Month: May 2011

Review of Scott McClanahan’s Stories V! by Lavinia Ludlow

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.

The Double Life of Alfred Buber

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.

-Review by Marc Schuster

Re: Telling

There’s something for everyone in Re: Telling.*

*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.”

Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals

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?

Dogzplot 2011

My intention was merely to peek at one or two pieces of flash in the latest Dogzplot anthology, but a half-hour later, I’d devoured the entire thing. Per usual, the themes in this edition run the gamut: sex, drugs, life, death, love, hate, pineapples, people who appear to be homeless but actually have homes in tiny rooms in the backs of their daughter’s girlfriend’s houses, finding one’s daughter at a strip club, going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. As for style, it’s as varied as the themes. Indeed, if Dogzplot excels at anything (and it does!), it’s bending and warping and re-shuffling the English language in order to reinvent the art of storytelling one page at a time.

Brazil

Set in the late 1980s, Jesse Lee Kercheval’s Brazil reads like a cross between Miami Vice and The Catcher in the Rye (with, perhaps, a hint of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas thrown in for good measure). Kercheval’s protagonist, Paulo, is a nineteen-year-old college dropout and parking lot attendant who’s struggling to find his place in the world when a mysterious older woman named Claudia asks if he wants to go for a ride in her BMW. The ride, it turns out, is initially more of a drug-fueled cross-country trek through the American heartland, complete with one-night stays in seedy motels and brief pilgrimages to tacky tourist traps. As the narrative progresses, however, Brazil transforms itself into a touching coming of age story in which worries over the past and future resolve themselves in a life-affirming commitment to living in the present.

-Review by Marc Schuster

Fragmentation + Other Stories – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

I hear so much about the momentum of New York City’s literary scene, a ton about Chicagoans wielding pens, but I rarely hear about places such as the Silicon Valley, and even rarer, Orlando. Recently though, a quaint and ambitious publisher named Burrow Press has sprung from Central Florida. Operating out of Urban ReThink, Burrow Press’s mission is to shed light on Florida’s undiscovered and modest talent, and it has indisputably achieved this with the recent release of its debut title Fragmentation + Other Stories.

Overall, this anthology’s strength lies in its broad content and well-rounded approach to honoring Florida’s talented artists. The content spans multiple markets: literature, photography, design, and even music (Swamburger, a local hip-hop artist, not only wrote and recorded a soundtrack for the book but he also designed a special edition cover), thus adding to the book’s charm. Definitely a load of “heart” was put into this compilation, and editor Jana Waring’s introduction tells the intimate story of defragmenting the jumbled “clusterfuck” that would metamorphose into Fragmentation, and ultimately seed the collection into what it is today.

One of the most impactful pieces in Fragmentation was the opening story, the glue of the anthology, a ninety-two word one-sentence story about dismembering starfish that Peg Alford Pursell delivers with unparalleled eloquence. I’d insert a quote; however, that may put out too much of the story (and steal profits from Burrow Press), but I will say that this hook had me breaking in the back cover page in the same sitting.

Many of these well-written stories have impressionable openings, take Hunter Choate’s “Bone Dry,” “I close my eyes and see the baby in the bone yard. It’s crying and carrying on, a purple frustration blooming as its face twists and its little hands claw at the air. It’s the only sign of life in the middle of a pile of sun-bleached bones.” Then there’s J. Christopher Silvia’s prose in “Thursday,” a balance between sharp dialogue, internal monologue, graceful observations, “It was a Thursday, and I had been noticing that the ringing in my ears was becoming lower and lower in pitch. With each new tone I pictured the different cilia on the inside of my ear collapsing under the air pressure, limp like the freshly dead.”

In Ryan Rivas’ story “Pedagoguery,” the reader is led through first-hand experience of what it’s like to be a new teacher thrust into an merciless classroom: “In addition to the thermos of coffee steaming in the cup holder, you bring your first day’s plans, a Kundera novel, a lunch bag containing turkey and cheddar on wheat, carrot sticks, and crackers; you’ve been told the students come from poverty, so you bring pens, pencils, loose-leaf paper—the term “loose-leaf,” as it enters your head, reawakens those first-day butterflies from your career as a student—notebooks, binders, pocket dictionaries, calculators (even though you teach history), granola bars, trail mix, a gallon jug of water; you bring a picture of Rasputin (your black Lab), jazz and classical CDs to play during independent work time, and a poster of the man staring down a tank in Tiananmen Square; you bring a few tips from teacher orientation, a BA in history from Florida, an undergraduate thesis on political assassinations in the 1960s, a MFA in creative writing from Columbia, three short story publications in respectable literary magazines, a positive attitude, white middle-class values, an easygoing nature, and your sense of self.” Rivas has the impeccable gift of cramming mountains of explanation into a single sentence, and he does this without making the read exhausting. This single sentence alone, in my opinion, would make an extraordinary opening line to a novel, and I look forward to his future endeavors.

Tom DeBeauchamp’s “Skullfucker: A Romance” hit me the hardest. A socially deficient protagonist finds comfort in his personality flaw as he imagines his perfect counterpart: “We’d order oyster shooters and happy-hour well gin, and the bartender would eject us for language. Back to my place for talk and drinks, and movies and cuddling, and uncoordinated first-time sex. Quiet days of divine understanding would give way to one lambent moment where she’d look at me and I’d look at her. Together, like a flock of geese, we’d say, ‘Skullfucker I love you,’ and move on to the bold things we couldn’t yet imagine.” The story’s accompanying photograph by Zach Stovall is a total trip too, and I’m thinking figurines like those will one day make it onto the top of my wedding cake.

All in all, this collection maintained my attention organically, never relying on overused messages or content. Each flash sustained an even pace, the extreme opposite of what’s to be expected with a book that opens with a phrase like “a clusterfuck.” It’s hard to accept that a total of twenty-six writers, photographers, and other artists came together to create this 132-page anthology. Nothing was left unpolished, everything from the writing to presentation to design to the placement of visuals were intricately pieced together like tiles of a mosaic.

Burrow Press has surpassed its goal of highlighting Florida’s emerging talent, as Fragmentation + Other Stories is mature contemporary artistry at its most refined. I can tell this small publisher has a brilliant future in Orlando’s literary scene, and I look forward to whatever it has waiting in the wings.

-Review by Lavinia Ludlow