Literature

The Race – Review by Marc Schuster

RaceCoverJacke Wilson’s The Race is an incredibly astute novella about ego and politics that attempts to explain why anyone in their right mind might run for political office. The answer, it turns out, is that they wouldn’t, as the political arena is reserved for the eternally deluded and arguably insane.

The narrative focuses on Tom Olson, a fictional disgraced former Governor of Wisconsin who is attempting to revive his career by running for Congress. In a “ripped from the headlines” kind of way, Olson’s fall from grace is highly reminiscent of former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s. Yet while Olson and Sanford both mysteriously vanished from their offices only to turn up at later dates in foreign love nests, there are hints of other political figures wrapped up in the novella’s central figure as well. Echoing Bill Clinton’s 1992 remark that Hillary would be so central to his presidency that he might as well adopt “buy one, get one free” as his campaign slogan, a common refrain surrounding Olson’s first bid for governor was “Vote for him and get the pair.” Likewise, something about Olson also harkens to Mitt Romney. He’s relatively handsome in the way many career politicians aspire to be, he’s idealistic in his own way, and he’s optimistic to a fault — so much so that his grand vision of the world completely eclipses reality.

There’s certainly plenty of dry humor to be had in the proceedings — particularly as Olson does his best to turn the rancid lemons of his tattered political career into saccharine-sweet lemonade — but the real strength of Wilson’s writing is in its Marxian critique of American politics. Early on, Olson’s biographer notes a key difference between himself and the politician: “He was bourgeois and I was proletariat.” He then goes on to muse, “Why don’t we use those words anymore? Too loaded with history?” Yes and no. The real problem isn’t history so much as substance in general. As Wilson depicts it, our political system is largely a popularity contest, and political platforms offer little more than trite platitudes and vitriol against the other side. As such, Olson is especially popular “with a certain kind of pundit who has overcome his or her natural ability to say anything interesting or accurate, or to have any personally appealing qualities, by instinctively taking the contrarian’s view of any issue.” Most of all, however, Olson demonstrates that what truly drives politicians is a desire to control the narratives of their own lives, as his tragically optimistic efforts at running for office are forever haunted by the specter of the good man he was before throwing his hat into the political arena.

Smart, well-written, and frequently funny, The Race offers some interesting speculation into the mind of the American politician.

Shoplandia – Review by Marc Schuster

shoplandiabookcover5_5x8_5_cream_290-copyWith a tone and style reminiscent of George Saunders and situations that would feel right at home in a Don DeLillo novel, the stories collected in Jim Breslin’s Shoplandia offer an engaging and informed behind-the-scenes look at the home shopping industry. Drawing on seventeen years of experience as a producer at QVC, Breslin gives readers an intimate view of everything that goes into producing a live television broadcast day in and day out, and he excels at bringing the lives behind the endeavor to life. Indeed, while the stories in Shoplandia are all ostensibly about home shopping, they’re also about humanity’s search for meaning in a consumer-driven world that’s more interested in appearances than substance.

Many of Breslin’s characters are jaded with respect to their jobs, but they still go about them with workmanlike dignity. The sense is that if they believe in the work they do, the viewers at home will buy into the illusion that what Shoplandia has to offer will make a difference in their lives. As one character remarks, “The secret? Run away from the pain and toward the pleasure. Make them feel like if they don’t have the next great thing, their lives will be hell and they will be ostracized, their lives meaningless… But if they attain it, if they purchase it, if they part with their hard earned money for a chunk of metal in some fancy design, then they will become a god. They will be desired, they will be loooooved. If you own this, you will be worthy!” That the rant is delivered by a disgraced show host only adds to its import, for here is a man who’s peeked behind the curtain and has realized the true logic behind the system.

Ultimately, it’s the author’s talent for using intimate portraits of his characters to interrogate contemporary values that makes Shoplandia so engaging. As in life, meaning emerges — often unexpectedly — in the minutia of the little picture even as the chaos of the big picture threatens to overwhelm Breslin’s characters with its apparent emptiness. To put it another way, Shoplandia insists that there’s a point to it all, even if it’s a different point than the one we’ve been sold.

Saving the Hooker

In his very funny sophomore novel, Saving the Hooker, Michael Adelberg takes swipes at academia, politics, publishing, and the media, all while telling the story of a young scholar caught in a downward spiral of lies and deceit. When the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Matthew Hristahalios, wins a grant to study the attitudes of prostitutes toward the Cinderella myth, he thinks he has it made. Describing himself as “more huckster than scholar,” however, Matthew soon finds himself in way over his head in his dealings with fellow scholars and their skepticism toward his work. Add to that a politically and socially conservative father who can’t, for the life of him, figure out what his son is up to, and Matthew’s life is one hot mess that can only get hotter and messier when he falls in love with one of the prostitutes he’s set out study.

That the woman’s name is Julia Roberts only adds to Matthew’s confusion over his feelings toward her, as repeated viewings of Pretty Woman (starring, needless to say, the actress of the same name) are largely responsible for inspiring his life’s work. Soon, Julia has Matthew spending money he doesn’t have, fighting for her affections, and experimenting with drugs. Meanwhile his personal life is falling apart — so much so that he has no choice, or so he believes, but to fabricate the results of his study. The result is a media circus in which reality and fantasy collide with devastating effects for the protagonist.

Throughout the novel, Adelberg demonstrates great skill as a social satirist yet never loses track of what makes his characters tick. Yes, the academics do ridiculous things like calculating popularity algorithms to give their children beneficial names, but they’re also genuinely concerned with their subjects of study. Likewise, Matthew’s father shoots off ridiculous weekly petitions to further his conservative agenda, yet he’s haunted by the death of Matthew’s mother. In short, Adelberg never places himself above his characters. Rather, he treats them humanely and allows all of their strengths to shine as brightly as their flaws. The result is a very funny novel composed of equal parts biting wit and bleeding heart.

Commenting on the Times: An Interview with Steven Mohr

The+Listless+coverTell us a little bit about your book. What inspired it? Who’s your ideal reader?
I’m a fan of so many types of literature, but when I started writing The Listless, I wasn’t looking to just write some action adventure that can make a person jump but hardly think. And I didn’t want to just write some romance that plays on a person’s emotions but not on their sense of cultural ethics. I wanted to write a piece that had elements of both these while commenting on the times we live in and the situation it presents for those in the young adult (or should I say youngish adult?) age group who have been most affected by it. Really, The Listless was my attempt to combine the freedom of Kerouac’s On The Road and the introspection of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises… I’m not saying I succeeded, I’m just saying I tried! There’s no doubt that’s a hefty goal for a first novel.

I had fun writing it, though, and I enjoyed putting together somewhat realistic dialog you might hear from the indie music lovers, which are probably the ideal readers of the book. I hope, though, I added elements that nearly all can relate to.

It’s a YA novel, yet your protagonist, Conor Batey, is a college grad. Do YA heroes tend to be so old? (Granted, “old” is a relative term!)
Ha, that’s a good question and one that I somewhat wrestled over as I was thinking about where this book really did fit in. To me, the YA (young adult) fiction definition is getting wider than just the age range it was originally designed for. I mean, isn’t Edward Cullen from Twilight over 100 years old? Haha, a little different case… But I look at the YA fiction designation as talking more about the topic than the age of characters or readers (though they both play a big part). The topic of this book is about indie rock and regressing from a business life back into (at least a summer of) road trips and concerts. I think that topic is more in the field of YA than anything else.

Along similar lines, have you observed that YA readers are getting older? How “Y” is “Y” these days?
It certainly seems like the readership of YA fiction has been the biggest change in its overall designation. It went from adolescents right out of juvenile fiction in the 90’s to adolescents, young adults, older adults… the whole gamut today. Creative minds like J. K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and many others have really opened this genre up to a larger spectrum in the past fifteen years.

 What do you see as the difference between YA fiction and more traditional “adult” fiction?
Well, in full disclaimer, my definitions for these phrases are probably very different from the standard ones. When I see something that is cataloged as fiction without being further explained as romance, mystery, sci fi, fantasy, urban fiction, classic literature, or one of the many other sometimes helpful sometimes not helpful at all descriptions, I assume it’s going to be either a Nicholas Sparks book about some guy/girl who lost his/her memory or some Amish town where a recent visitor causes worlds to collide… Not so much a rock group of childish young adults. To take that even one step further, I don’t really like seeing books like Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk called “Contemporary Fiction.” Until there is a good genre title that describes books that vie for a younger sentiment, YA seems to best fill the void.

Part of your novel is set in Detroit. Why that setting?
It starts off in Detroit for a few reasons. This Rustbelt metropolis was and is the source of a lot of great art in America. From Motown and other classic pop music genres to urban farming and decorative city block art projects, this town continues to endow the world with that outsider’s perspective. Between these artistic surroundings and the roughness of the inner city, Detroit is the perfect setting for a band on the run from everyday life.

You mention that your protagonist is in a rock group called Listless. What do they sound like, and who are some of your own favorite bands?
I guess I can answer both of these questions together because I imagine their style being a blend of some of my favorite pop bands from the past. I imagine them with the sounds of soulful minor chord breakdowns like the Beatles, awesome choral harmonies like the Beach Boys, a punkish disregard for the norm like the Pixies, and a dorky grunge look like Weezer in the 90’s.
 
Do you play music yourself? Are you in a band?
I do play a few instruments; though, not necessarily well. I’m mainly a fan of stringed instruments that can be used to play silly love songs. My favorite instruments to serenade my wife are the guitar and ukulele.

What’s next for you?
I’ve always been a pretty eclectic reader. And I definitely have no desire to be pinned down to writing in one genre, either, so I’ve started a couple of projects that are pretty distant from The Listless. Growing up, one of my favorite authors was Isaac Asimov. I loved his series sci fi. I’m certainly no Isaac Asimov but I thought why not give it a shot? I’ve started writing my own series of sci fi short stories that I might at some point put together into one novel. I’ve also started a new novel that I’m writing in a very very slow fashion set in the Asheville, North Carolina region that includes a journalist, a death, a town in turmoil, and an unexpected twist. If that sounds to you like just about every other contemporary title written in the past twenty years, I’ll let your imagination fill in the rest!

Make Each Word Count: An Interview with Marcus Pactor

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of seeing Marcus Pactor read from his short fiction collection Vs. Death Noises as part of the TireFire fiction series in Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter, he sent me a copy of the collection, and I enjoyed it immensely, so I was doubly excited to get a chance to ask him a few questions about writing and how he fits it into his busy schedule.

You came from Florida up to my hometown of Philadelphia to do a reading for the TireFire fiction series. That’s dedication! What motivated you to make the trip? Was it worth your while?

I read Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities last year and dug it so much. I did what I previously considered a junior high stalker thing by asking this total stranger to be my Facebook friend. He agreed. He found out about my book that way, liked it, and invited me up. I have never been a junior high stalker, but I imagine this was like the junior high stalker’s dream. Besides that, I think it’s important to read wherever people are interested in my stuff. You never know who you’re going to meet.

It was entirely worth the trip. Christian and his family are great, warm people. Philadelphia’s downtown is a beautiful, large and cared for in a particular way that I have rarely seen. That art museum is a treasury. In addition, I reunited with an old, old friend.

Note: I have since learned that what I did on Facebook was pretty standard practice and not widely considered stalkerish.

Along similar lines, what motivates you to write? I ask because I know firsthand how difficult it can be to fit writing into a busy schedule, but just keep doing it anyway, and I’m trying to figure out why.

If I didn’t write, I’d probably be talking to myself all the time. I’ve got all kinds of ideas and people in my head trying to get out. Writing is about the healthiest way to get them out. It’s purgation, I guess.

I’m also motivated by the date August 30. Some time on or around that date, my wife and I will welcome a little son to the world. I have to write as much as I can before then, because my schedule will probably become more crowded afterward.

You teach at University of North Florida, and Rate My Professors reports that your students love your classes. What, specifically, do you teach, and how do your teaching and writing inform each other?

It’s strange to think that they love them. I mean, I love my kids, but we spend about a third of the semester explaining why certain kinds of sentences don’t work and why “he ejaculated” is no longer an acceptable dialogue tag. Maybe they love it because it’s a public place in which they feel free to discuss ejaculation.

This semester I’m teaching four fiction workshops. By the end of this week, I’ll have read 130 or so stories by students. Two weeks from now, I’ll have read 65 revisions. By the end of the semester, I’ll have read close to 2000 pages of my students’ fiction.

The pleasures of teaching mostly involve seeing the students improve from one piece to the next. Most of them really do work hard. It’s great to see when it pays off, especially when they get published.

Teaching has also helped me become a much better reader of fiction and practitioner of language. A lot of people can feel that something has gone wrong in a story, but a teacher has to recognize what that something is, where that something is located, and how to fix it. I mean, he has to say more than that “these sentences don’t work.” He has to be able to explain why they don’t work, especially when the grammar is impeccable. He has to point the way. He has to make recommendations that a student can respect.

Reading their stories has forced me to think hard, much harder than I ever had before, about what makes fiction work. A lot of what I figured out went into this book.

Your book is called Vs. Death Noises. Can you explain the title and any principles that guide your writing?

The book’s title comes from the first story, “The Archived Steve.” Steve had this awful emphysemic voice. He slurped from electronic cigarettes. The narrator said the sounds were death noises. Noise isn’t an element common to every story in the book, but it’s in enough of them for the title to work. Plus, tons of people seem to dig it.

I don’t know if I want to use the word “principles.” It’s a much better word for critics to use about a writer’s work than it is for a writer to use about his own stuff. My principles shift all the time, which might be why I don’t want to call them principles. Right now, I like these: –Make each word count. –Form is content. Content is form. -Tell a couple of jokes, but be serious. Seriously tell a joke. A purely sad story is not my kind of beer.

The book’s publisher is Subito Press. If I remember my Latin correctly, that means “suddenly.” Was there anything “sudden” about the writing or publishing of this book? How did you find them–or did they find you?

It was both sudden and not sudden. First, the not so sudden: the stories themselves were written over the course of two-plus years. Then, suddenly, it was summer. I was 35. My girlfriend, now my wife, and I were getting serious. I needed a freaking book. I found Subito’s contest on Duotrope and entered. Everything worked out.

And, finally, what’s on the horizon for you?

I mentioned the baby. Mostly, he is on the horizon. I’ve also got a short novel in the hands of several independent presses and contests as we speak, so I spend a lot of time knocking wood, etc. I’m working on another book too. I’m about to learn how to put up a fence in my backyard. That should be painful.

Thanks, Marcus, for taking the time to chat with me!

vs-death-noises-marcus-pactor-paperback-cover-art

Vs. Death Noises

vs-death-noises-marcus-pactor-paperback-cover-artIn the final story of Marcus Pactor’s Vs. Death Noises, a man discovers a single hair in his bathroom and obsesses over the shape it has taken. The problem, he realizes, is that geometry can’t solve his conundrum because geometric definitions are “concerned with perfect impossibilities” whereas the world we live in is “a world of approximations.” The human experience, in other words, only translates to “[a]pproximate forms, approximate phrasings, approximate feelings.” To put it another way, we’ll never communicate perfectly with one another. Something is always lost in the translation from the lived experienced to the written or spoken word no matter how hard we try. It’s a theme that Pactor explores throughout this collection in a way that allows him to simultaneously explore the exquisite agony of the human condition.

Early on, this agony settles on a young woman struggling to understand her relationship with the man in her life only to discover that she’s unknowable even to herself in many ways: “I could not have done anything but cling to Bander because what I have been calling mistakes were simply the motions of my love and these motions were always uncertain, no matter what smiling mask I wore.” Elsewhere, it gnaws at a restaurant worker feeling remorse over an ill-fated fling with his manager: “She might try to will indifference, the same as every one of us, but my failure had nicked her heart. We all get nicked. They add up over time, and then some people lose it… and others it pills, and we tell ourselves not to care. Inside, though, we’re this bubbling cauldron of fears. We cover it with a heavy pot top and forget it on the stove.”

Yet if it’s our tendency to bury emotions deep within ourselves that contributes the most to our inability to ourselves and each other, Pactor is doing his best to uncover the hidden emotions that make us human, to lift the heavy pot top off the human heart, as it were, and shed light on the pain and suffering that are frequently so hard to describe that language fails whenever we try to talk about them. Hence, perhaps, Pactor’s fondness for the downtrodden. His characters include a starving runaway, a father and son almost wordlessly mourning the death of their wife and mother while drowning their sorrows in booze and Mel Brooks movies, and a wide range of hapless strangers trying desperately to connect with each other and the world around them.

As the stories in Vs. Death Noises all indicate, we’ll never achieve geometric perfection in our efforts at connecting with each other, but Pactor’s fiction offers hope that we can all find solace in trying.