Saturday, November 21, 2015

On "For The Wheels to Nullify" by Brent Rydin (422 words) ***

Here, storm is juxtaposed with relationships of various sorts. But the line that sticks out most is the one about how a storm chaser, which the narrator is, isn't brave--he's just some jerk hanging out on the outskirts where it's safe. So it is with the nonrelationship. Read the story here at Whiskey Paper.

On “Betrayed by Rita Hayworth” by Manuel Puig ****

What can I say of this book for which I hold such conflicting feelings? It has taken me decades to getting around to reading Manuel Puig. Time gets away, and there are so many things to read. I was intending to read Kiss of the Spider Woman, but the book was unavailable, and in a sense, I was relieved, because I actually wanted to try something else of Puig’s. And so I tried this, his first novel.

Puig is a post-boom writer, as some Latin American literature scholars call those writing after Cortazar and Borges had hit their zenith. And his is a very different text to the magic realism that seems to hold so many Latin American authors imprisoned. I love magic realism, but it’s interesting to read someone who isn’t focused on that. Puig’s novel isn’t even in the objective realist tradition that some other Latin Americans I’ve read fall into. Rather, he seems to fall in line more with William Faulkner, James Joyce, and that ilk. And in that sense, I wish I’d had the time and the ability to concentrate on Puig’s text that I felt it demanded.

The book is written in various styles, but the bulk of it is written in stream of consciousness. Other styles include dialogue (sometimes only half of the conversation is provided to the readers), letters, reports, and diaries. The diaries are the easiest to follow, but they come late in the book. The sections are presented over the course of about fifteen years and involve different narrators. The result is that the book is rather hard to follow.

Was there a plot? Not much of one. Rather, we’re introduced to a village, a rural town, called Vallejos, and we learn about the people who populate it. With so many people and such indirect means of presentation, however, gleaning what’s going on is a task. In essence, it’s like we’re one of those people listening to half a conversation and getting sections of gossip but never the whole story. Only with great concentration will we glean what’s really going on.

Or not. Because of course much of what is going on is in the imagination or in the guise of falsehoods and rumor. So reality is twisted per whatever point of view you are getting the story from.

Vaguely, we learn the story of Mita and Berto and their son Toto. Toto loves movies. Berto looks like a movie star. Toto grows up to become (at least insofar as he becomes a teenager) a rather intelligent young man, a nerd of sorts. His cousin Hector lives with the family, and Hector is a brute, as are many of the young men who populate the novel, whose main goal seems to be to beat others up and to add as many girls to their list of conquests as possible.

With a title focused on a famous actress, the book obviously flaunts its connection to film--or rather characters’ obsession with the movies. An “essay” that appears in the book, which is about a film one of the characters has seen, appears to be almost entirely a summary of the film. Characters discuss movies, actresses (wholesome women versus bad women in film), and how to make it with a gal in the dark. Film’s role in lending the lives of these people meaning is everywhere.

The writing throughout the book is stellar. I’d be tempted to read another work of Puig’s, but I might just need to reread this work first--give it the due attention it deserves. I suspect I might need to do that for any other book of his.

Monday, November 16, 2015

On "The Punch Line" by Jared Yates Sexton (2596 words) *****

Ostensibly a story about drugs, this piece makes the subject new again by putting it in a dentist's office and selectively dropping out details. Sexton hits the right tune here, doing, as one fiction writer once noted to me, well by not mentioning certain things better left unsaid. Sometimes the eggregious seems more eggregious when we don't have it described for us--and sometimes we don't really want to know. Read the story here at Juked.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

On "Lost in the Funhouse" by John Barth (about 9,100 words) *****

The best work from Barth's collection of the same name is a metafictional masterpiece. Barth essentially tells a story of a kid named Ambrose going to a funhouse, but in the process he also tells readers how he's writing the story or failing to. What we have is an instruction manual of sorts. "Character is built this way," Barth tells us, and then goes on to show us within the story. The result is something comic and instructive. Bring techniques to the fore, Barth still manages to keep the story compelling--perhaps because it is the way in which the writer himself begins to become lost in the "funhouse" as his character does. The parallel is sharply drawn--and amusingly. Read the story here.

On "Lost in the Funhouse" by John Barth ***

Years ago I read The Last Voyage of Somebody Sailor, which I enjoyed enough that I kept a copy of it in my personal library (despite whatever mediocre reviews it may have gotten). But it has taken me nearly two decades now to get to Barth's classic collection of stories. Unfortunately, the collection proved as a whole to be underwhelming.

Here's what I liked about Somebody Sailor, as I recall: Barth's musings on middle-class life. There was, of course, a whole other plot involving Sinbad that becomes mixed in with the work, and while somewhat interesting, it was less compelling to me than the realist fiction of everyday life.

Something similar happened with this book for me. I was drawn most to the stories about Ambrose and his family. One explained how Ambrose got his name. One involved Ambrose being locked out of his brother Peter and Peter's friends' "club," in which the older kids discover a few things about sex. And the last involved Ambrose going to an amusement park. Each had some metafictional musings, as does the collection as a whole, but they remained subjugated to the purposes of the story as a whole. Such is not as much the case with the other stories, and as a result, my interest often waned before getting far into them.

Here's a rundown of some of the devices included: there's a story ("Night-Sea Journey") of a life that is essentially the tale of a sperm crossing crossing to its egg (or so I read from a secondary source--the tale could be easily read as one of a person swimming for life). There's a story telling the story of itself ("Autobiography"), which proves hardly as interesting as the conceit sounds. Other stories recount, in varying form, Greek legends--one discovering how to write as story, one exploring stories within stories (the techniques of "Menelaiad" is fascinating, as we get to a point where there are seven quotes within quotes, but the story itself hardly kept my attention).

The one exception to these other stories that really intrigued me was "Life-Story," which told of a writer trying to write the story that we readers are currently reading. All the conflict and crisis occurs right in there, as we witness the write dissatisfied with his work trying desperately to bring a decent story into being.

Friday, November 6, 2015

On "Cocktail Hour" by Kate Braverman (6379 words) ****

Bernie Roth returns from finding out that he is no longer needed at the company he works at and once owned to find that his wife is leaving him, and neither his son nor his daughter are the people he thought they were. In fact, this whole story revolves around the ways in which things are often not what they seem--we are all actors playing our parts. I'm reminded a bit of the stories other men have told me who have lost wives to divorce, often without any real warning. They didn't fight, they say, but the woman one day said that she is not who she was pretending to be all these years. How much do we give up of ourselves to please others? And what are the consequences when we stop? You can read the story at her website here.

On "Lithium for Medea" by Kate Braverman ****

I remember Braverman saying, from classes I took from her years ago, that she felt this first novel a bit overwritten--if still a lovely offspring (as firsts generally do bear a certain fondness in our hearts). I could see, perhaps, some overwriting, but really, this work seemed a very well-wrought piece. If the overwriting is anywhere, it is not on a sentence level but on that of plot: the poor protagonist has a dying father, an estranged mother with an estranged grandmother, an ex-husband who "leaves" her for Star Trek and other intellectual pursuits, a current lover who deals the narrator drugs and spends his time with other women, and so on. There is not much that is not wrong with this woman's life. But dysfunctional families and people are often the heart of novels, and there was, at bottom, it seemed to me, a kind of loving that came through between the protagonist and her parents, even if on the surface much seems wrong.

I'm also a bit taken aback by what I was writing at the time, which seems in many ways not unlike this first novel of Braverman's--a tale of family troubles with a dying mom (instead of dad). I feel as if I was probably conjuring Braverman while in her class, though I had not read this book. And I can see also how Braverman's ideas about writing come through in this work. You write good sentences and then you string a plot in afterward--you write the air, and then put a net on it. That seemed true hear. There was lots of air, lots of little chunks of things, that somehow got wrapped into this plot. Such makes for a work in which plot is not a centerpiece. We're not dying to know whether dad will live so much as to know what the next turn of phrase will be. That's why one reads Braverman--for the poetry.

And here, the language, of course, is lovely, as Braverman's language usually is. She makes metaphors seem so effortless and natural. But also what I was struck by with this text is how she uses the short sentence. The sentences are much shorter than I would expect, than I remember, for something so full of poetic language. It's as if she mixes her Hemingway with her Nabokov, and it is wonderful.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

On "Just Fine" by Bill Roorbach (1333 words) ***

This story has a great hook in its first line. And that's often enough to keep me reading on. "Jeremy Kellog came home with a railroad spike protruding from his head." What follows is an absurd commentary on parents and children and the inability for the two to understand one another. Read the story here at SixPenny.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On "Labyrinth" by Amelia Gray (2026 words) ****

It's been a while since I featured an Amelia Gray story. Sometimes I check out her tweets, which are almost always amusing (one critic even claims they're better than her stories). And she's come quite a ways since I first came across her work online: two short story collections, then a novel from a major publisher, then another novel. And now this: a story in the New Yorker, the cream of the cream. Congratulations! This one features Gray's typical fascination with the absurd, though it's set in a mundane location, one that when we think about it, really is rather absurd: a corn maze. Only this one isn't just a maze--it's a labyrinth, full of the threat of evil just around the bend (again, another typical element in Gray's stories, as if extraordinary trouble lies within the ordinary). Are you hero enough to follow it through? Jim is. Try it here at the New Yorker.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

On "The Babysitter" by Robert Coover *****

This story, which I read my freshman year of college, blew me away then and still does to this day. I didn't read it for a class. I read it because it was in my textbook for a class, and I read the first line and couldn't stop. I've read other Robert Coover, and none of it compares. This is his climax.

Just a short time after that first read, the story would be adapted into a movie, which I eventually watched and was a shade disappointed in. It's not really a story that lends itself to being adapted. It has no straight through-line in terms of plot, and at the time I first read it, my goal was to try to fit all the disparate pieces together. But of course, Coover isn't intending this. This story is everyone's idea of a babysitter--and so she is sexy, mean, a threat, a nice girl, and much more all at the same time. As we read, plots come into being, some disappearing, others merging into others. It's a world of alternate worlds. If you haven't read this masterpiece, you can find it online here.

On "Pricksongs and Descants" by Robert Coover ***

I am surprised that I did not read this much earlier than I have. I discovered Coover near the beginning of college, and I was a big fan of "The Babysitter," but I barely gave the collection from which it is drawn a look. Instead, about ten years later, I read his novel John's Wife. The reason for this was threefold. One was that a coworker of mine explained to me the premise of his novel about baseball, which got me intrigued. Second, I had no access to a library at that time, so to meet my usual reading load, I was dependent on what I could find cheap in remainder bins or used. And John's Wife happened to be one of them. And then there was this: John's Wife began in a very interesting manner.

Unfortunately that novel got lost in its strangeness, becoming so inordinately weird that I lost interest about two-thirds of the way through (though I did finish it). I didn't return to Coover again.

Until now. And I wish I could say that I was mistaken in failing to read Coover for all these years. I can see how his work might have appealed slightly more in my early twenties, but I could also see myself not being that much more moved. That isn't to say I was not interested in his techniques--and in fact I still find those fascinating. Long before I had a computer or before the Internet was a widely used public utility, Coover was talking about the use of hypertext in fiction. I thought the ideas intriguing, but I didn't quite know how they would work or what they meant, not having the technology to refer to. The article, for those interested, is available here at the New York Times.

However, this Coover book is, as it is probably meant to be, deliberately alienating in many places, and I was left as if I were watching a showman, but in doing so, the showman fails to be a showman because I continue to see him as such throughout.

The stories in this collection are very much self-conscious. They are, many of them, a rerendering of fairy tales. They consider the process of storytelling itself, how we come to create narratives and what that means. They are also very male-centric stories, focusing often on sex and the female form. But the book is called Pricksongs, so what should be expected? Perhaps, Coover is intimating the sexual desire and story go hand in hand. Given how much best-selling fiction is romance or erotica, that's probably true.

The book opens with a prologue that makes the tie-in to fairy tales explicit. From there, the collection moves to a story called "The Magic Poker," which might qualify as my second-most favorite of the book (perhaps, "The Elevator" could also take the position). Coover is explicit here in saying the story is a story, telling us that he is the author and that he is about to introduce a character or that he regrets introducing a character because he seems to have little to do with the story, and so on. Vaguely, it involves two sisters who find a magic poker--one attracted to it, one repulsed; one who turns it into a prince and one who does not. The poker stands in for the frog the way you might expect the male anatomy to stand in for the prince here.

"Seven Exemplary Tales" features a prologue of its own and seven very short stories--some of them again, retellings of famous other stories. "The Elevator" discusses a man who plots revenge for constantly being accused of flatulence, when in fact another man is the one responsible. As with "The Babysitter" it ends up including several plotlines of possibility--sex with the woman who runs the elevator, revenge, the elevator dropping everyone to their deaths, being let off on the wrong floor or at a floor from which there is no return, and so on. "Quenby and Ola, Swede and Carl" recounts the tale of a family who lives in a touristy fishing area and the man who comes to fish with them, told as per usual with Coover, out of order and with seeming conflicts in terms of what actually happens. "A Pedestrian Accident" focuses on a man who is hit by a truck but is told as a kind of farce.

Another theme of this Coover book is performance. "Romance of the Thin Man and Fat Lady" recounts circus performers, for instance. And the final story in the collection involves a magician, acting as a kind of epilogue for the collection, one in which the magician can perform some great feats but in which he will inevitably disappoint, as indeed, the collection as a whole seems to do.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

On "Dead Reckoning" by Vincent Scarpa (5861 words) ***

Bereft of family and job, Frank is looking for something to console him, for some kind of meaning to interrupt his life again. Frank is a firefighter who has the fire turn against him, whose way of life has become his means of death. And it is only in consoling others--saving others--again that he has any chance to live. The question is how he'll do that. Read the story here at Swarm Lit.

Monday, October 12, 2015

On "On the Way to the Killing Spree the Shooter Stops for Pizza" by Tom McAllister (2401 words) ***

McAllister imagines what goes on in the head of a mass murderer before the actual incident. As he notes, no one really knows or can figure it out. And in this world, even McAllister's sinister young man isn't all that deep thinking. Depressed, bored, full of feelings that things don't mean much, he opts to become one of the slayers before becoming one of the slayed. Read the story here at Sundog.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

On "Poetry Pool Party" by Megan Martin (50 words) ***

More a humorous thought than a story, Martin here contemplates an invite to the titular event. Somehow, methinks said party would be more intriguing than she lets on. Not long ago, just weeks before my wedding, I went to do a reading, the first in a decade. I had attended readings, but I hadn't done one myself in a long while. It was a great deal of fun, and at least one of the writers (not me) read something that was truly entertaining and rather mindblowingly good. Afterward, a slate of us all went out for drinks--and for talking literature. Ah, the people there--mostly idealistic twentysomethings--it was nice to think literature important again and that we all were destined to have a part in it. That's what I imagine a poetry pool party would look like. Read the story here at Wigleaf.

Friday, October 2, 2015

On "Like Sand, or Lanterns" by Brent Rydin (3176 words) ***

Essentially a tale of two men going to scatter the ashes of a dead man, Rydin's piece stands out for its raw use of language. I love the description of the sky as sand. The dialogue has some zingers as well. Read it here at Pithead Chapel.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

On "Kind of like You" by Tania Moore (4642 words) ***

Here's a painful story I know too much about and quite well identify with. Archie has a hard time working up the courage to ask girls out, wondering often what each action might mean. In this tale, he finds himself with a crush on a woman in his building, who unbelievably to him takes an interest in him. Originally published in Opium, you can still read the story here.

On "Blood and Guts in High School" by Kathy Acker ***

I've read about Acker for years, mentioned generally in relation to things like post-postmodernism (alongside Bret Easton Ellis), which I'm not sure is a thing that really exists. And so I've finally given her a spin--and certainly what's she's written is different from most things of I've read before. It's a collage of sorts, a mix of styles and speakers and ideas and pictures and words, all put together in one text.

I was reminded of two other things while reading this book. I was reminded of some photocopied literary journals that I would come across in Los Angeles when I was in my early twenties and idealistic. These journals generally aimed to be shocking in some way, dropping swear words vicariously and including pornographic drawings and generally being anticapitalist, antiwar, antisociety. The purveyors of these magazines were somehow going to change the world. I wanted to change the world too but not in such an anarchistic way. This book looked like one of those journals. I would immediately not have liked it as a young man--mostly because it was too lewd in a coarse obvious way.

The other thing the book reminded me of was a David Lynch movie, something akin to Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire. The movie makes sense at the beginning and is interesting because it's so strange, but as the film continues, it becomes stranger and stranger and more and more impossible to follow. Eventually, we don't know what's going on--and we're left with just bits and pieces we were introduced to early on that show up from time to time that we can sort of wrap around our minds around to give the piece structure.

And that's what happens here in Acker's book. We're introduced straight off to Janey, a ten-year-old who is in a sexual relationship with her father/boyfriend. Acker, of course, is looking to shock right from the start. But as I read, I saw the relationship as in some ways not really literal, as I saw the book as not being literal. Acker walks in the realm of dream and desire, as Lynch does. Sure, we have an incestuous/pedophilic relationship at the center of the piece, but what Acker is doing is making psychological theory literal. The book then at the start is about how women, in relationships, are seeking their fathers, at least as some psychologists might theorize. A boyfriend is simply an image of the father who raised the woman. Read that way, the early sections are theoretically interesting (is what we look for in a relationship inevitably a mirror image of a parent?), especially as Janey's boyfriend breaks up with her to pursue another woman who is sexier and who allows him more freedom. This could be any relationship. (I particularly enjoyed a paragraph that was repeated multiple times as a refrain throughout certain pages as the relationship comes to an end--a set of incidents being played over and over, the way we tend to obsess over breakups, looking for meaning.)

As the novel continues, however, we begin to lose sight of Janey at times. And we descend more and more often into the realm of dream--Acker even provides us with some sketches of dreamscapes. Janey leaves her father to go to school in New York, where she works, falls in with a group called the Scorpions, has lots of sex, and eventually loses all her acquaintances in an auto accident.

Janey is kidnapped by a couple of men who intend to turn her into a prostitute/sex slave. She is kept in a room by a Persian man. She writes poetry, a book. She gets cancer, and the Persian man leaves her. She ends up walking around Tunisia with Genet, but not having a passport, she can't go back to the United States. And then she dies. And then she goes into some kind of Egyptian otherworld, where of course sex and death meet, because they often do in literature. Meanwhile, Acker gives us asides on President Carter, The Scarlet Letter, and other famous works, people, and ideas, often without really identifying how these necessarily fit in with the narrative or who the particular speaker is.

It's nice to read something that is not a straightforward narrative from time to time, and I enjoyed some of the writing just for its sheer inventiveness. But in many ways, I did not feel invested in the book--just wanting to get through it. Had I slowed down, I'm sure I'd have picked up on more themes, and were I to trace some of the motifs, I'm sure I could make more of what's here, but given the lack of investment I generally felt, the book does not lend itself to me wanting to reread it, which is what would be required to dig those ideas out.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

On "The Opposition Party" by Rick Stinson (4942 words) ***

Exoticism can lend a certain automatic interest to a story. Pilvax specializes in Hungarian writing--writing about or by or from Hungary. Here, a music professor gets caught up in a violent political situation due to his interest in learning more about the culture. Read it here at Pilvax.

On "Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi" by George H. Devol *

I'm not sure now where I read about this book--whether it was suggested to me on Good Reads or whether I came across it in some other work--but it was not nearly as interesting as I thought it might be. Devol's work is not an autobiography in a standard sense. Had it been, I might well have liked it. Instead, it is a collection of anecdotes about his life, more or less put down in the order in which he recalls them. There is no chronology, no narrative development. And many of the anecdotes are so similar in form that they become hard to distinguish from one another: Devol walks onto a boat (or a train), meets up with his partner, and plays cards with a group of suckers who don't know that Devol and the partner are in cahoots. Devol is a gambler, he says, but he doesn't seem to gamble much at all--he seems more often simply to be a cheater and a conman. Lose a few rounds to your friend, get everyone else thinking you're no good at the game, and then whallop them with a huge take at the end. And be sure to mark your cards.

The more I read, the more I despised this man, who thinks himself generous when he hands back enough money for some poor sucker to get home on, having taken him for all else he was worth. Sorry you won't get to buy that ranch you were looking forward to moving to or go duck hunting with that new gun you purchased or travel around the United States, having come here from Europe. Sure, one can argue that the people who agree to gamble with Devol are responsible for choosing to do so in the first place and thinking that they could cheat Devol out of his own cash, but sometimes, in reading, I found my heart renching for all that such men sometimes lost.

Devol also spends a good time writing about his ability to fight--and especially to head butt. I'd thought the latter was something kids gave up by second grade. Devol claims to have a hard head that can take down anyone--but one he's used so frequently that is covered in abrasions.

And yet, the irony is that come Civil War time, Devol spends just a short period in the military, and coming to see the danger in war, runs off to return to gambling--and most especially to despoiling the soldiers who happen to come through New Orleans during and after the war. I can, I suppose, give Devol credit for showing his own dishonor and pure selfishness when it comes to national service.

Whatever I may think of Devol and his profession, Devol seems to think highly of it and of himself. He claims that gamblers are more honest folks than most of society, accepting their losses, when they happen, unlike some who try to recoup their "fairly" squandered money. Gambling, as Devol points out at the end, is something only human beings do, and as such, it shows off human intelligence.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

On "Occupational Hazard" by Hassan Riaz (5424 words) ***

More a reminiscence than a well-plotted story, Riaz here recounts the life of a cook and his run-ins with various women. The story focuses most specifically on three women who in some way or another are related to the restaurants where he works--and all of whom eventually almost kill the narrator. And yet, like a dangerous job, the narrator keeps coming back--he needs women like he needs a job. Read the story here at Penduline.