Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Amidst the hullabaloo about that last Nobel, for literature, the compound noun “pop star” got slung around a lot, in print, and struck me, even after the tenth or eleventh time, as unlikely, a little jarring, because so many of the songs I knew were about steam heat and cars breaking down, guttural longing and muted remorse, stories about people for whom things go wrong in long, sloppy, causal chains, like a zig-zag of dominos, a Rube Goldberg device rigged with shoelaces and railroad gin. But whatever that kind of “pop” is—blue, like a jacket splashed in anti-shoplifting ink; high and lonesome, making dumb substitutions to numb out the throb of nostalgia and loss; even a little bit mystical in its recognition of the sacred awe evoked by things like trapeze artists and racing forms—that’s the kind of pop Kara Vernor is singing in the key of, here. “I’m pear-shaped and she likes apples. I’m dirty blonde and she likes them clean,” for instance, or, from the same story, “Working at Hamburger Hut when you’re a meth addict and a lesbian is just like working at Hamburger Hut when you’re a meth addict. But you can’t tell Cassie that.”
Her lyricism is attentive to disappointment, to the disjuncture between fantasy and reality, but most especially to that only half-wised-up mindset in which one realizes the tragedy but keeps keeping on, complicit in one’s own neglect, abuse, or unhappiness. Characters here try to imagine God when it’s immediately useful, insist on interpreting proximity as intimacy, and destroy things just to feel the simple satisfaction of an action, completed, punctuated with noise. They work at Hamburger Hut or the cookie shop in the mall. They have spoilers on their cars, BB guns on their pillows. They jerk girls onto their Barcaloungers or they practice the necessary self-contortion to suck their own dicks. Evincing the wariness of prey—sizing up potential threats by the color of the jumpsuit they wear, picking places to meet based on the likelihood of public violence there—the voices of these stories neither live charmed lives nor can believe in the charmed lives marketed to them in TV serials, fronted by David Hasselhoff or Don Johnson.
Occasionally someone acts out, generates a domestic spectacle—blood or vomit—but the “sense of urgency” such scenes elicit are always conditional, short lived. Most of the time, the rebellions are private (smashing a cubic zirconium wedding ring into a clot of mashed potatoes, dumping it all in the KFC trash) and endurance, whether motivated by hope or just inertia, or an inertia that insists—humming fragments of background noise, pop music—that it is hope. Pop songs here are a kind of collective dream, the soundtrack of the mall and the highway and the rec room, anthems for the unfulfilled, but also an insistence, in song, that fulfillment will come. Pop songs recast reality in their own terms, then, granting a kind of glamor to the everyday, such that it can be read as evidence of one’s desires. Or, as a bruised character in one of Kara Vernor’s stories puts it, “Then he farted in front of me for the first time, which was almost as good as I love you....”
Official Kara Vernor Web Site
Official Split Lip Press Web Site