Scott McClanahan recently debuted Stories V!, a collection of dark-humored honest depictions of a boy migrating through childhood, adolescence, pre-pubescence, and early adulthood. There are dead baby jokes, pet relationships, the peril of having to choose between watching Superman IV or attending a classmate’s funeral, health problems of intimate assortments, a sex tape used as conversational lube with a girl.
McClanahan writes tenderness, humor, and moments of heart-heavy disaster into each of his pieces in a Dave Sedaris-like manner (not necessarily on crack, maybe just a little), in both deliverance and professionalism. There are never any noticeable flaws in the text or design, neither awkward delivery nor bouts of in-your-face rants.
The titles of each short story are ridden with blatant yet essential detail: “But There is a Second Ending to Sex Tapes too” and “Now Some Public Apologies” and “So Now a List of Things I’m Ashamed of,” seemingly more like journal entries or personal letters to his own self that segue into each other. Take a list of things he is ashamed of, the last one being, “And I’m ashamed of what I did to Nicky” and the following chapter is indeed his tale about what he once did to Nicky.
There’s a definite non-fiction feel to McClanahan’s book, even more so since he strategically weaves his name into the narratives. It felt as if I was reading his internal monologue, him at his most vulnerable, all his secrets and insecurities sprawled out on the page for us to judge, to laugh at, to fall for. Stories V! is preceded by a string of volumes, one through four to be exact, all of which I am bound to snag soon. They may not have an incredibly hot girl sprawled across the cover, but I’m confident the insides are bursting with stories of unparalleled characteristic.
David Schmahmann’s The Double Life of Alfred Buber reads like a lost Nabokov novel. Stylistically, the prose is meticulously wrought, the plot deeply complex and psychologically layered. In terms of story, Schmahmann’s wayward narrator is nothing short of a latter-day Humbert Humbert, as unreliable in his storytelling as he is driven by unspeakable love for a young prostitute from Bangkok. Where some novels radiate outward, this one spirals in on itself, turn by fascinating turn, exploring the inner life of a man distanced from both himself and reality by his own lies and a soul full of secret, shameful desires.
The novel follows the misadventures of Alfred Buber. To all appearances, Buber is an upstanding (not to mention uptight) pillar of society — he’s on the fast-track to becoming a partner in his law-firm, and the denizens of his suburban town exhort him daily to run for elected office. Indeed, to all appearances his only vice is his bookishness — that and an apparent fondness for Star Trek references. Buber, however, leads a secret life, albeit one that exists largely in his own mind: he’s in love with a girl he’s barely ever spoken to. And as his apparent “love” spills over into obsession, Buber’s grasp on reality slips further and further away.
Throughout the proceedings, author David Schmahmann plays fast and loose with the “truth” as it applies to Buber’s life. This, of course, is by design, for even as a narrator, the title character has grown so estranged from reality that he can barely distinguish waking life from his flights of fancy. Yet as Buber’s life spirals out of control, Schmahmann manages to hold the whole house of cards together — no mean feat — as he moves the narrative to its inevitable conclusion. That the author does so in a satisfying way (no spoilers here… just trust me when I say it works!) speaks to his skills not only as a storyteller but as a prose stylist. The voice of Buber remains loud and clear on every page, even as his imagined and real lives begin to crash down around him.
Ultimately, The Double Life of Alfred Buber offers a fascinating examination of what happens when we pretend to be everything we’re not. That this is something we all do at one time or another and to one extent or another (and with increasing frequency in the virtual age we’re living in) makes it especially relevant. An excellent read and a gripping character study.
*Disclaimer: By “everyone,” I mean anyone with an interest in 1) literature and/or 2) pop culture. I would also be remiss if I didn’t break these admittedly broad categories down even further. From column one, this collection of “borrowed premises, stolen settings, purloined plots, and appropriated character” offers fresh and frequently offbeat takes on Borges, Nabokov, Melville, Miller, Updike, Dickens, and Homer (among others). From column two, there’s material drawn from Super Mario Brothers involving a prolonged yet exuberant meditation on free will and grace (which isn’t to say free Will and Grace but self-determination and divine intervention). There’s also a behind the scenes look at what Desi and Lucy got up to when the cameras weren’t rolling, what it might be like to step into one of David Lynch’s dreams (or to have him step into one of yours), and what the guy in the Godzilla suit is like in person. Deserving special attention is a quirky piece outlining the only seven episodes of an imagined version of Law and Order titled Viewers Like Us, the premise of which is that in a desperate act of pandering to the Facebook generation, the producers of the Law and Order franchise create a show following the adventures of Law and Order fans. And, finally, from column three (which I didn’t even mention earlier!), there’s the fact that some of my favorite indie-press writers appear within the pages of this collection, including Curtis Smith (The Species Crown, Sound + Noise, Truth, and Witness) and Blake Butler (Scorch Atlas). All of this is to say that if you have an interest in any of these things, then you will likely find something of interest in this anthology. Hence “something for everyone.”
The first thing that will strike the casual reader upon perusing Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals is that the term “bizarro fiction” suits this debut novella perfectly. In the space of a few pages, the hero of the piece loses and arm, a leg, and an eye in a series of unfortunate events that peak with his falling into a wood chipper and being reincarnated as a humanoid mass of tears. From here, things go from bizarre to bizarrer — an especially impressive feat on the part of author Kirk Jones, given that “bizarrer” isn’t even a word — when the man made of tears is put in charge of a circus filled with inanimate objects that have come to life and subsequently grown incredibly fond of copulating. To put all of this as bluntly as possible, Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals earns its bizarro stripes on every page of this trim, offbeat saga.
In addition to being bizarre, Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals also offers a fascinating critique of American consumer culture. The carnival, after all, is owned by a self-proclaimed mirage named Uncle Sam, who happens to be the son of Capitalism. What’s more, when the so-called “inanimals” that populate his carnival begin to copulate, the ultimate end is not more quasi-sentient furniture but the opposite; only one inanimal, it turns out, ever survives a sexual encounter, leaving the other a shattered husk.
Needless to say, it would be easy to dismiss the sexual proclivities of the inanimals as weird for the sake of weird. As arguably distasteful as the notion of sexually active and sadomasochistic furniture might be to some readers, however, the destructive orgies over which the man made of tears presides are nothing compared to the real-world horrors that many laborers in developing nations endure so that we can accumulate vast quantities of merchandise at low prices. What’s more, the very concept of inanimals calls to mind the work of the late Jean Baudrillard, the French social theorist who, among other things, speculated that humanity’s relationship with inanimate objects has devolved to the point where there’s no difference between us and the objects we possess. In this respect, Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals falls in line (thematically, at least, albeit incongruously so) with works by Don DeLillo and the Wachowski brothers.
All of this is to say that while Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals is admittedly and purposely weird, it offers the reader much to think about, especially with respect to humanity’s relationship with inanimate objects. More significantly, it raises the immortal question: Have you hugged your futon today?