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Book Review

Arcade

by on August 4, 2016

9781939419729Arcade by Drew Nellins Smith

 

It is difficult to try and explain what Drew Nellins Smith’s debut novel, Arcade, is about. At its most basic level, the novel follows the unnamed narrator who refers to himself as Sam as he tries to anatomize his almost-closeted gay persona and the role society expects him to play. Other times, the novel switches to Sam’s desperate attempts to get back together with an ex who has long moved on. Even then, that’s not what the novel is about. Smith’s novel emphasizes the space the arcade —a place where otherness and anonymity mingle in between racks of porn DVD’s and dim-lighted booths where men (and sometimes couples) see their sexual fantasies come to life— takes in Sam’s life.

Sam is lonely and fails to know what he wants many times. In particular, the short chapters in the novel reveal Sam’s inability to figure out what it is he wants to do with his life. In fact, the chapters devote a sufficient amount of time and space to describe Sam’s job, the new relationship his ex-lover has, the peepshow arcade, and the sexual escapades that occur within it. As for the sex in the novel, Smith captures both intimate sex and the wild, almost neurotic, and detached sex —sex Sam only sees but rarely participates in. Though I really liked how the sex is presented, it is not the only reason I enjoyed Arcade.

Astoundingly, I believe it is the novel’s refusal to be a coming out novel that made me want to keep reading. For a long time, the gay novel genre has revolved around portraying male homosexual behavior and stories about their acceptances or rejections. However, Sam never outright admits he is gay and it is only his actions that ultimately portray him as a gay man. Of the topic, Sam says “And the truth is I’m telling people that I’m not really gay or whatever, but that I’ve fallen in love with a guy.” When asked what is the distinction between being in love with a guy and being gay, Sam’s response is that he does not want to think of it and that he “doesn’t even care if [he’s] gay or whatever.” Smith’s rejection of the typical gay novel allows the reader to focus more on the space, literal and imagined, of what it means to be a gay man never truly participating in sexual acts but watching them.

Though some may shy away or be offended by the frankness in which Sam recounts his time at the arcade, it is this very honesty that kept luring me to turn the page. Smith does not hold back in his novel: he patiently and carefully walks us down the lobby, through the aisles, and into the booths to join Sam to question the space which has been provided. The reader faces the truth of a situation where men like Sam are forced into literal dark spaces in order to satisfy their sexual needs.

The reason novels like Smith’s are important to read, especially given the recent Orlando attacks, is because the reader is able to see others have the same issues. Sam is not the only man in the booths but there are times when he might as well be. Sometimes he feels connected to the other men at the arcade knowing that just like him, they are looking to satisfy and be satisfied. However, more often than not, Sam feels detached from the location and the people in it knowing that most of the men go back to their wives and families and jobs and pretend the arcade does not exist. Sam does not have that option since it seems he is always thinking about the arcade, the people in it, and how he feels about it every time he steps inside and feels the surveillance the store is subjected to.

Arcade is a short novel in which Smith’s prose is straightforward and captivating. The series of scenes which are introduced with each new chapter create a cohesive story about Sam figuratively and literally watching others engage in sexual acts within the arcade. The men thrive in knowing they are anonymous since outside of the arcade those same men live normal heterosexual lives. Perhaps the arcade can be best described by Sam:

“Of course I could tell which men were rich or poor or middle class, but it didn’t matter out there. After the three dollar threshold, we were all the same… I liked the idea that most of us never would have met or interacted if it hadn’t been for that place, divided as we were by our jobs and incomes.”

Arcade is available now through Unnamed Press.

Book Review

Neon Green

by on July 28, 2016

51riiFrjYQL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Neon Green by Margaret Wappler

 

Most any reader can come up with a circumstance in which descriptions cannot do a novel justice.  When I was asked to review Margaret Wappler’s Neon Green, I was told it had aliens and environmentalists and cancer, and I took the book with one eyebrow raised.  Now, in all fairness, this book possesses all three of those things in ample supply.  But I have not regretted taking the book for an instant.  Neon Green is not science-fiction adventure, or science-fiction horror, or a morality tale on the treatment of the planet.  At its heart, the novel is a questioning of beliefs, of self-importance, and of our multitudinous blind spots.

The strength of this novel lies in its use of little absurdities to camouflage the poignant realism at its heart.  The presence and occasional perspective of the aliens are jarring interruptions to the mundane lives of the Allen family.  The agreement between the federal government and the aliens to allow visitation through sweepstakes is as ridiculous as it is random.  The suddenness of Cynthia’s cancer and its lack of concrete explanation seem to be products of an author trying to create conflict for her characters.  And yet none of these are true.  Despite their self-absorption, the Allen family is forced to come to terms with the notion that they are part of a larger universe, and a universe that is not going to behave in patterns that they would find acceptable.  Wappler sets the stage for some grand conspiracy reminiscent of that in “To Serve Man” by Damon Knight, but there is no forced payoff or glaringly obvious “aha!” moment.  Everything may happen for a reason, but that reason is beholden to no one’s ability to understand it.

The commentary provided in this denied resolution is brilliant and powerful.  It takes the Allens, especially Ernest, a long time to arrive at their understanding.  Aliens have been visiting for some time and yet Ernest’s primary focus is about his involvement in the local Earth Day celebration.  After Cynthia’s diagnosis, he becomes convinced that he is on the trail of, at best, a gross oversight, and, at worst, a terrible machination.  Through his example, the reader is driven to think beyond their figurative and literal spheres of influence, to question their sense of self importance.  Ernest’s quest to root out pretenders to the environmental cause and Gabe’s obsession with posers and quality musical tastes are biting critiques of what it means to be a “believer”, or an activist, or to have passions about a particular topic.  They force readers to ask themselves where true dedication ends and using a cause for status begins.

In order to accomplish something like this while avoiding heavy-handedness or soap-box preaching, an author has to carefully weave the messages into the story in such a way that the reader only realizes what they have seen well after actually reading it.  Wappler achieves this through fantastic control of language, scene, and pacing.  The book opens with description that is extremely vivid and pregnant with commentary, but delivered in a tone that suggests sterile observation and a heightened sense of being watched.  Then, without visible effort, it flows into an over-the-shoulder view of Ernest and his thought process, which describes the most mundane details with a nervous passion that are immediately telling about his character.  This flow happens with stellar ease throughout the book, and it allows Wappler to introduce things, like alien visitation sweepstakes, in a way that causes the reader to do a satisfying double take.  At the same time, Wappler breaks from several writing conventions to drive home the nature of the universe that she is describing.  White space breaks happen right in the middle of scenes, with no indication of time or perspective change, emphasizing the futility of trying to contain events into narrative cause and effect.  Ernest, the “hero” and protagonist, is continually denied an enemy that he can fight, or even an enemy that can regard him, and his attempts to create one only do him harm.

It is no easy feat to write something that is both simple in its delivery and yet vividly complex in its meaning, but Wappler has pulled it off.  And in that very act, there is yet more commentary.  The novel itself is an exercise in looking at the universe not from the perspective of a protagonist from some grand, carefully plotted story, but from the point of view of one piece of a larger cosmos.  It suggests that readers should take a moment, fight the instinct to take the familiar for granted, and appreciate the scale and depth of what lies around them.  And while the novel fully acknowledges the fear and strain of such a change in understanding, it also delivers a taste of the awe and majesty on the other side.

 

Neon Green is available now through Unnamed Press.