Posts Tagged ‘Spencer Dew’

A Review of “Sylvow” by Douglas Thompson

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Spencer Dew

Nobody rules the earth,” we’re told at one point in Douglas Thompson’s long-feeling novel Sylvow. At other points, more specific theories are floated: that, for instance, “If one species threatens the planet’s survival, then the elimination of that species by any means, to Nature is good.” Or that the earth itself is something like a sentient entity, Gaia, and “Gaia is blind, patient, amoral, selfish, all-powerful, savage, beautiful, resourceful, resilient. If this is a God, it is no human God, not one that it is safe for human beings to worship.” What happens in Sylvow, spread among multiple plotlines like the root-tendrils of a banyan tree, is that nature strikes back; Gaia closes ranks, adapts, and attacks. “These roots and veins seemed to be pulsing with water and fire when I drew close to them, translucent: were they carrying blood or chlorophyll or both? It was as if all of Nature had re-booted and re-evaluated itself, as if human and natural inventions had been merged and subsumed into some new order.” Birds learn to imitate car alarms, bee behavior changes, insects appear that are larger than usual. Then the hybrid fruits, the rain of black seeds, the catkins of trees developing into bombs full of sulphuric acid. Plants turn carnivorous. The animals take human children, give them suckle. Or the animals rebel, dogs mangle their so-called masters.

Explicitly seeking to echo, in part, the work of the brothers Grimm—the book begins with a sinister excerpt from the story of the pied piper of Hamelin, leading the children away, having already eliminated the rats—Sylvow is interested, as well, in the legend of Romulus and Remus, and the fictional city at the center of the action is described as the farthest spot penetrated by the Roman Legion. Primal wildness is here, under the paving stones and suburban cement. Thus, Thompson’s work reads something like a moral tact, winking at the horror of fairy tales and rolling up its own sleeves to pen some pretty gruesome passages, while also speaking, through the mouths of various characters, about Carl Jung and collective dreaming, Gaia and the haughty human sense of sovereignty, and taking some pleasure in relaying a revenge fantasy wherein it is the natural environment that takes revenge, sending floods and murderous trees, setting free the zoos and welcoming some children into its own fold, out in the dark of the deep woods.

Official Douglas Thompson Web Site
Official Eibonvale Press Web Site

A Review of “Currency” by Zoe Zolbrod

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Spencer Dew

“If my credit cards have taught me anything,” American backpacker Robin tells Piv, her Thai lover and, as a result of that romance, business partner, midway through Zoe Zolbrod’s Currency, “it’s that you might as well face things.” One can only accrue so much debt, she means, until one hits the limit. Transaction denied. Robin is speaking, of course, about the specifics of the moment, a scene involving a batch of live turtles she and Piv some far more professional criminals to smuggle. The turtles are crawling all over each other in their cramped container. They are poking out each other’s eyes. This, too, is an allegory, for turtles are far from the only live flesh reduced to commodity in the course of this narrative.

Pit vipers, coral snakes, women, all exchanges for “Something silver, something gold.” Indeed, Piv and his farang lover are likewise mere objects to those in more privileged positions, pieces of disposable property, tools. Their original plan—inspired by a woman who turned out, like so many others in this story, not to be what she presented herself as—was to book passage to Bali, buy jewelry there cheap, sell it for a profit on the streets of Bangkok. A clever plan, derailed by those credit cards, by the reality of that limit, the point where the bill comes due on all that pleasure that’s been, until then, seemingly free.

Fittingly, Robin and Piv meet over a puzzling English phrase, a kind of impromptu language lesson on the words “incipient conspiracy.” Soon they are couriers, cogs in the wheels that deal “Dead things: tiger bone, parts of elephant, rhino,” alongside “Alive things: kinds of snake, kinds of lizard, tortoise, frog, kinds of bug.”

Zolbrod, who has put in her own time on the ground in Southeast Asia, alternates chapters, first through the first person voice of Piv, then through third person coverage of Robin. This is a gutsy move, not least because of dialect. Here’s Piv: “I don’t want to meet bar girl, prostitute, nothing like that, but maybe I can meet one girl that knows about the rock and roll club, the good restaurant, something special, sure. She speaks English and I speak English, too, and she lies with me on this bed, and she wants to make something. She wants to be with me. She’ll feel very sad when I have to leave.” This choice of form, too, means that Zolbrod must enter fully into two personalities, similar yet also worlds apart, and channel their confusion at this swirling world of capital as well as the more bone-basic emotions of love and pride and humiliation. Feeling “manipulated; of use but not beloved,” for instance, Robin accuses herself of being “an orgasm-addled naïf who’d fall for anybody who’d do her, anyone with a tight belly and pidgin phrasing. She was the kind of stupid, easy Western girl who gave others a bad name.”

Robin’s real naïveté, however, is about capitalism itself, about currency as a category and its omnivorous nature. As one nefarious character explains, “a rich man is willing to pay much for a relatively small thing, if his neighbor does not have it,” a bloody and naked thumbnail of the situation. Piv gives us a business meeting that is a simultaneously a naked lunch: “We go to restaurant where the food is as ugly as that Russian. Big meat in one piece. They give you knife, and you have to cut. This is one farang thing I don’t like. Vol points his fork to the ceiling. Big piece of meat on that. He eats from his fork.” If everything is a commodity, then is anything for free? We learn early on in Currency to not trust anyone who loans you anything, but is there really nothing beyond betrayal and blackmail, exploitation and use? Piv, speaking to us, the readers, in the first person, as if we’re just tourists he meets on the street, promises at the start of the book to tell us something about his life, “Something about danger. Something about love.” If danger is the economy of sex clubs and numbered girls, rhinoceros horns and lies, opium and Johnnie Walker Red, then love is, potentially at least, that with which this system can be shattered. But this is easier said than done, as Robin and Piv find out, in this clever and exciting novel.

Official Zoe Zolbrod Web Site
Official OV Books Web Site

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 “birdsong 14: Anew” by Tommy Pico, Editor in Chief

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Spencer Dew

Birdsong Collective is a workshop community devoted to fostering and promoting art-in-process by various means, including this “flagship” publication, “a collaborative, bi-monthly lit/art/interview zine based in Brooklyn.” Within are nice quality color reproductions of art, including eerily nostalgic photographic pieces from Patrick Dyer, washed in color and light, as well as stories, poems, and a mash-up micro-interview of five questions dished out to five artists, including the poet Melissa Broder and the street artist FARO (neither of whose work, unfortunately, is included in this volume). Instead, moving at the speed of this nearly Twitterable interview piece, we have coverage of sex and relationships and comparisons of both, implicit and explicit, to art. But what else is there? In two pieces of visual art that exert an unexpectedly powerful pull, Julia Norton gives us soft-toned mountains, tinted in pinks and robin’s egg blue, fantastic otherwise abstract shapes laid out on wood panel, the grain visible, and marked, each one, with tiny traces of human presence, a “sanctuary,” a series of utility lines. The relation between these miniscule impositions and their real world corollaries, and the relation between these outposts within the image and the wider scale of raw rock and wild green foliage, is more than a nod at traditional Japanese screens. In fact, there is no white space here, no emptiness, only another layer (that grain of wood again) of wildness, planed down and sanded for domestic use. Not that these images are allegories, or anything so simple, but they are also far more than mere whimsical landscapes.

These pieces demand time, require some pondering, silent engagement. While this isn’t true about everything here, it holds for the best. The poignancy of LaJohnJoseph’s description of a baby brother’s “Buzz Lightyear all-in-one / ripped at the knee,” for instance, or Khalid El Khatib’s haunting story “When I Watched You Die” seize comprehensive attention from the reader. This latter piece shifts from italicized theorizing—grasping at making sense of the event—to the inescapably concrete details, such as how

The nurse collected your thousands of medication and dumped them all into a large Ziploc bag. She poured out vials of blue Percoset with vials of yellow Ativan and squeezed a tube of vasoline into the mix, kneading it together so that the colors bled and half melted pills clung to the side of the bag. She asked me to sign a legal document as official witness of the destruction…. I remember everything but your death.

Official birdsong Web Site

A Review of “Grim Tales” by Norman Lock

Friday, April 8th, 2011

Spencer Dew

…in small ways, too, the end of the world came…

One of the texts I often teach, as a professor of religious studies, is the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, a central narrative in Judaism and a terrifying story, told, in the Hebrew Bible, with slow-building suspense, even a flash of humor: “And Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac, and he himself took the firestone and the knife, and the two walked off together. And then Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father,’ and he answered, ‘Yes, my son,’ and he said, ‘Here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?’” This is a moment not unlike that of Red Riding Hood at her grandmother’s bedside, pondering the size of her teeth. There is rope and wood and a sharp blade; the only thing missing is the end of the world.

The Akedah was likely in Norman Lock’s mind a few times as he composed this startling, seductive, book—a book of endings, of tiny narratives of catastrophe, suicide, murder, metamorphosis, nightmare, and writing. There is a whiff of Kafka, also, maybe even a taste of that unparalleled reader of Kafka, Maurice Blanchot. Most centrally there is an attempt to reenter and reinvent the work of the Grimm brothers, to show us something about the logic of fairy tales and why they haunt us so. Here is a mirror that steals a man’s reflection. Here is a field of knives, a thick fog full of ladders. Here is a “hedgehog, dead by the side of the road, [that] was once a man who refused to believe in fairy tales.” And here, too, are pieces of writing that predict death, that stand as literal sentences of death; pieces of writing into which the writers and/or readers literally disappear.

He happened to look down, idly, at a book lying open on the table and read in it his own death, which instantly came to pass.

He read in the morning paper of his own death in a boating accident. That same day he bought a boat and took it out on the river. It capsized and he drowned.

He was turned into a book so that he might disappear inside it.

Now, Death had only to address an envelope and send it to its victim in order to claim him.

This is how the book progresses, an accumulation of endings. For the most part, the characters are anonymous persons, though there is a sense, in this accumulation, of echo, that the “he” who finds his “that his papers had been worked on during the night” might also be the “he” who “was writing a book of tales,” and who “In the middle of his book … left a note in which he confessed to all things—no matter how wicked or shameless—that were set down in the book, like fiction,” even the “he,” who, “when he had shut himself up in his room to write,” is overheard by others to be weeping.

Meanwhile, children turn into furniture or are strangled by furniture, smothered by coats, mauled by kitchen appliances. Horrors are followed by alternative horrors. We are given “another version of the story” followed by yet another. There is a relentlessness to the variety here; consider these pieces, isolated by white space, rendered autonomous and whole:

I loved one man and married another, she confessed to her husband as she watched him close his eyes for the last time—the cord knotted at his neck.

The pit is full, he said. Wiping blood from his hands, the other man answered: Dig another one.

The first of these tiny stories is just that, a narrative, complete, in minimalist fashion; yet the second is so much more, opening to something archetypal. The horror of the pit and the blood is not limited to the literal, not merely a pit and some blood; rather, we have here the structure of nightmare, and, in the context of Grim Tales, it is like standing between two mirrors and experiencing the startling illusion of infinity. This is a book that strikes at the reader’s sense of scale; we are dwarfed, in these pages, by apocalypse. As the Akedah stands as a reminder of the utter incomprehensibility of the divine—a warning against the easy idolatry of assuming we can even speak about that which is God—so Lock’s book exemplifies the very possibilities of tale-telling. We are offered story after story, and we are shown, again and again, how stories work and why they matter.

Freud, for instance, that examiner of the uncanny and the ramifications of narratives on the everyday, gets a hat-tip from Lock. In one fragment—“another story,” as it says—copies of The Interpretation of Dreams are burnt, and, once every word was erased from the world, “the streets ran with beasts and madmen,” sons slaughter their fathers and fuck their mothers. The sentence is carried out, like the obsessive-compulsive hand washing that acts as a harbinger of plague, or the man who dreams that the world ends, finds this to be so, then wills himself to dream again, to make the world whole once more. It works, in its way, “But all those he did not know were no more.” Not that the world ends, but that the world in which we live has limits, and they are our own limits—this is the harsh truth here conveyed. Again, there are echoes of the Akedah: to bind, to prepare to kill, this is more horrific, perhaps, than carrying such killing out; the idea of a “test”—the incomprehensibility or cruelty of such logic, depending on how one reads it—is itself the horror. It’s nice, in short, that Isaac doesn’t die, but the story’s ending doesn’t do anything to salve the discomfort it creates. The discomfort lingers, unfolds throughout history, through Isaac’s life, and Jacob’s, and that of the people Israel. Lock gets this, the dynamic of an unsettling inscription lingering—a sentence than cannot be erased. The end of the world already exists in the mere idea of the end of the world. And this is enough to drive us mad. Lock puts it perfectly, hauntingly:

The end of the world came; and to save his family from the horror which would befall those who must await their own end from storm or famine, fire or pestilence, he poisoned them all. As he was about to hang himself, an angel appeared and said to him that he had dreamed it—dreamt that the end of the world was come. He stared in horror at his wife and children lying dead in the room with him as the angel, with an inscrutable look, withdrew—its wings stiff with insolence.

Official Norman Lock Web Site
Official Mud Luscious Press Web Site

A Review of “Feet First” by Dion N. Farquhar

Friday, April 8th, 2011

Spencer Dew

An elaborate engagement with nostalgia, Farquhar’s book is structured via her relation to times lost and times recollected. “Inheritance,” “Counter Culture,” and “Legacy” she calls the three sections of this book, and in poems that spill across pages we see memories, in fragments, and encounter the imperative to carry on such memories. “Remember,” she writes, “Free Abortion on Demand Socialist Feminism.” Elsewhere, in the poem “Meta-Local I: 1964,” we’re given a montage of sorts: “college students back from Mississippi / registering voters / Freedom Democratic Party / priests thrown out of Latin America / for teaching peasants / how to count” is offered as so much back-beat, background noise to the memory of “while my parents / read Ellery Queen / Readers Digest / in their twin beds.”

One problem with such a style is that the reader is given only flashes, verbal fragments; there are moments of clear and urgent intimacy in this book, but, more often, there is just the implication of such intimacy. Worse, Farquhar has the tendency to fall back on the recitation of names of celebrities and products, substituting a sense of corporate, cultural memory for that of the individual. There is perhaps a social critique here, and subjectivity exerts itself in the arrangement of such floating signifiers, but as a tactic it contradicts the desire, expressed elsewhere throughout this book, for a consciousness opposed to the commercialized speed of our contemporary, capitalist, media-laced world. That so-called smart phones modify our behavior is lamented, yet here is Farquhar, writing poetry following precisely such a swift and abbreviated rhythm: “Now Apollo’s a spaceship, Argo / a strarch. Nike is plural / as running shoes … Emily Post our Proust.” Not only are proper names here standing alone or, in a weak move, linked with limp irony to some more distant, imagined past (Marilyn Monroe is the “American Helen” who “gave us back our lips”), there is also the matter of what a sloppy mess this string of words is, conceptually. Is Post really “our Proust” or is the poet, tempted by the surface of things, indulging in a cheap pun? Likewise, how does space travel equate with commercial laundry products, and why are decades compressed via unexplained comparisons? “We read Baldwin Ginsberg Malcolm Che / Millett Leary Laing and Plath,” Farquhar assures us, but from the poem one must infer that such “reading” was likewise only on a surface level, a scanning or scrolling through, consuming in the sense of being a consumer, not in the sense of digesting, understanding, or using. This is Billy Joel’s approach to history, not Howard Zinn’s.

Yet perhaps it is the fads of certain past moments for which Farquhar is most nostalgic. Her argument against handheld devices, which “chirp of the Hot Synch—data”  and leech “bad faith” into the body is, ultimately, a begrudging acceptance of a lifestyle that the poet would rather not have. Yet this lifestyle is adopted, giving us poems composed along the premise of “If I had a blog” or leading to the rattling out of fractures entries of verse, the poetic persona presented as “a Wiki witch / laptop open on my lap.” Needless to say, other poets have identified and successfully resisted such contamination of consciousness, but the narrative voice of Feet First seems to have always moved at this speed, just at different times and with different company, off-line, in “loft parties on 14th Street, / the first mescaline trip,” etc. The nostalgia here is for a time when everyone was carrying on about “Malcolm Che / Millett Leary” et al., but the sense from Feet First is that the carrying on which is most missed was as empty as current discussions of celebrity fashion or engagement in video games. Indeed, one poem here addresses a “twelve-year old / technie” who doesn’t understand that the “enchanted kingdom” of the Disney corporation is, in fact, “hydraulics, gears / the teeth of a machine.” “How I wish,” the poem says, this child’s Xbox were named for “Malcolm / though that association’s / almost impossible / for a relatively privileged / pre-teen white boy.” That association, importantly, is just another pun, a stitching of surfaces. There is no coherent political ideology in lines like “the body politic fucked by capital: Tampax / no pins, no belts, no pads launched salad bars / Lean Cuisine, Japanese CDs on Bang & Olufsen,” just a barrage of unconsidered names and notions, a few recycled images or cheap—and, indeed, politically dangerous—comparisons. “The same people / are on the board at Philip Morris… / and Sloan-Kettering / boggles the market / like Bach at Buchenwald.” We have a political claim here, via association, that Philip Morris is somehow like the Nazi death camps, but like everything else in this slight and ultimately depressing book, it is just a gesture.  That this gesture is startlingly irresponsible, an act of disrespect to the weight of history and the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, is mere collateral damage; the analogy likewise lets Philip Morris off the hook for very real deceptions and manipulations—deceptions and manipulations which are very real and problematic but which are in certain essential ways unlike “Bach at Buchenwald.”

Rather than a “radical pursuit,” this book exemplifies the worst sort of reactionary cooptation, the seizure of the revolutionary, the turning of radical resistance into just another fashion, just another fad, another product to be name-dropped or collected, bought. While she may lift words from Obama or Palin, reference Wall Street and jihad, these gimmicks, rather than making the work here coherent, thoughtful, or efficacious, reduce the political, dehumanizing and thus defusing ideas by decontextualizing them. In a perhaps unintentionally revealing passage Farquhar, glancing back at a previous decade and the community in which she was then involved, writes:

Our Achilles’ heel was Art
and politics
we used everything we could: the streets, the courts
to oppose our arrogant Superpower nation

How is this image of the Achilles’ heel to be read? Art is not here the sword that can strike at the weak point of an oppressive culture; rather, the presumptions about art read here as the weakness that brought down whatever movement or momentum the collective “our” of the first line might have had. If that failed, then why not, now, string together poems from the trademarked property of multinational corporations? Feet First is thus a doubly depressing collection: crushing as an example of counter-revolutionary literature and further saddening as a reminiscence of failure. And the loss is ours, as readers as well as citizens; if only this were a book from that half-recollected then, a book of authentic poetry, scrambling up from the streets, striving to change the world.

Official Evening Street Press Web Site

A Review of “The Shame of What We Are” by Sam Gridley

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

Spencer Dew

The vignettes that make up this “novel in pieces” follow a child named Art as he sorts through the confusion that is childhood. These are glimpses at moments of vulnerability, strung along a trajectory of change, development, the old Bildungsroman shtick, without the roman part, really, as these are more sketches than anything else, and there’s a sense, throughout, of a holding back, perhaps geared to mimic Art’s own withdrawal into art, wincing away from the terrors of atomic war and Sputnik by turning to science fiction, adventure stories, or seeking to escape from his father’s rage by traveling deeper into his own interior existence. At the book’s beginning, Art is in a hospital bed, and this theme of the fragility of life recurs throughout—the horror of childhood is, in part, horror at the reality of the mortal condition. A pet is crushed between the wheels of a car, a model plane crashes into the ground, and Art, meanwhile, matures from daydreams of invisibility to fantasies of suicide. From bruised child to young bohemian, but, again, it’s the unspoken that characterizes The Shame of What We Are, and not in some laudable way. Art comes to believe that “his true life was in another universe,” but we aren’t shown that universe, merely why and how a person might come to that conclusion, might come to need that belief. Art—the category of human actions—morphs from mechanism of escape to one of defense to, ultimately, a place of refuge, but unlike so many successful Bildungsromans, we’re never shown this transformation, merely told about it. Art—the character—reads Lawrence Durrell in class, and he relays to us that it was a thrill, but unless this information incites some vicarious memory in the reader, the reader will likely be left out. Which is perhaps Gridley’s intent; “It seemed he’d always been as disconnected and lightheaded as he felt now,” he writes, about a narrator who is as dazed, at the story’s end, as he is at its start, still flinching away from the pain and fear of life.

Official Sam Gridley Web Site
Official New Door Books Web Site

A Review of “Life in the Slow Lane: Surviving a Tour of Duty in Drivers Education” by Thomas M. Sullivan

Friday, February 11th, 2011

Spencer Dew

According to my notes, the Driver’s Ed company is located in Suite 405. Well, the tall mahogany door in front of me does have the number 405 on it, but I’m looking at a brass plaque with the name of some real estate company. There’s no mention of any driving school.

I push the door open anyway, enter a silent room, and hike across a mile of marble to the reception desk. The lobby is excruciatingly bright and devoid of plant life. A receptionist looks up from blowing on her bright finger nails and chirps, “Hello,” with false enthusiasm.

“Um, I’ve come for my Driver’s Ed interview,” I stammer. “Is this the right place?” I glance down at her desk and spy the latest issue of People and a bottle of nail polish, modern accessories of the downsizing-prone employee.

She laughs as she nods.  “They all say that.”

“Buckle up,” Thomas Sullivan warns his readers early in this “excruciatingly” boring narrative, the detailed chronicle of the author’s time working for a “hypocritical” driving instruction company, “and enjoy the ride.” Car puns abound—“Maybe a sort of Car-ma was at work” in leading his destiny to this job, for instance, a job for which he was, initially, “revved”—but even as the humor here is relied upon to give life to the story, it falls short. Righteous anger, rather than humor, is the deeper motivation here; Sullivan tells this story in order to give voice to his indignation at the “empty, commercial relationship” this particular company had with its clients, kids for whom the authors feels a particular connection and for whom he has a special compassion, which, in turn, is the root of his pedagogical approach. If you care about how “Being exposed to a Driver’s Ed company that doesn’t value people or relationships,” then you might manage to stomach a few pages of this book.

Plot twists include the part where the author decides, “it’s time to finally deal with my dental issues.” Moments of revelation include the moment where the author “must admit that I’ve done a full reversal on the cell phone issue,” declaring “Maybe these communication technologies can be cool if you can control their impact on your life.” There are also broader reflections on social and political ramifications of “car culture”: “This dispersal of people into sprawling, fuel-chugging communities definitely has a cost.” If you think you’ve heard all this before, don’t worry—you absolutely have not heard the relentless barrage of accounts of driver’s education session after driver’s education session.

For me, the only break from this monotony was an unintentionally creepy moment “grinding away two dead hours between lessons, reading a copy of Teen in the 7-Eleven,” but, alas, even this is merely earnest “Continuing education … to further my knowledge of the teenage world.”

The root of the problem with this book is what the author refers to as a “clash” “between competing perspectives over what is acceptable.” One perspective holds that books, in order to be published, should show a certain merit; that a memoir, in order to stand on its own as a text, must be artfully framed. A life is shaped in the telling, animated—a boring life can certainly make an interesting book, but it takes work, the work of writing. Sullivan’s perspective seems to be that recitation—regurgitation, even, as it often seems to be—of events are sufficient enough, structured by a chronological bookends (he needs a job, he becomes a driving instructor, he leaves the “hypocritical” company) and veined with a moral critique (it is, after all, a “hypocritical” company, and Sullivan is “a good teacher,” “decent at the job,” with some opinions to pass on about what that means and why it matters). I do not believe that what Sullivan has done, in these pages, is a finished book. What we have, at best, is a rough draft, a rambling sketch needing the infusion of order, form—needing, in short, effort, hard work, an investment of time.

Life in the Slow Lane is a book that should not be read, but, worse, Sullivan has not yet written it.

Official Thomas M. Sullivan Web Site
Official Uncial Press Web Site

A Review of “Songs of Vagabonds, Misfits, and Sinners: New York Stories” by Ken Wohlrob

Friday, February 4th, 2011

Spencer Dew

Ken Wohlrob shares a certain ideal with Henry Miller, a commitment to “the streets” as that which stands in opposition to “literature.” As laid out at the start of Black Spring, Miller believed that “In the street you learn what human beings really are; otherwise, or afterwards, you invent them.”

“What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature,” Miller insisted, and while much could be said about this understanding of the world (and of art, which, to be authentic, must represent a return to the “wild”—to “childhood” in a sense Miller adapts from Rimbaud), suffice it to say that Wohlrob, in this collection of stories set in and otherwise about the streets and public spaces of New York City, has a similar allergy to that which is “false, derived.” This is not to say that these pages crackle with the vigor and originality of Henry Miller—they do not. But the pieces in Songs of Vagabonds, Misfits, and Sinners: New York Stories, rely on a dichotomy between authentic and fake, between feeling and pose.

Consider the giant tampon, a piece of installation art, its string kicked around or trampled by gallery visitors. This isn’t the sort of art that finds valorization in these city stories. Rather, Wohlrob channels the voices and tastes of various New Yorkers—the old Italian man searching for the right variety of Tums at a CVS store, the woman dancing at a strip club to put away some money for her daughter—who are resolutely of the street as Miller meant that phrase.

Consider Ramón, who learned to paint from his father, sitting on a milk crate, working on “flattened cardboard boxes from behind the bodegas.” The two would travel from Brooklyn in to the Met, admiring certain paintings, like Klimt’s Mada… which “was Ramón’s first girlfriend. Pale, surly, and beautiful,” though “He could never pinpoint what exactly drew him to her. There was a mystery, a presence, or a something.” Ramón, however, is a painter of the streets. His tastes run toward Otto Dix, but he’s trapped in a world where galleries feature portraits of cartoon characters or “a series dedicated to photographs of feet … lascivious scenes inspired by Balzac’s Droll Stories with cutouts from Disney coloring books,” etc. He misses the old neighborhood and its wild reality, its streetness, and he tries to capture something of that in his own painting, one of which ends up hanging in a men’s room , or, as Miller and Ramón would rightly insist on calling it, a toilet. Irony and theory are not interests of Ramón’s. “Where is the goddamn mystery??!! Where’s your passion??!!” he asks of the works of contemporaries. Yet there is indeed a passion, and a mystery, in his work ending up there amid the sounds of defecation, the automatic flushing, the human filth and mechanical sterilization.

The toilet, as juncture between the human and its denial, is, in fact, the perfect place for art. The toilet is practically “the street” (Miller, in Black Spring, sings the praises, at length, of Parisian-style outdoor urinals). Likewise, out in an alley, among the garbage cans, two denizens of this book argue over Kandinsky and Joan Miro, a spat cleared up only by another man screaming the name Max Ernst from his open window. Yes, this is the street: “scraggly men, in soiled t-shirts, the necks wide and stretched so their chests could be seen, tattered sport coats with rips in the material, and pants that once had color but now only had grime, circled one another, hands held out like claws, crouched down in wrestling stances.” “Kandinsky asshole!” screams one. “Joan Miro fuckhead!” comes the retort.

The riddle of Miller’s stance, of course, is how to make “literature” out of that which resolutely rejects being “literature”—how, in short, to weave written art out of material that resists any whiff of being “false, derived.” Or, to phrase it another way: How do you consistently churn out such stuff without becoming a caricature, a cheap copy of your own better moments? Urine and cabbage don’t make a story more real, more authentic. Hanging a picture in a toilet doesn’t make it more of a comment on or scream against the slow decay of human existence.

Wohlrob attempts to counter this risk with details. Fading sunlight makes “the old couch look even more battered and bruised, silver duct tape glowing against the pale, worn brown leather. Off in the distance, cars ran over potholes and divots as they raced down the BQE.” Here are the citizens of Washington Heights one afternoon:

Dominican crisscrossing Cuban, Puerto Rican walking around Irish, hipsters scooting past doctors and nurses from Columbia University Medical Center. They headed towards the Puerto Rican restaurant with the chickens hanging in the window, the drippings glistening on the crisp, dark skin. Or to the Gristedes to pick up cabbage, rice, and a liter of Pepsi. Or into the Dominican bodega to buy calling cards with names such as “Oro Solido,” “Knockout,” and “100% Platano NY.” Or just to get home, the final stretch in a return to peace and quiet, or at least enough peace and quiet that could be had on humid summer night when everyone sat on the front stoop, listening to the local Reggaeton station, yelling up and down the block, and playing dominos.

Then there is the psychological, the emotional element, which, for Wohlrob, is frequently one of desperation. A husband smells his wife’s cancer on her vomit, her breath. A scam is coined to pay for medical bills, but here’s the view inside the scammer’s mind, a stab at a vernacular of suffering—of confusion and terror and pain:

They walked down the hallway. Room numbers rolled past. 4G05. 4G06. On the other side: 4E18. 4E15. Nurses and doctors throwing out measurements: 10ccs of this, 12 milligrams of the other, two doses of blankblankblankamine. The dials of the blood pressure cuffs: 120, 140, 160, 180. The LCD readouts of electronic thermometers: 105, 102, 98. The Sanskrit of physician writing followed by an endless stream of numbers in columns. More room numbers. 4G01. 4E02. Then a calendar with days marked, meetings listed with times.  November 20th, 2:00, admin meeting. A clock on the wall. 8:05 pm.

These stories don’t always succeed. There are characters that are hard to care about, the music of the street—particularly how people talk—is alluded to rather than represented, and there are false notes, choreographed comparisons, images that smack of the derived. But in the end there is an ample dose, too, of the “accident and incident, drama, movement” that Miller argued was the inheritance of being born and raised in the streets.

Official Ken Wohlrob Web Site

A Review of “2010 Press 53 Open Awards Anthology” by Kevin Morgan Watson, Editor

Friday, February 4th, 2011

Spencer Dew

A Review of He Wanted to Be a Cartoonist for The New Yorker
by Matthew James Babcock

“What, after all,”  Matthew James Babcock asks in the course of this poignant and sinewy novella, “is the difference between joy and agony? Between laugh and scream?

In both cases, the body churns chemicals and shoots fluids through millions of lubricated labyrinths. The lungs pump. Tears bloom. Pressure snaps a tendon of pencil lead. Incisions of ink mar paper and flesh. There is a cleansing, a burst of clarity. A hush follows. The result is truth. Something new is conceived, a fresh connection or observation, something drawn up for the first time. It is original, your creation.

The protagonist, Bryce, has a friendless school life and a violent drunk for a father. After an obsession with a young vixen leads to further humiliation, Bryce exhibits an uncanny knack for cartoons of, as the title indicates, the variety found in The New Yorker. Consider “Christmas at the Nonconformists,” for instance, “a shot of a woman gripping a clown figure whose accordion-spring body had been permanently ripped from its mechanized container. She exclaimed, ‘Oh, Bill. Just what I wanted. A Jack-Outside-The-Box!’” Or, farther down the slide of crossword puzzle word-play, “Henri-Louis Pernod vending a new beverage from a street in Couvet, a customer eyeing an elaborate glass of the liquid, and asking, ‘Will it really make the heart grow fonder?’”

Babcock coins some nice cartoon punch lines, but the real strength of He Wanted to Be a Cartoonist… is the tightness of its prose, the propelling quality of its descriptions—be these of the sputtering hot metal of combat in Somalia or the slow, generally wordless choreography of a marriage coming apart. The feverish banalities of adolescence are Babcock’s particular forte, from the sludge of an afternoon alone to feverish obsessions over a crush. Bryce sees the object of his affection everywhere, in billboards and street signs: “She was Stop, Yield, and School Zone,” though she is also there, “her legs suntanned and shapely in pleated Terminix shorts,” having “declared war on household pests.” Babcock laces up the irony, but he also nicely preserves the quivering vulnerability of nostalgia, even nostalgia for a kind of misery, as lonely Bryce, slouched in a 4-H T-shirt, contemplates a teen club where “Everyone else sparkled … They wore lacy stockings, body-hugging tank tops, and cobra-backed blazers scored with canary candystripes,” and the air, it “smelled of deodorant, pickles, and club sandwiches.”

Life evades our plans, eschewing rational pattern, sense. And for this, the logic of cartoons is best suited to helps us cope and carry on. In art, as this novella argues, “there is little to explain …

There is only the urge to forge dissonance, to slap pigments and punch clay, to sculpt expressions of shock and meditative bliss. Time and space? Irrelevant. Probability? A nuisance. What is the distance, say, between Michael Jordan and Michelangelo? Mona Lisa and Mogadishu? Thomas Carlyle and Thomas the Tank Engine? It is the difference between dusk and dawn, paper and ink, creation and destruction. Which is to say, no difference at all.

A Review of May-September
by Jen Michalski

One of two novellas tied for first place in last year’s Press 53 Open Awards competition, Jen Michalski’s May-September is the story of Alice—a young woman with an MFA and a bookstore job, “eager for a handsome reimbursement”—and Sandra—an older woman embarking on a project of posting her memoirs on a blog. This is a story, then, of unlikely love, tenderly traced, and, just as much, of the weight of memory, the relationships that continue in our minds, even (or especially) when we are alone and their time long past.

For Sandra, “The nights were always the worst, when it was darkest and quietest. She couldn’t play the piano because of the neighbors, and all she had were her memories. No matter what she did, she could not make them loud enough in her mind. To fill the dark. She hated that they were so soft, pastel chalks, interrupted by car horns, intestinal distress, her own inexplicable sadness.” For Alice, whose own recent ex is still a physical presence in her life, the sadness is different but no less heavy.

Bringing these two together, Michalski demonstrates a gift for empathy and, more impressively, for pacing. Annoyance turns to longing, to desire, to love. Yet when Alice touches Sandra, she feels the cartilage beneath the flesh; “She thought about how, when she was Sandra’s age, not even Sandra’s age, Sandra would be dead.” Alone in Sandra’s bathroom, undressing, in preparation for what she knows not quiet, Alice finds herself pondering “the Oil of Olay, the prescriptions for osteoporosis, cholesterol. Tylenol. Ex-Lax. Eye drops” in the medicine cabinet, which is to say she opens the medicine cabinet, she searches out and stares these products down. “You are worried because I am so much older,” says Sandra, after a joke about how “it’s always good to check the expiration date,” but “Has it occurred to you that I am worried because you are so much younger?”

Either age is a problem, in the end, and Sandra is forced into the care of her daughter while Alice returns to her mother’s house, to childhood. “It had not been a long time,” Michalski writes, “Them. A few months,” yet May-September seems to make the same claim about all of us, in our leaky, watery bodies, sagging and becoming brittle as we shuffle through our too-temporary existences. It is stories like this that give us useful pause, prompting some reconsideration of what, in the end, might really matter.

Official Jen Michalski Web Site
Official Press 53 Web Site