi reiterates throughout this collection, this was “hardly war.”

In a prose vignette titled “6.25,” Choi’s father hears the engine of a Yak-9 North Korean fighter jet, and chases after it with his camera in tow. The plane ultimately eludes him and he is unable to capture it on film. This is suggestive and symbolic of her father’s experience as a war photographer and works to illustrate one of the main overarching themes that we take away from Choi’s latest collection. Photographing the actual mechanics and physicality of war in any form seems to be elusive, and all we are left with is a smorgasbord of war time personal effects (i.e. photographs of children, postcards of military ships, etc). Hardly War in this way ultimately challenges our preconceptions of what war is supposed to look like and manifest as. The title itself, Hardly War, defines itself around the irony of what the war experience is supposed to be. For Choi’s father, and many Koreans, the war was “hardly” a war at all: “That late afternoon the yet-to-be nation’s newspapers were in print, but no photos of the war appeared in any of them. After all it was hardly war…”

Their is a heightened degree of playful self-awareness that marks Hardly War from start to finish. This is apparent in the various forms that make up the collection and in Choi’s stylistic choices. One vignette features several lines of Korean script followed by the line “I refuse to translate” repeated five times. This is one of the more rebellious gestures within the text that suggests feelings of resentment and anger towards the imperialistic and colonial nature of translation. The act of translation to English being a kind of western affront; a colonial gesture. However, given that the majority of Hardly War is written in English, Choi is perhaps suggesting that language is rendered moot and unreliable in its attempts to communicate anything in the face of war.

In the short piece titled, “Neocolony’s Colony,” we are given Vietnamese and English translation side by side. Each English line however, ends with an emphatic militarized “Sir!”

Me Binh Tai / Me been there, Sir!

Me Binh Hoa / Me been high, Sir!

The oppressive and imperialistic nature of translation is laid bare in this instance. Here, translation from Vietnamese to English is seen as an act of ultimate obedience, from a Vietnamese soldier to an unnamed high-ranking American military official – we presume. The result of reading the translation from Vietnamese to English across the page creates a dehumanizing effect, and as the piece moves down the page, the lines become more self-deprecating.

Me Phong Nhi & Phong Nhat / Me flunky & fuck that, Sir!

Me Tay Vinh / Me terrible, Sir!

The end of the piece is highlighted by ME ~ OW written in bold and all caps. Choi’s playfulness here touches a sentimental note, as we are given an allusion to the noise a cat makes, but also phonetically the phrase aligns with the crude and vaguely racist English translation of the speaker:

Me flunky…

Me hate milk…

Me terrible…

Hardly War is a brilliant and layered collection that forces us to reexamine the codes of language and our conceptual notions of war. An act of protest in itself, Hardly War gives us a fresh and often complex perspective on a war that is often called the “forgotten war.”

 

Hardly War by Don Mee Choi is available now from Wave Books.

 

 

Book Review

Poor Love Machine

by on September 6, 2016

PLMCover-1-e1460339402418Poor Love Machine by Kim Hyesoon

 

Kim Hyesoon has long been held in high regard as a master of Korean letters. Originally published in Seoul in 1997, Poor Love Machine was chosen for the Kim Su-yŏng Poetry Prize, arguably South Korea’s most coveted accolade. Recently, and with the assistance of another Korean literary luminary in Don Mee Choi, her works have been graciously translated into English. Choi’s recent translation of Hyesoon comes in the form of the poetry collection Poor Love Machine, an eloquent meditation on corporeal misery, and the crushing spaces the body inhabits.

The opening piece in the collection titled “Rat,” is packed with the overarching thematic qualities found in the collection, and is perhaps the most telling and intimate insight into the mind of Hyesoon and the temporal space her subjects reside.

Do people know how much it hurts the darkness when you turn the light on in the middle of the night?

“Rat” meditates on the speaker’s desire for a certain darkness to maintain within their life – specifically the essence of darkness that defines their body. Light is seen as something foreign and destructive to the relative solitude and solace that is found within the speaker’s bodily darkness. In one such attack the light places on the darkness, the speaker equates the experience eloquently to that of a pinned down beatle: “When the light is switched on inside my darkness, I buzz like a beetle pinned down, bzzz, bzzz, bzzz, bzzz, and shake my head wildly, my mandibles  holding onto a black string.” The body is not only a source of misery with Hyesoon, but it has also come to represent a symbol of the grotesque.

Choi’s translation of Poor Love Machine is worthy of its own critical review. The English translation of Poor Love Machine can feel opaque – with certain passages being thorny and vaguely impenetrable. This can be explained quite easily by Choi’s careful translation, and devotion to not compromising the inherent playfulness of Hyesoon’s Korean. It would have been easy for Choi to have bypassed the idiosyncratic nature of Hyesoon’s language, and opted for a more streamlined and accessible English text, but she decided to grace us with a wonderful translation that is combative, stunning, and at times challenging.

In the semi-titular poem “Poor Love Machines Trapped in Rain,” the theme of the human body being represented as something that is prone to being destroyed or “crushed” is on display:

The crushed body gets erased / then is crushed again

In Kim Hyesoon’s world the body is a consistent source of misery, and of cosmic constraint and disillusionment. In the piece titled “Driving in the Downpour,” Hyesoon lamentably asks, “why have I lived so long in the same body[?]” There is a strong thread of dissatisfaction with the body in this collection that really propels it forward at a manic, nervous pace. This feeling of neurosis bleeds from the page in pieces like “Sunstroke,” where the stylistic choice to use repetition only adds to its feverish nature:

Get submerged / get submerged in the blazing sun / get submerged in the rippling blazing sun

“Sunstroke” relies heavily on a vaguely Steinian poetic elliptical style. This becomes most apparent in the following three lines:

Hear something as I get submerged in the rippling blazing sun / Hear something then don’t hear then hear again / as I get submerged in the rippling blazing sun

This puts an emphasis once more on the body and the space that it inhabits. “Sunstroke” portrays the sun as a cleansing, almost spiritual entity, where the body is a source of pain and must be purged. Unlike collection opener “Rat,” where light was seen as something intrusive and destructive, Hyesoon attributes the sun to be a kind of corporeal reprieve. The speaker relates the sound of being submerged in the sun to that of a “voice I have wanted to hear for a thousand years.” The longing and insatiable desire for the body to enter a kind of cosmic oblivion free from the violence of the human body is at the heart of “Sunstroke” and Poor Love Machine.

It would be remiss to not highlight the cultural context for this collection’s release in Korea during the 1990’s. It’s release and acclaim represented a trailblazing moment for female Korean writers, and has long been seen as a crucial Korean feminist tome. The concrete misery conveyed by Hyesoon in this collection, is the collective misery of a turbulent Korea during the 1990’s, a country that witnessed vast cultural and social upheaval. Nearly 20 years later, and now with a wonderful English translation, this collection has the promise of being just as important and vital to the world of English letters. 20 years on, in times of great global uncertainty and misery, Poor Love Machine couldn’t feel more relevant.

 

Poor Love Machine is available now through Action Books.

Book Review

John Travolta Considers His Odds

by on July 26, 2016

img_9330-e1469550929673John Travolta Considers His Odds by Emily Hunt

 

Emily Hunt is a poet based in Los Angeles, and like many before her, has set her sights upon it–and its milieu–in her debut chapbook titled, John Travolta Considers His Odds. Hunt has put together a thoughtful collection that is often blackly humorous, satirical, naive, and sometimes all at once. There are pieces here that meditate upon the superficial beauty of the city–and its celebrities–to reveal places of sadness, insecurity, and despair. John Travolta Considers His Odds is a great and necessary indictment on the surface level beauty of celebrity, that ultimately asks us in the titular piece, have we refused to let our celebrities live?

The titular poem, “John Travolta Considers His Odds,” deconstructs–in a blackly humorous way–the vanity of the Hollywood actor, and in this case, John Travolta. The poem depicts Travolta in a state of unease and extreme vulnerability; gazing at his forehead that “blinds him in the mirror,” hairpieces that melt to mold his head, and wondering whether he will be buried in his famous Saturday Night Fever or Grease costumes. Hunt uses blunt and straightforward language, tinged with some subtle irony and humor, to relay the sadness and despondency that Travolta is feeling. At the end of the piece the mirror is turned on the reader, on the media, and on the culture of celebrity and declares that “we refused to let [Travolta] live.” The piece is an excellent reminder of the malignant influence of celebrity culture and mass media in Los Angeles.

“The Year The Cheerleaders Were Pretty” is not explicitly about Los Angeles, but implicitly feels like another indictment on idealized beauty, with a careful eye focused on the kind of beauty magnified in a place like Los Angeles. The piece is imbued with a certain gleeful optimism that is crushed fairly quickly: “it was the year before everyone started dying.” The poem paints an idealistic and almost naive sense of beauty. In this way it reminded me of a cheerleader squad that would be featured in a Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness) movie. Beauty that is so disproportionate and exaggerated that it becomes satire. In “The Year The Cheerleaders Were Pretty,” everything seems to be throbbing with idealized beauty. The cheerleaders’ hair is described as smelling like caramel ice cream, and the girls are “seventeen” and “attentive and perfect.” On the surface the piece seems to be refreshingly void of cynicism but there is a dark underbelly to the piece that transforms it into a vaguely unsettling and darkly comical read. Mixed in with the images of beauty are threatening scenes of the earth drying up, people dying, and of a dairy burning down. There is an almost apocalyptic undercurrent to the poem that works nicely to give off the faint scent of misanthropy.

“Good Enough” reflects back upon the naivete of school girls and school boys and the  pre-adolescent search for the “perfect lover.” The piece reads like a kind of alt-lit Men are from Mars / Women are from Venus in its cataloging of what boys look for in a girl and vice versa. The piece is ultimately a jarring indictment on the naivete of pre-pubescent love, and the male / female relationship dichotomy. “Good Enough” laments that boys “…didn’t lie in the dark staring into the vague shadows on the / ceiling, the shapes / of nighttime flickering, bending, twisting overhead / and wonder if that one was the one, perfect one. Or did they?” What we are left with is a feeling that one can only understand when coming to the adolescent realization that the “perfect lover” might not exist. The piece ends up cynically reclining to the idea of finding a lover as a search for someone that isn’t “perfect” but “good enough.”

The shortest piece in the chapbook, “Light,” perfectly crystallizes the overarching sentiments of the collection. It paints an image of a blond girl named Bailey that “barfs up glitter.” The piece seems to illustrate a cynical and ironic view of blond beauty. Unlike the cheerleaders in “The Year The Cheerleaders Were Pretty,” Bailey seems to radiate with a different kind of beauty, a “depressing luminescence.” This was another piece that brought me back to the work of filmmaker Todd Solondz in it’s introversion of what it means to be blond and sharp use of black humor to critique and deconstruct prototypical beauty.

Hunt’s debut chapbook works well to deconstruct and satirize the very Hollywood notion of perfect lovers, perfect movie stars, perfect cheerleaders, and perfect blonds. She has succeeded in giving us a disturbed portrait of modern life, with a sympathetic eye, and devilish wit.

 

John Travolta Considers His Odds is available now from Whitehorse and Slaughter.

 

Book Review

I am a Season that Does Not Exist in The World

by on July 5, 2016

iamaseasoncoverI Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World By Kim Kyung Ju

 

 

 

 

I Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World is Korean poet Kim Kyung Ju’s first collection of poetry. Upon it’s original release in Korea in 2006 it sold over ten thousand copies and created a stir within the literary world. For years an English translation had been elusive. Now, nearly ten years have passed and we are graced with a wonderful English translation by Jake Levine that is devout to the original Korean. I Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World is a tactile and carefully constructed meditation on the essence of life itself. Ju is a master at creating rich and unique images through his poetry and in this debut poetry collection Ju’s talents are on full display.

 

Broken into four sections, the pieces here hover close to the absurd and the surreal, but always center on the personal. Formally, Ju explores a fairly loose, prose poem-esque style. Some pieces feel like intimate vignettes; brief dreamlike glimpses into the subconscious. More traditional poetic forms are here as well, and Ju works hard to evoke memorable feelings out of each and every line. The myriad structural forms found in I Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World could be symptomatic of Ju’s multimodal interests in art forms such as theater, musicals, and independent films. In this respect, this makes Ju a very exciting and quite modern poet.

 

In this collection Ju meditates on loneliness, childhood, and family life. He also places a strong emphasis on nostalgia and an existential kind of lament for things that have been lost. These feelings are underscored by a strong sense and stylistic leaning towards the absurd and surreal. The five part series of poems titled “The Room That Flies To Outer Space” are emblematic of the kind of vague surrealism found within Ju’s work. The language is lush and reminiscent of Italo Calvino, who gave nature and the world around us a very human and organic touch. In Ju’s poetry, nature itself is often anthropomorphized, and the effect is to give everything around us a wonderfully tactile feel. Inanimate objects and vague abstractions such as the night seem to breathe upon every line.

 

In one of the more enjoyable pieces from the collection, titled “Manhole,” Ju weaves existential anxiety through the focus of a distressed spider. The spider leaves it’s home to never find home again, and the first person narrator ends up questioning existence itself as he watches the wings of a moth being slowly eaten by the spider. There is an eloquent yearning and a strong sense of angst towards life found in Ju’s pieces that is perhaps best captured through the second to last line in “Manhole” :

 

My life drags as if order in the world never really existed. Save Me!

 

“Manhole” isn’t the only poem where an existential anxiety or fear is manifested through the vantage point of a spider or small creature. In “Hear The Mackerel Cry,” weeping Mackerel are cooked and eaten to act as a metaphor for a disconnection between mother and son. Furthermore the piece is another meditation on the absurd nature of life and Ju’s feelings of angst and ennui towards it:

 

When life shows me its tail, I cut the body off.

 

In “A Life Secluded,” Ju seems to be lamenting the passage of time and comes to the realization that time is something that doesn’t only belong to him, but also belongs to inorganic objects like his clothes. Again, Ju creates a sense of sadness around something as inanimate as a set of clothes, and makes us sympathize with them by giving them almost human desires. A desire to be touched and felt. The piece evokes a certain yearning for the clothes to feel connected to his body, to feel his body’s warmth “if just for a moment.”

 

In a world that has become increasingly devoid of and disinterested in close, human contact and communication, Ju has given us poetry that breathes, and feels incredibly alive. As disillusioned as some of these pieces are, perhaps through the tactile nature of the language we’ll start to feel a little less achingly alone and a little more connected to things.

I Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World is available now through Black Ocean Press.

Book Review

The Strangest

by on January 26, 2016

Strangest coverThe Strangest by Michael J. Seidlinger

The Strangest is a clever 21st century reimagining of the existentialist classic, The Stranger by Albert Camus. Michael J. Seidlinger (most recently the author of The Face of Any Other) has taken the difficult task of entering into a dialogue with a text that is regarded as a masterpiece of the 20th century, and surprisingly, has breathed new life into it. The novel follows the same narrative arc that the classic follows and the themes of existentialism and “outsiderness” roam aplenty here as well. Where The Strangest differs from The Stranger, however, is where it actually shines. Neither homage, pastiche, or simple parody, the novel paints a remarkable depiction of the way we communicate and function within society today and our culture’s over reliance on social media to fit in.

The novel follows the anti-social and despairingly ineffectual Zachary Weinham who works at a retail store and carries on a vague, mostly ambiguous, relationship with a girl named Veronica. Instead of playing an active role in society, Zachary spends most of his time obsessing over a social media presence he has created for himself by the name of “Meurks” (an obvious nod to Meursault from The Stranger). Through Meurks he records nearly every social situation he encounters in his day via a social media post. Zachary is more interested in the comments and likes he receives as Meurks than the actual interactions he has with characters like Veronica, his work colleagues, or the shady Rios. The notion of people connecting more with their digital selves than their actual selves is where Seidlinger really captures the current social media milieu brilliantly. By creating a digital “alter ego” it also adds a feeling of dynamism to a character that for all intents and purposes is lethargic and apathetic. As the novel carries along (albeit slowly and in a daze the first 50 pages or so) a series of events and odd friendships lead Zachary to commit murder and must suffer the consequences. Sound familiar? Sure.

Given that the novel follows the same emotional beats and a similar narrative arc as the work it is in conversation with, it is told with enough stylistic flair and filled with a contemporary idiosyncratic anxiety that keeps it feeling fresh. Seidlinger employs the same short, staccato like sentences that are prevalent in The Stranger but formally Seidlinger gives us brief little vignettes, which are set into the chapters of the novel. Sometimes the vignettes are 100 words long. Sometimes they are 500. The vignettes are emblematic of a kind of piecing together of “truth” that Zachary goes through in the novel. Sometimes painfully insightful – sometimes rambling and inconsequential – the vignettes are a nice stylistic touch that let us into the fractured and socially disconnected mind of our modern day Meursault.

Much like Seidlinger’s millennial contemporary Tao Lin, he shows us that despite all the opportunities social media gives us to connect, sometimes we are left feeling alienated, hollow and utterly disconnected from society. The Strangest successfully taps into the disorienting “otherness” that was so compelling in The Stranger and creates a harrowing vision of 21st century life. If Seidlinger is onto anything at all here, we’re all fucked.

 

The Strangest is available now from OR Books.

 

www.michaeljseidlinger.com

www.orbooks.com