Month: November 2009

Archelon Ranch

Garrett Cook does not exist. I know this for two reasons. First, the front matter of “his” latest novel, Archelon Ranch, explicitly states that “All characters in this publication are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” Second, Garrett Cook is a character in this novel. Confronted with these facts, one cannot help but draw the conclusion that this is a book whose author does not exist, at least not in the real world. Rather, the author is a fiction. A fiction, moreover, who has written a book. A book, moreover, that exists in the real world–and which, by the way, offers one hell of a mind-bending read. It is, in other words, a book written into existence by its own characters or, more broadly, a book that has written itself.

If you follow my logic so far, you’ll love this novel. If you think I’m being a bit too clever for my own good… well, there’s always Twilight.

Archelon Ranch opens with its (likely) protagonist insisting, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he is not a hat. That he does all of this insisting in French is only mildly outlandish, given that he is, in fact, at least for the moment, a hat. Or at least he has come to inhabit a hat as part of a quasi-scientific effort at fending off an epidemic of green mud that turns anyone who comes in contact with it into an unbridled, hairy Id.

At least I think this is what’s going on.

Things get complicated in chapter two when the protagonist’s brother, Clyde, interrupts his commerce with an army of rooftop orangutans to insist that the (alleged) protagonist is, indeed, the protagonist of the story. Clyde, it turns out, is a lapsed member of the church of the Narrativity (or something like this). In other words, he really wants the book to make sense. Which it does. In a wild, loopy, nonsensical kind of way. But in order to make the book make sense, he needs to discover its hero, who may or may not be the erstwhile hat, whose name (as I should have mentioned) is Bernard.

Even as Clyde champions Bernard, however, their competing narratives set up an interesting tension within the novel. To wit: who is the book’s true protagonist? This issue worries Clyde to no end but has little effect on Bernard, who is too busy resisting the urge to turn back into a hat (among other things) to worry about such matters as the nature of fiction and its relationship to objective reality. At the same time, however, it should be pointed out that these matters are also all that Bernard worries about; he just doesn’t realize it as literally as Clyde does. Ironically, Garrett Cook, the aforementioned non-entity who penned this novel, is, at one point, described as someone who hates metafiction.

Towards the end of the novel, Clyde, recognizing that he’s a fictional character, asks a pair of pointed yet fair questions of the narrative in which he’s taking part: “Who could read this? Who could enjoy this?” Although the questions go unanswered, I can honestly say that I both read and enjoyed it. (As opposed to many books that I’ve enjoyed without actually reading. For example, my intimation based on what I’ve been told and the excerpts I’ve read is that I’ll enjoy the aforementioned Twilight books much more thoroughly if I refrain from reading them.) Other people who might enjoy Archelon Ranch are Dave Prior (author of The Yoke of the Horde), Walt Maguire (author of Monkey See), and Marleen Hustead, author of a great short story in which a TV critic is reincarnated as a fire hydrant. Many other people will probably like it, too. Most of these people are probably enrolled in MFA programs.

Written in a style that’s an odd triangulation of Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, Jasper Fforde, Philip K. Dick, and Jonathan Lethem (Girl in Landscape and Amnesia Moon in particular), Archelon Ranch offers a surprisingly clever and engaging meditation on writer’s block and authorial angst, especially for a book with no real author.

Nude

Reading Nuala Ni Chonchuir‘s new collection of short stories, Nude, I am reminded of Bob Dylan’s observation in “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” that “even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have/To stand naked,” for the stories in this collection all feature characters who, at one time or another, find themselves in various stages of physical or emotional undress. What emerges as this occurs throughout the collection is a sense of our shared humanity, the idea that beneath everything–beneath our clothing, beneath our posturing, beneath all of the accoutrements of modern living–we are all majestically vulnerable.

This sense of vulnerability comes across most clearly in the story “Roy Lichtenstein’s Nudes in a Mirror: We are Not Fake!” when a deranged fanatic takes a blade to a work of art. What makes this story so engaging and inventive is that Chonchuir tells it from the painting’s point of view. As a result, the reader gets a sense of the strange mixture of innocence and ennui that a work of art like Nudes in a Mirror might endure as it traverses the world on a tour of art galleries and museums–and of the shock that such a work might experience upon being attacked. At its root, however, such experiences are so human, so natural, that it’s impossible not to see ourselves mirrored in the work itself. Like Lichtenstein’s Nudes, we are ourselves in some ways “modeled from models” (to borrow the author’s phrase). At the same time, however, this doesn’t make us any less real or any less human–a point the story makes clear when the attacker screams “Est is eine Falschung! It is a fake!” and the Nude endures a series of wounds.

As with “Roy Lichtenstein’s Nudes in a Mirror: We Are Not Fake,” works of art take center stage in a number of pieces in this collection. Notably, a short piece titled “Ekphrasis” juxtaposes the cover of Bow Wow Wow’s See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah. City All Over. Go Ape Crazy! album with works by Picasso and Manet.  Likewise, a story titled “An Amarna Princess Up North” explores the inner workings of the mind of a country-bumpkin-cum-master-art-forger. In these and other instances, Chonchuir ponders not only the human form but all that it means to us. In essence, she ponders what it means to be human.

Needless to say, artistic nudes are not the only nudes depicted in this collection. Particularly moving is a piece titled “Before Losing the Valise, but Mostly After,” in which the author reconstructs the events surrounding the fabled disappearance of Ernest Hemingway’s earliest manuscripts. Here, the well-meaning Hadley Hemingway packs her husband’s life’s work into a valise only to lose it on a train bound for Switzerland. The meltdown that ensues is painful, and it doesn’t take the hindsight offered by history to know that the relationship is doomed despite Ernest’s halfhearted optimism that the valise might turn up.

To say the least, Nude is a wonderful collection from a wonderful writer. I was enchanted by Chonchuir’s collection of poetry, Tattoo: Tatu, and I’m glad to discover that her way with words extends to the realm of prose. Exploring nudity in all of its forms, Chonchuir explores humanity–and does so with the skill and practiced craft of an artist.

Note: Very similar in theme and tone to April Lindner’s poetry collection Skin. If you like either of these titles, I highly recommend the other!

On the Record

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a character named Sixo remarks of his lover, “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.” A similar sentiment occurs to me whenever I read a book that really resonates with my own thoughts on life, the universe, and everything. Usually books of this nature are memoirs or collections of essays, and usually my response to these books is, “Yes! Exactly!” In short, when I read such books, I feel as if I’ve truly met a friend of my mind–a friend who can put into words what, in one way or another, I’ve gathered or otherwise intimated about the issues that matter to me. Some examples of such books include Kurt Vonnegut’s Wampters, Foma, and Granfalloons and Palm Sunday, Jonathan Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist, and Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs (except for his thoughts on country music). This list is now joined by Martin Shepard’s On the Record.

That my mind finds such a friend in On the Record is not surprising. Shepard’s outlook, outlined in this volume in a style reminiscent of free-form jazz, is informed by the same humanist tradition that informs the work of many of my favorite authors. Indeed, at the heart of On the Record is a sense that, as humans, we are required to treat each other with respect and dignity–and that, in this same vein, we should also challenge ourselves to lead the lives for which we’re best suited. This isn’t, of course, to say that On the Record is a self-help volume at all; throughout the book, Shepard admits to a general distrust of anyone claiming to be a guru or to have all of the answers for anybody. What he does, however, is allow the details of his own biography to exemplify a life well lived.

The key to personal fulfillment, it turns out, is not to look to an outside code or prescription (e.g., the so-called American dream that keeps us chasing our tails in the eternal, vertiginous pursuit of more) for a definition of success. Rather, we need to define success on our own terms. At the same time, however, we need to recognize that we’re all part of a larger global community. As Shepard notes, “We are all citizens of planet Earth, and this should be our basic allegiance, for our fates are interdependent.” Though this attitude may appear somewhat “touchy-feely” at first glance, it’s ultimately the most pragmatic advice anyone can give, particularly in light of the precarious situation in which our species finds itself as a result of a century or more of selfish living. For the sheer sake of survival, the human race needs to become acquainted with the notion that none of us operates within a vacuum, that we all lead interconnected lives, that our actions (surprising as it may be) have consequences.

Buoying On the Record is the reality that the consequences of our actions can actually be positive and that even the best-laid plans can always use a little push from the serendipitous forces of the universe. In other words, people can do good in the world, especially when they’re open to fate dealing them the occasional good hand. For Shepard, this openness has led to a firm and fruitful relationship with his wife, a strong sense of connection to a handful of friends (or, more generously, soul mates), and the creation of his enduring contribution to the literary world, The Permanent Press publishing company.

Ultimately, On the Record amounts to an exhortation for us to go out and live our lives in a way that is self-motivated without being selfish, and responsible without being beholden to an external code. We should be “good” citizens because we want to be, not because someone told us to, and we should strive to be our best because each of us only gets one life. Though it may be a message we’ve heard before, it’s about time we start listening.


Murder on Camac

moc_cover_250wThe tragic thing about Joseph R.G. DeMarco’s debut novel, Murder on Camac, is that it is, of necessity (given the quirks of the publishing industry), being marketed and reviewed as a gay detective novel. The reason I say this is a tragedy is that it could and should easily find an audience among anyone who’s interested in taut storytelling in the vein of Elmore Leonard, Walter Mosley, Chris Knopf, and (at least thematically) Dan Brown. Yes, the protagonist, Marco Fontana, happens to be gay, but what of it? Nobody pigeonholed Shakespeare when he wrote about his gay–er, melancholy–Dane, but I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that any fan of detective fiction, regardless of sexual orientation, will find this novel engrossing.

The plot of the novel initially appears to revolve around the death of a writer, but as Fontana begins to investigate, he finds himself entwined in a much larger mystery involving the rumored assassination of Pope John Paul I. Throughout the proceedings, DeMarco peppers the narrative with wry wit and pitch-perfect dialogue. And, as a native Philadelphian, I was particularly impressed with the way in which the City of Brotherly Love, the setting for this novel, comes to life. The novel is a page-turner in the classic sense — a mystery that demands the reader’s attention with increasing urgency at every turn. Of course, this should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the mystery scene; DeMarco is the longtime editor of the online detective journal Mysterical E, and it shows. He is an author steeped in the traditions of the genre, and the comfort with which he inhabits the world of Marco (hmm… coincidence?) Fontana makes Murder on Camac a pleasure to read.

I’d be repeating myself if I said that Murder on Camac is a taut, well-paced thriller, but that’s what it is, so what the heck, here it is a third time: Murder on Camac is a taut, well-paced thriller, and I look forward to seeing what DeMarco does next.

Dogzplot 2009

dogzplotBarry Graham and company are back again with another collection of zany, manic, and at times maddening flash fiction–and this edition of the Dogzplot Annual is their best yet. Eschewing a traditional foreword or letter from the editor explaining the journal’s philosophy, thoughts on the state of the written word, or any other self-gratifying material that readers generally skip over anyway, the book’s front matter simply offers the following description (or is it a warning?): 200 WORDS OR LESS. Yet brevity is all the pieces have in common. Well, okay, they also have quality in common, but, stylistically and thematically, the collection is all over the map.

In “The Evolution of Masturbation,” for example, Ani Smith meditates not, as the title might suggest, upon masturbation but upon the biological processes (cell-division, etc.) that occur during gestation. Given that the focus of the piece is the gestation of women, it’s not surprising that some of Smith’s language (e.g., “two by two, everything two by two”) hearkens to Feminist theorist Luce Irigaray’s “The Sex Which is Not One,” but the final line of the piece, which describes the vagina as “a cubby hole for worthless possessions” feels like a particularly savage response to Ezra Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme,” in which the femme in question is described, more or less, as the sum total of all the useless junk that her suitors have left her.

Then there’s “The Particulars” by Bartley Seigel, which reads like a word game. Sentences like “She is peopled with ghost fires speaking through voice pipes, her thinking a feeling fractured” must, the reader assumes, mean something–but what? And I don’t say this snidely at all. I say it because I want to know, and because the sentence demands that the reader stay with it. In other words, this isn’t disposable writing. This is writing that requires attention, writing that challenges.

My favorite piece in the collection is “Dead Ringer” by Ravi Mangla. Its premise is that the narrator has discovered a perfect double for his dead father walking the aisles of a Sam’s Club. Needless to say, wacky highjinks involving a sort-of blind date with the narrator’s mother ensue, and the result is a twisted window into middle-American family values.

Overall, a great, fast-paced collection–highly recommended for fans of flash fiction or for anyone who’s curious to see what flash fiction is all about (and how many different forms it can take).

A Journey Through Literary America

Journey-CoverI’ll start this review by admitting that I’m not the easiest guy in the world to shop for, and I really do feel bad for all of the people in my life who have to buy me gifts whenever my birthday or Christmas rolls around. The problem, if you can call it that, is that I’m just not into things. I am, however, a book lover, but this also raises a number of issues in the gift-giving arena–the biggest of which is that nobody (including myself half the time) knows which books I own or have read, and so nobody knows which books to give me. And, yes, there are always gift cards to Amazon or Barnes & Noble, but these gifts, heartfelt and sincere though they may be, smack slightly of defeat. They say, “I wanted to get you something, but I didn’t know what, so I’ll let you figure it out for yourself.”

I say all of this because I’m sure I’m not the only person out there who’s hard to buy for. And I further suspect that all of these people who are, like me, hard to buy for have people who love them and who want to buy them something out of the ordinary whenever gift-giving season rolls around. But they (the people who love the people who are hard to buy for) can never find the right gift and will–at the last moment, when all hope is lost–always settle for giving yet another gift card each holiday season even though they’d much prefer to buy a gift from the heart that say, “Hey! I care about you, and I know you well enough to get you this wonderful gift!” To put it bluntly, I’m saying all of this because I know how hard it is to shop for book lovers. But no more–for A Journey Through Literary America by Thomas R. Hummel and Tamra L. Dempsey is, I daresay, the perfect gift for book lovers.

First, the book is, objectively speaking, aesthetically beautiful. Illustrated with page after glossy page of vibrant photographs, it explores the settings that inspired many of America’s most loved authors–from Washington Irving’s Castkills to Robinson Jeffers’ Big Sur and back to Toni Morrison’s Lorain, Ohio (and many, many other places in between). Yet the book is more than just a collection of pretty (or, more accurately, stunning) pictures. And it’s even more than just an examination of the specific places that had a profound effect on the literary output of certain authors. Rather, it’s a meditation on relationship between place and author, or, even more broadly, upon place and self, place and identity. This is no small feat, for it takes the authors we admire in the abstract and places them squarely in the real world. Seeing their homes, seeing their towns, seeing the streets they walked and the rolling vistas that inspired them makes the 26 authors examined in A Journey all the more real to me, all the more human.

Needless to say, this volume is both a treat and treasure. Informative as it is beautiful, it will make a wonderful addition to any library. And, if you’re looking for the perfect gift for the book lover in your life, look no further than A Journey Through Literary America.