Archive for September, 2010

A Review of “They Had Goat Heads” by D. Harlan Wilson

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Spencer Dew

There’s a Bob Dylan song about umbrellas and crime, darkness and climbing, and the flow of that song, the flow which that song is about–the narrative form of dreams, the logic of their progression, without “great connections” or “intricate schemes”–is a useful notion for making sense of what D. Harlan Wilson is doing in this collection of short, strange stories, each its own dream, in a sense, unfolding in the manner of dreams, laced with absurdity and non sequitur, yet engaging, too, in the specific lineament of genre, of what is now called the “speculative.”

You walk into a theater and realize you’re the star of the movie, or a motel clerk tries to have you arrested because you don’t have your key. “Near the restrooms, a contortionist juggles minute koalas while dishing out smoked sausages for $3 a pop. Takers are legion, and they’re not unhappy with the taste, given the proper medley of condiments.” This is the stuff of Wilson’s stories, but the most successful ones are the most stripped down. There’s the case of the man who “screwed an antenna into the soft spot on an infant’s skull and tried to get a signal,” for instance, or the child who wants to crawl back inside his mother’s womb, or the man who denies the existence of elbows, who has something to do with a bridge engineered out of Cornish hens….

The collection begins with an experimental tweak of genre, a piece called “6 Word Scifi,” which reads, in its entirety, “Mechanical flâneurs goosestep across the prairie.” There’s quite a bit going on here, and, to some interpreters at least, it is a string of words thick with allusion. Sometimes, however, Wilson can misstep with his attempts at some sort of witty meta level. On flying squirrels, for instance, he writes, “One should not do battle with arboreal gliders, theoretical or otherwise (ref. Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus), no matter what they’re wearing.” But perhaps the point is that Delueze and Guattari references–or Arabic script, or definitions of terms from Japanese cinema–do turn up in the genre and, likewise, do turn up in dreams. That which is jarring, here, also packs a gentler, in-joke nudge, as when descriptions devolve to blunt declaration of “Animé nights and scikungfi battle royals.”

Mid-book there is a story deserving special note: “The Sister,” presented in graphic novel fashion via the artistry of Skye Thorstenson. These are gorgeous, disquieting, and addictive pages. I only wish the entire book had been told this way, with the dreams visible on the page, an anteater, a gash for a face. Here the hallucinatory logic takes on even more haunting resonance. While elsewhere Wilson gives us the dangerously pendulous stray breast of a nurse or all those strangers tying notes to bricks, it is the image of the tangled birdcage, the leg sticking out of it, that will linger longest, like the afterimage of a particularly baffling and unshakable dream.

Official D. Harlan Wilson Web Site
Official Atlatl Press Web Site

A Review of “The Artist in Question” by Michael J Seidlinger

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Spencer Dew

What is exciting about this book is how unlike other books it is. A compendium of bits, in different san-serif fonts and styles, ranging from aphorisms to flash fictions, notes on larger projects, and editorial asides enclosed in parentheses. The document begins with “an editor’s note” (and note here the article, its anonymity) that “editing the following documents has been limited to comprisal, arrangement remains ‘as-is’ according to how all documents birthed, and typeface alterations transpose the nature of transcription, be it bold, italicized, underlined or otherwise constrained to reflect the proposition and dissuade any proposal unintentionally made.” And with that prose, so begins the problem–whether in an awkward attempt at intentional opaqueness or merely as a result of associative exercises or even a blend of both, the writing in this book is such that many brave readers will throw the thing away.

Then there is the content: “He writes of himself like a character, from the third person to filter out discomfort,” one unpaginated page says in large font, nicely. Another declares, “‘The concept’ is my main source of interest” while somewhere else we see this definition: “The avant-garde–really, the intent on changing and challenging forms is an art in itself–an art of an art/ an art in an art.” All fine so far, especially if coupled with, say, any sense of this uneasy third person, this concept, this meta art. Instead, we are barraged with platitudes. “No love is as precious as a need for a new idea.” “Dreaming is a form of development.” “Entertainment is the most important aspect of this society.” It feels, quickly, like going through Barbara Kruger’s trash. But then it get worse. “To use politics is simply to engage in the methodology of managing something,” we are told. Now please tell me what that means. “Morale shall never be forced; panic into justice yields ignorance. One must speak from stability. Never must we follow by alarm for self-preservation, we must identify and recognize. We must truly care.” Huh? Thus we go from the cliché of “We all create stories to protect ourselves from ourselves” to the gaseous musing that “Even with the civil services in First World countries, all it takes is a five-car pile-up to have your house burned down before the firefighters could get there in time. Insurance or not, a policy could have a loophole that only compensates for a certain amount of damages, and there are [sic] the obvious increase of charges. A single spark and that ‘safety’ could be gone.”

If your idea of an enlightening time is flipping through a thick text for tidbits like “Arts and Sciences are both forms of expression–much like anything else that presents humanity in a manner–yet have different qualities,”  then, by all means, go for it, but others will likely feel that Seidlinger’s work could have benefited more from an editorial presence than this extended wallowing in rather cheap, even lazy, interpretations of so-called death of the author theory.

“I write this as I am here,” it is written, “anxious;/ I’m writing to stay busy, to look busy to avoid being singled out. My spastic scrawls/ double as a/ defense/ mechanism…. freely writing in the wake of boredom, droplets of irritation immaculately irrigating a desperate battle defense of pen, scribbling to paper, eyes averted in order to attain the image of concentration.” This reads like first person from the writer. Maybe it’s a conceptual trick, but, in any case, it’s dull, arguably inexcusable. Likewise, “When doodling, words creep in through certain contexts: band logos, personal names, words from notes often randomly chosen/highlighted. Our association with language AND art transcends any limitation coming from the subconscious response to boredom to keep the pen moving.” But, brother, might it not be better to pause the pen from time to time? Might a little silence and stillness and thinking be what’s required to make a work of writing that’s worth reading?

“Whether or not the world will remember you, is not important; it is about whether you ever find yourself.” One gets the sense that all of this is about precisely that–or, rather, is precisely that, the author’s own coping mechanism, the author’s way of trying to make sense of the world, pen in hand, etc. As is said somewhere here, “For every novel approach, there’s an underlying personal need.” If only a little more of that “personal need,” that motivation, showed through, and showed through in such a way that it was conveyed and could be felt. Instead, we have parenthetical notes to the effect that “certain statements can nearly be considered as evidence of the supposed disappearance and expected demise of creative license,” bits of description such as “The cold that’s just too low numbered for comfort, doing its best to break down subsistence, freezing then shattering the top layers of proposition, tensing only the lowered mists as they huddle together to preserve” and such snippets of farce as “To compare, will only cause disrepair. Vacant stares. Swiftly downstairs, twin pairs would fall down, fading despair.” But wait, there’s politics, too, of a (again, as with the insurance premium discussion, shockingly bourgeois) sort: “Already common, obesity is a result of no self-control and poor diet because of many factors, one of which involves the food within reach of the common citizen. The common citizen cannot afford to eat healthy salads, cuisine, and even power/energy bars.”

This book may be many things, including, certainly, a record of a wrestling with the act of writing and the concept of textuality itself. It will not, however, function for many readers anything like a “power/energy bar.”

Official Civil Coping Mechanisms Web Site

Zine-Scene Covers decomP

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Zine-Scene, a promising upstart, recently published several pieces on decomP–an overview, a profile of our August 2010 and September 2010 issues, and an interview with our Editor-in-Chief. Keep an eye out for their future spotlights, as well as their magazine The Reprint.

Our Best of the Net 2010 Nominations

Friday, September 17th, 2010

We’re pleased to nominate the following pieces for Best of the Net 2010 :

Britt Gambino – “Isosceles”
Justin Hamm – “down home”
Keith Kurzman – “Eleison”
Halli Melnitsky – “The Ascension of Soft Bright Things”
Jasmine Neosh – “The Rube Goldberg Pacemaker”
R Jay Slais – “In Every Loss I Found”
Amber Sparks – “When Other People’s Lives Fall into Your Lap”
Catherine Zickgraf – “Magpie”

We wish them luck in the selection process!

A Review of “The Really Funny Thing About Apathy” by Chelsea Martin

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

Spencer Dew

“Sometimes I received text messages from people about things right as I was about to send them a text message about the very same thing, on a day when there were no previous text messages between us,” says one of the narrators of one of the stories in this collection, each hooked, in some thematic way, to a paradox, each exploring the quotidian this and that of life. Apathy figures, and humor:  there is the high school girl prepared to tell her boyfriend she’s pregnant–“Well, I’m not really pregnant, but that’s what I’m going to tell my boyfriend”–and the high school girl who thinks it “a pretty funny thing to do” when a boy brings a wrench to school, threatens another boy, and gets himself arrested. There is the narrator “consumed, of course, with thoughts of” an ex-lover, halfway attempting to bother to believe that “Maybe someday I would find someone sort of almost close to as good,” and there is one extended piece, echoing a notion from Zeno, as to why “Eating food from McDonald’s is mathematically impossible.” Cause and effect unwinds: “…before you can read something that reinforces your insecurities, you have to have insecurities./ And before you can have insecurities, you have to be awake for part of the day./ And before you can be awake for part of the day, you have to feel motivation to wake up.” There are funny bits throughout, about battery acid and parents, and the rhythm of paradox allows Martin both to skewer fallacies–“And before you can stop being so depressed, you have to understand what depression is”–and stretch out tangled motivations–“I wanted to make people think I was manipulative so that when I appeared weak they would think I was just trying to get something.” Much of the minimalism or whatever tone of these pieces–“He sent me a link to a music video. I can’t remember if I watched it or not.”–is too familiar, however, and ultimately there is something unsatisfying about the state of suspension in which Martin locates her characters, never quite making it, pondering impossibilities. “In a movie I had seen recently,” one narrator relates, “there was a scene in which two people looked at each other and made subtle facial expressions back and forth that conveyed very little.” “I belonged in that movie,” she says, but this book, with its generally stripped down language and glossed-over tone–“And before you can buy alcohol, you have to want your psychological state to be altered”–isn’t really anything like that movie. Rather than drawing an audience into the subtleties of the visual, or pulling readers along into the mechanics of language, The Really Funny Thing About Apathy plays some small and generally forgettable games. It’s like that video, the one you can’t remember watching or not.

Official Chelsea Martin Web Site
Official sunnyoutside press Web Site

A Review of “99 Problems: Essays About Running and Writing” by Ben Tanzer

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

Spencer Dew

It is fitting that as disciplined and obsessive a writer as Ben Tanzer–who, by way of disclosure, I have known for years–would produce a book like this, a lean volume of reflections on how the act of running feeds his creative habit. Autobiographical in that most intimate sense of an artist’s working notebook, though polished into its present form with the help of a rigid framework based in part, structurally, on Haruki Murakami’s book on running, 99 Problems explores Tanzer’s belief that “Running produces a means for escaping mental clutter, which most of the time allows for processing ideas and untangling the kinks that slow the evolution of any story” by chronicling specific runs in specific places and the ways those runs helped with the “untangling” of specific stories. While Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was, as Tanzer says, “about the pure act of running itself, in all of its metaphysical and quotidian awesomeness,” his own book is very much about writing, with running as a necessary step in the artistic process. Yet this process, as construed by Tanzer, encompasses everything. Consider this diary-like passage:

Last night I went to listen to Ike Reilly at Schubas, and many beers were drunk. I got home late and, after watching television and gabbing with my wife for an hour, I didn’t sit down to write until 2:30 in the morning. That got me to bed at 3:30 in the morning, and then back up at 7:30 in the morning to get the boys ready for school. Then after that it was time for my annual physical, for which I have been fasting since midnight, clear liquids only; I am allowed to drink coffee, but have not.  At the physical I give blood, and have a prostate exam. Sweet. I walk to the supermarket, so I can help my wife carry the groceries back to the house. We get home and watch the latest winner of American Idol perform on Oprah.

While much of 99 Problems consists of monologues on stories-in-process, garnished with scenery from the run in which such monologues, to some degree, unfurled, the larger story here is Tanzer himself, the writer and his life, a portrait of the author as man no longer so young, though defined by a youthful exuberance and attitude (“Sweet”) in the face of the responsibilities and anxieties of adulthood. In athletic exertion, Tanzer wrestles with his own physicality; running was easier, he writes, “before the kidney stones and cancer scares, colonoscopies and high cholesterol, arthritis and biopsies,” yet that long-ago time was “also before September 11th, before my father died, before I became a father as well….” All of these things are approached as fodder for writing, of course, something that, like running, is more than the sum of its parts, more than, say, “drugs or sex. Or Pringles” because it encompasses and orders all of these things, imposing a structure upon the otherwise random, be it terrifying (“cancer scares…September 11th”) or merely banal, like the hours in Atlanta that Tanzer alchemizes into something solid, with words:

I land. Get off of the plane. Board the tram. Exit the tram. Navigate the terminal. Buy a Breeze card. Board the Marta. Exit the Marta. Walk to the Springhill Suites. Check in. Take elevator to room. Plug in laptop. Check email. Open bag. Remove running clothes. Remove running shoes. Put on running clothes. Put on running shoes. Grab iPod. Leave room. Take elevator down to lobby. Leave hotel. Start running. Victory. Atlanta.

As I said, there is something diary-like to much of this, yet there is something more here, too; a writer at work, crafting raw experience into product, with discipline and hunger. If anything, there is a bit too much discipline in these pages, with the inadvertent effect of self aggrandizement. Obsessive about folding laundry, obsessive about television, and obsessive about hitting the streets to push through new thoughts on the day’s story, Tanzer can come across as if feigning what might be meant as intimate moments of introspection. When he admits, “maybe I do enjoy whatever ‘outsider’ status it is I think I possess, but I don’t think it’s been holding me back or making me less ambitious, has it?” His question seems insincere. “I always thought the whole effort was about improving my craft and seeking opportunities, and that like with running, when my skill level and the right opportunity converged I would grab it,” he says, but by this point we don’t need to be told, we have already seen.

And yet, 99 Problems also offers insistent reminders of what we have not yet seen, standing as a series of paced training runs for competitive literary projects to come, both the stories it describes working through and larger future projects emerging from the basic dynamic it seeks to describe, not just that running fuels writing but that “the bigger you feel things, the more curious you are; and the more problems you want to solve and not actually run from, the better everything is, even the things you already love.” I take this to be not only a nice summary of Tanzer’s approach to the world (as seen in his two novels and story collection), but also a promising manifesto of intent.

Official Ben Tanzer Web Site
Official CCLaP Publishing Web Site

A Review of “This Boy, This Broom” by P. Edward Cunningham

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

Spencer Dew

This attractively designed little book from BatCat Press relays a series of dispatches from the frontlines of the American cineplex, P. Edward Cunningham’s accounts of his days as a teenage employee of a movie theater, replete with sweeping, second-hand candy, and occasional snippets of human tragedy. The writing, alas, does not match the productive value of the text itself, though there are stronger moments, such as the repeating “Shift” sections, terse, chronological reports of the job itself. “Return to lobby,” one such entry reads, “No popcorn to sweep. Concessionist smiles at me. Asks me what my name is. I tell her. She wears too much eye shadow. Eyes like Nixon. Swollen. Results of a shellfish allergy? She tells me I’m cute. Radio lights up.” Where such a minimalist–and speedy–style succeeds, much of Cunningham’s writing falls short, stumbling over its own phrasing while aiming for a comic didacticism, a discourse of distance from the thing itself. “As a person who is often oblivious to the obvious, I consistently fail to notice statistics that some would consider highly informative when searching for someplace to spend on holiday,” the author writes, by way of a story about the wonders and horrors of Detroit. Then, of the visit, he says, “Meg and I were rather stunned by the number of Picassos hanging in the halls of the DIA–an amount larger than that of most museums we had visited. Compared to the copious amounts of wind-swept trash throughout the city, the museum was quite the contrast.” My problem here, ultimately, is that the awkwardness of the writing masks an absence, that of full characterization of the narrator. “I imagine that having the rare permission to photograph anything in the contemporary portion of a museum is similar to a police officer letting you hold his gun for a moment or two,” he says, and there is, in the unreality of that particular comparison for the narrator, in the stretch and the smirk of it, something simply missing. The relationship to art–to photography of it–remains vague, and while this is a minor example, the same problem plagues the book’s emotional core. As the narrator remains vague on his own feelings about his situation, his work (he’s upset when a new manager promotes all ushers to the “head usher” title, which is clear enough, but “Nothing mattered anymore” hits the wrong sort of hyperbolic note) so too does he remain disturbingly distant from the suffering of others that he routinely encounters on the job. The narrator can turn away from a man sobbing into his hands after, on his day out with his son, sitting in a movie seat saturated with human waste…yet he turns away, too, as author, leaving his readers unsure whether to cry or laugh, leaving them, in the wake of his own unexamined insularity, ready to quickly move on as well. This Boy, This Broom is autobiography devoid of intimacy, lacking an authentic sense of the author’s self and his relations with the world. Ultimately, the book mimics the tedium of the work at the cineplex, which is perhaps one of its goals. But with the scenes Cunningham witnessed and the experiences he endured, he could have crafted a much more affecting text.

Official P. Edward Cunningham Web Site
Official BatCat Press Web Site

A Review of “MLKNG SCKLS” by Justin Sirois

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

Spencer Dew

Redaction is its own form of narrative. Consider that eighteen-minute gap in Nixon’s Whitehouse tapes–a text of absence at once tantalizing and indicting, a deletion that recasts everything around it, a hole that demands reinterpretation of the whole.

In this slim novella, Justin Sirois has tapped into just such a vein, creating a book out of deleted sections from his novel Falcons on the Floor, written with Haneen Alshujairy. Here, two refugees from the city of Fallujah wander through a landscape of desert and water and memories. The dreams of the displaced narrator mimic the method of the book itself, as he redacts, mentally:

The market.
Men milking sickles.
The unemployed barber, General, welder, masseur.
I’ll have deleted all of these entries before they have a chance to breathe.

In another scene, this man “uncooks” a meal, playing it all backwards, drying out rice, reassembling cut carrots, “stacking the slices in columns and blowing on their wet seams until they morph whole.” As in Vonnegut or Amis, this running of time in reverse is a response to horror, to catastrophe, to a world rendered strange. A burnt dog stumbles onward, carrion-feeding birds cluster on a wrecked car, and our narrator observes, “I’ve never noticed, until now, how sounds have transformed after the occupation began–how screams of pain have grown mundane, but simple banging doors jolt us from our chairs.”

Ubiquitous stress, constant threat, and necessary wariness, combined with the raging heat of the journey, turns the journey of these two Iraqis into something on the level of parable. One, starved for a cigarette, remains always without a light. The other, surveying the sparkle of the river from an elevated tier of land, wants “to say how beautiful it is,” but keeps quiet out of fear of ambushes and irritation at his companion’s constant talking. So, like the wounded dog, they journey on, outwardly and inwardly, and the narrator records some thoughts in a laptop, its battery depleting, itself already an artifact of some alien world, jarringly surreal. As he opens it up, he notes “The welcoming chime from the speakers is made to sound like a doorbell, like you’ve been invited in, but I’ve never had a doorbell and no one I’ve ever known has, either.”

The characters keep low to the ground, forging on, into an altered reality, keeping low to the ground through fragments forgotten from a novel, deleted scenes, self-censored snippets about a war or, more, about the people the war passes through, leaving behind in their own land. “Windless as an aquarium, the night stretches itself from rim to rim with no beginning or quit,” and this is more than mere night or mere desert, mere shoreline.

I can’t get thoughts of home out of my head. The Jolan hemorrhages with olives, oily bread, brake pads, shoes shined with butter and ink, chicken pens with chickens thrashing rabid–and hovering silver trays like spaceships, tea kettles, tea glasses, tea–motorbikes backfiring, cabbage choking tailpipes, Mountain Dew drizzling through gutters, and children, dozens of shoe-less children pitting dates. Their fingers look shit-stained, but it’s just date juice.

MLKNG SCKLS is a book characterized by contemplate urgency, a story and a project that reflects on the nature of life, war, and narrative itself. Sirois, through the presentation of hallucinatory consciousness, offers an undeniably human portrait:

I’m not hungry or full. The rugs of my guts finally unravel. They roll out, throwing plumes of dust in the mosques of my lungs. Men and women enter through my open ribs and kneel in neat rows, each of them kneeling with palms over their knees. I don’t think they pray for me. They pray for other people.

Official Justin Sirois Web Site
Official Publishing Genius Web Site