Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), 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, forthcoming 2011). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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The tiny narratives assembled in this book are each presented as “Something About” a given object or person or memory, constructed along the lines, most often, of a joke, setting up a scene and offering some twist, some punch line, before pulling down the curtain and moving on to some other “Something.” This generic framework—with titles that, in their banal broadness, belie the intimate particularity of each story’s actual focus—is part of the fun. “Something About New York City,” for instance, which could be the title for more or less anything, consists of a brief meditation on a man who used to demonstrate fly-fishing techniques in the street at West 22nd and Tenth Avenue. “One almost expected a great stony fish to leap from the asphalt in a hard spray of gravel,” Riippi writes, but having offered this image and voiced the expectation, he moves on again. In flashes, then, we are presented with quirks of character, the shared jokes of lovers, the relish of ambition, clear memories of fuzzy wanderings, random intrusions of violence, and a reflective voice, stitching all of these into some larger “Something,” moving not only through the world—on the 14D, “sitting with my feet against the back wheel-well and trying to read someone else’s poems” with all the specific immediacy of Ted Berrigan—but also through his own memories—a smell of mildew, another beautiful bartender, a sink catch wrenched open.
There is the feel of artifact to this book, presumably motivating the presence, throughout, of photographs: an anonymous baptism, unidentified grandparents, street scenes of New York in 2010. These images signify something intimate to someone, though, interspersed as they are throughout the text, the only real sense the reader can make of them is as signs of an intimacy from which she is excluded. These are not catalogued wonders, as, say, the images in Andre Breton’s Nadja; these are just pictures someone took, or collected, of things that must mean something to him. They are slightly disorienting. They may relate to the text—grandparents are key here, to be sure, and one photo is indentified as the “former site” of the store in front of which the man demonstrated fishing techniques, but there is something so small, so shadowy, about these images, in stark contrast to the depth and clarity of the prose scenes. We have all the images we need within the text, that “piece of skin” hanging from the nail, or the “advertisements for skin cream and cable channels” read while standing on the bus. The “Polaroid of newborn rabbits on a dishtowel” is vivid enough in words, and there is certainly no adequate image for desires such as “I would like to know what a Borges story feels like.”
In fact, these photographs, in their frozen monochrome, simultaneously distance us from our imagined versions of places and scenes and preserve, in sterile fashion, that which is lost. As this sense of loss—its raw force—is a major theme here, the inclusion of these photographs is counterproductive. On one page we have a man hoisting a fishing rod, on another, a nondescript street scene, a line of brick façades. These pictures are at once not of what matters most—the corpses of baby rabbits being tossed into the lake, the pink hair of a bartender, the clouds of smoke in a motel room—nor are they quite of the absence of those things. The string of buildings is a string of buildings, not a lacuna in which only a fishing demonstration could, absurdly, fit.
In one moving scene, news of the death of Elliot Smith is delivered by a woman who “would be beautiful if she weren’t such a cunt.” Riippi, in quick vernacular strokes, can give us the scene, the pain, the loss, the anger, the bitchy manipulation, the emptiness, the sense of that which is gone, and, conversely, that sense of being left behind, staring into that absence. The vulnerability at the heart of Riippi’s writing has nothing in common with the forensic photographs peppered through the text. Consider “Something About My Blood and Yours,” a story structured around another death, that of J. D. Salinger: a group of students are drunk or asleep at a professor’s apartment when that professor launches into an ugly rant, first about Salinger, then about Riippi, the author. The pain here—alchemized so expertly into a tiny fragment of story, a little something, followed by another something—is acute and lingering and paced as tantalizingly as the best Elliot Smith song. There is, thankfully, no photograph of the exterior of the building where this scene takes place, no photograph of the rain or the spilled wine, the stained manuscript, the wall, the writer confronted with himself, his own fears. We just have the words, a sparse assortment over a handful of evocative pages. And this is more than something; it is enough.
Official Joseph Riippi Web Site
Official Ampersand Books Web Site