Posts Tagged ‘Ampersand Books’

A Review of “RE: Telling. An Anthology of Borrowed Premises, Stolen Settings, Purloined Plots, and Appropriated Characters” by William Walsh, Editor

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Spencer Dew

The subtitle summarizes the gimmick here, as does Matt Bell’s opener, a story wherein the plumber Mario (the one who is plagued by turtles, who “kills with his ass”) ponders the nature and motivations of God, this deity being, explicitly, one with a pocketful of quarters and the ability either to press Continue or to walk away. On the one hand, the project of this book is familiar ground. Revisions of fairy tales are the stuff of undergrad writing assignments decades back, source for countless poetry collections and critical polemics. And, yes, here we have a mournful Paul Bunyan, revenge as plotted by Humpty Dumpty’s brother, a radically truncated “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But this is an anthology, too, of a certain subset of young writers, and the retellings here have that flavor, too, the taste of performance. We are given a revised history of ABBA, and we can almost hear the audience laughing in whatever bar such a story might have been first read.

The same holds true of a retake of “I Love Lucy” full of fornication, gonorrheal infections of the throat, female friends bonding over food. Another story reexamines one of the classical texts of female friendship as, instead, a threshing floor of sexual jealousy. Of Ruth’s famous declaration to Naomi (“wherever you go, I will go … Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God,” etc.), we are told “She would come to regret this decision almost immediately.”

What saves this volume from succumbing to smugness of forgetability is the strength of its writing. There are revisions that stab through the heart of the original, like Shya Scanlon’s hilarious “Tropic of Candor,” which imagines Henry Miller as a virgin, raiding his mother’s liquor cabinet and instant messaging into the night. “I know I said I’d ream out every wrinkle of your cunt, and I wanted to, for realz.” Yet there are also stories that stand as stories, regardless of the framework. Molly Gaudry gives us a brief, painful picture of childhood—of, specifically, two siblings dumping a dead pet frog into a river. Joseph Riippi gives us a high school student fantasizing about his blind English teacher. “Does she read enough to build calluses?” he wonders, contemplating his own calluses, which come from fantasies like this: “She reaches with antennae arms; her calluses feel wet face, open eyes. She reads to him from his acne.” Crispin Best (in the process of reimagining the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles characters) gives us a lonely creature who used to date a girl who “did all the recordings that play on the number 11 tram, the ones that say the name of the next stop.”

Most days Krang buys a ticket and just rides around on the number 11 tram.

Krang listens to her voice saying the names of the stops and sits there and tries to be calm.

He listens to her voice and scrolls through old text messages on his phone.

Then there are those pieces that explicitly reflect on the process of retelling, on the role familiar stories and characters play in our lives, how we embody them. Tim Jones-Yelvington presents yet another Law & Order spin-off, this one geared to theories about the “millenials”—that “self-referential generation”—as a potential market. “In the criminal justice system, there are the police who investigate crimes,” the show begins, “and the viewers who watch television shows about their investigations. These are the stories of viewers like us.” The chronicle that follows, episode by episode, parodies fandom’s obsession with pull quotes and trivia as well as that brand of intellectual inquiry inspired by fandom (think Stanley Fish on The Fugitive, only think of some slacker checking the chiming windows on a social networking site during the commercial breaks in the show). “In this episode,” reads one summary,

Jools engages Simon in a critical conversation about Law and Order: Special Victims Unit in which she attempts to deconstruct their mutual fascination with the series. Jools says that by producing the same anxieties it allays, the series is complicit in the so-called ‘culture of fear.’ According to Jools, this ‘culture of fear,’ which exploits middle America’s terror of urban crime, has enabled the United States to incarcerate more citizens than other ‘First World’ nations do, while establishing the construction and operation of prisons as profit-generating enterprises.

Soon these characters, their “viewers like us,” are embroiled in their own drama, mixing incest and incarceration and a brutal dose of sexual violence. A different twist on the conventions of fandom frame the contribution from Henry Jenkins, who presents commentary—as a scholar of such phenomenon—on his own attempt at slash fan fiction, in this case a brilliant re-engagement with the text of A Christmas Carol.Every line in this scene comes directly from the novel,” Jenkins writes,

What I was doing here was recontextualizing Dicken’s (sic) original language to offer up an alternative interpretation of what the characters might have been thinking—this integration of original dialogue and internal monologue is a common literary device in fan fiction. I was rewriting it for the purpose of critical commentary and in the process, I was trying to include as many elements from the original novel as possible while offering explanations for the character issues which have long concerned literary critics writing about the book.

Scrooge, for instance, “always found excuses to prolong” that time he spent at the office, making money but also spending time with Marley.

The variety of engagement with retelling as act and idea makes this an exciting and intriguing volume. While Jenkins works within the pre-existing text to explain its logic, the emotional motivations of the characters, another of the best stories here takes as its pretext such a skeletal outline of a narrative—the story of “Jack and Jill”—that its author, Jim Ruland, has remarkable freedom to invent. Given a boy, a girl, an eventual fall, a tumbling after, all the other aspects—in this case, Amsterdam, drugs, the sex trade—are so much delicious detail, spun out like cotton candy, what the Dutch call, more menacingly, sugar-spider. This is the treat of retelling—and of RE: Telling—the startling juxtaposition, the blandly familiar suddenly made dangerously new.

Official William Walsh Web Site
Official Ampersand Books Web Site

A Review of “We Are Never as Beautiful as We Are Now” by Adam Gallari

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

Spencer Dew

“This used to be fun,” thinks one of Adam Gallari’s characters, pushing against pain to continue a run, on the verge of some new assessment of his present condition, some new relation to his past. Along with wary and would-be artists, this book is populated by baseball players and former baseball players, their position in the world a metaphor for the struggles faced throughout. The characters in We Are Never as Beautiful as We Are Now grapple with the fact that they are not now what they were before, and the reality that pleasure, love–even the framework of identity–exist, inaccessibly, in the past.

In these stories, memories get deliberately hazed through fiction or strong drink and nostalgia exerts a tug “for things lost that he’s never had the chance to experience,” because that which was once tasted and lost is too painful to contemplate. The men in these pages grow old, or come to the slow but sudden realization that they’ve already grown old some time ago, as they pant through the park trying to keep up with their image of themselves, or retch their guts against an alley wall in a vain attempt to keep pretending.

The banal tragedy of the passage of time is one of Gallari’s main subjects, with attention to the varied ramifications thereof, the small domestic betrayals, the perversions created by the slippage of the past. Two men lean against the same bar, contemplating different women, discussing different sports. A novelist of some dated fame waits for an aspiring writer to relay the details of his last night’s bedroom conquest. Gallari has a touch for describing the distance between people, for narrating the constant masquerade of denial and the collapse that happens after, when the masks slip, when the man can’t pick his head up off the bar or the father awkwardly advices his son about the future.

The writhing of consciousness find voice here, too: “You’ve tried not to think about her. You’ve tried to think of everything and anything else, but even filling your head with thoughts of possible distractions leads your mind to realize that it’s doing so just to distract itself, so you wonder if, now, it would just be easier to think about her.”

In the strongest story, “Chasing Adonis,” told entirely inside a second-person point of view, a man obsessed with winning back his ex-girlfriend seeks transformation through the gym, through abandonment of food, pushing harder and harder until his thighs bang against the treadmill safety bar. Denial here becomes fixation, a consuming task, doomed from the start to fail at its ostensible goal. The girl will never come back, and eventually the man’s knees will go. In the meantime, “You move onto tuna fish and skinless chicken breast, always plain,” as other Gallari characters move on to Johnny Walker or axing down maple trees. Such resistance may be futile, but the exertion of energy is, itself, a way of avoiding the issue. We Are Never as Beautiful as We Are Now, its title another cleverly angled take on time’s inevitable and inevitably destructive passage, highlights both the futility and the humanity of such protest.

Official Ampersand Books Web Site

A Review of “Dodging Traffic” by J. Bradley

Monday, May 17th, 2010

Spencer Dew

Slam poet J. Bradley’s collection has the in-your-face pace and bullying egotism of the slam circuit. Blunt personifications and schoolyard similes abound. “Disappointment kneels,” for instance, likely to honor lines like “Your face looks like / a swine flu outbreak / in a small town.”

The poems here read like performance pieces, and, thus, one will need to read a little spittle and swagger into them, and discard the repeated reference to thesauruses, and maybe put the book down from time to time to take a breath and rally up enough sympathy to witness another amateur bare knuckle verbal beat-down. Consider a poem like “Upon Seeing Your Profile on MySpace…” which taunts “Your idea of a diet / is holding a digital camera / at a 45º angle.”

But if you take a deep enough breath between bouts, you might realize just how bare the knuckles are in this fight.  As insults go, most folks prefer witty ones, for sure, but when you get to a poem like “On the Day of Our Wedding” and read “You looked like / the kind of princess / who needed poisoning” you just might catch a whiff of the real poison in play.

Bradley is more bruised than a bruiser, and in his poems he needs to own up to this fact and put his deep purples on display. It’s hard to care about the keyboards that “call 911” and “show bruised Delete keys / to the responding officer,” but it would be easy to care about the man pounding out poems on said boards–especially if he deletes a bit from his next collection.

Describing a hangover as a construction site is a nice warm-up exercise, but keep it private. Likewise, as to the question of how to “woo / a pterodactyl to bed,” well, pyrotechnics of words might work, or just a shot of homebrewed honesty. Dodging Traffic gathers together scraps of scuffles–one-two aphorisms (“What Makes a Man,” you ask? Bradley serves it to you raw, on a bumper sticker) and some too-obvious feigns (How is someone sleeping like Dresden during the firebombing? That seems a less relevant question than the one about seducing a gliding dinosaur). In his final piece, “The Poetry of J. Bradley, Abridged,” the narrator declares:

I will make a mask for sadness
out of the liner notes of my
The Cure collection so I can
skull fuck hope into its ocular nerve.

This is the voice from the gym, shadowboxing for the next slam, the same sort of character who “laughed all through Roots” and wants to write poems with the same sardonic reach. The guard up here is what’s throwing the fight the wrong way; Bradley needs to swing less, lean back, rope-a-dope, and bleed!

After a poem like “On the Day of Your Mastectomy,” which feels like a cop-out (“Enough asked / for a moment, silence”), it’s hard to expect more than bile and Bazooka Joe lyrics in something like “June MacGuff to Bristol Palin.” But here we have–maybe through the channeling of a different fictional voice, the film character instead of the man-at-the-microphone–something downright poignant, and laced with the very “hope” whose eyesight gets threatened a few dozen pages later.

Hidden among the hard jabs are some real flashes of sincerity, where the speaker isn’t ranting over an audience but speaking directly at some real “you,” talking about wedding vows or raising a son or even, in the improbable–but funny, sweet, self-deprecating and deep–“Doing It Norse Style,” wooing women. The take-away here (and the promise of Bradley’s poetry and this rough collection) is that hands must be trained to do something other than fight:

Until they wield bouquets
skillfully, you cannot spend
another Monday morning
counting coins of broken glass
cached beneath your skin.

That’s the wisdom of the bruised. No fine lace-work there, but it’s not without its beauty, its truth.

Official J. Bradley Web Site
Official Ampersand Books Web Site