fiction

Review of Ben Tanzer’s Orphans – by Lavinia Ludlow

695-2In Ben Tanzer’s novella, Orphans, the world is a violent dystopia beyond salvation. Natural resources have dissolved, homeless encampments flood the shores, and the planet is an industrial wasteland. Laborers are no longer essential to the workforce–they’ve been replaced by hot and sassy robots that can even satisfy one sexually, think the embodiment of Samantha from Spike Jonze’ “Her.” Human clones known as “Terraxes” tend to household duties when the breadwinners leave on business. “The Corporation,” a merciless version of “the man,” has eyes on everyone, and if civilians loiter too long on the sidewalk to beg for a job or protest government fascism, helicopters gun them down like enemy soldiers trying to cross no man’s land.

In the old city of Chicago renamed Sector Six, Norrin Radd embarks on the hopeless and self-defeating search for financial security, identity, and the ever-elusive American Dream. With a wife and son to support, he mans up and takes a job with Joyful Future Real Estate as a salesman who dupes the rich “1-percenters” into relocating to a planet with questionable potential and an unknown future.

Tanzer sets the mood well for his flawed protagonist, Norrin. He is haunted by mysterious traumas of his childhood–as a kid, he saw his father “snatched” by “The Corporation” and found his mother dead after she allegedly committed suicide. He’s treading through an economic recession–“I am tired of sitting down at the kitchen table every night and talking about which bill should be paid this week, and how that will be possible when there is no money,” and trying to stay alive in a merciless civilization that guns down civilians in cold blood and creates human clones for temp work and organs.

Like most of Tanzer’s work, chapters are fast-paced, succinct, and contain no fat, dead ends, or draggy dialogue. Background details unfold naturally through flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness inner monologue, and paint a vivid image of Norrin’s internal struggles:

“I should know what to say, loving someone means knowing what to say, or at least knowing how to fix something after you’ve broken it…Instead I am about to break something and I know it, but feel powerless to prevent it…because it’s easier to leave when you’ve fucked things up…I hate myself and my inability to express my fears to her, and this self-hatred quickly mutates into rage, and the rage needs an outlet, and she looks up at me, so sad and vulnerable, which makes me hate her more, and I suddenly want to punch her in her beautiful face, break it and break her…”

For the most part, Tanzer respects the sci-fi element by not overdosing on the bizarre. He writes about conflicts and struggles consistent with those that many deal with today: unemployment, poverty, marital strain, soul-sucking jobs, and personality disorders induced by early traumas. Tanzer also recognizes the social implications of introducing advanced technologies into a culture hardly mature enough for radical change, such as the distress and heartbreak that Norrin feels when he sees a Terrax acting as the husband and father figure in his own household. At times though, the story’s naming conventions come off as senseless and unintelligible. Titles like the “Joyful Future Real Estate” and the “Happiness Sector” make me question why a sophisticated society with commercial space travel and “Terraxes” would elect such asinine titles for its businesses and districts. If Tanzer was trying to mock society’s fall from grace, the inconsistent attempt falls flat.

Scene transitions are often disorienting (but unavoidable with flash-like chapters), and the ending feels like an anecdotal obligation jammed in a single wide-margin page. The stunted closing does no justice to the overall story given the futuristic setting and Norrin’s emotional state of mind, which Tanzer did such a phenomenal job developing throughout the novel.

All in all, Orphans is an imaginative and sobering tale of one man’s final attempt to rise above his inner demons, an economic collapse, and a floundering society. Highly recommended.

Check it out over at Switchgrass Books.

Want, Wound

Want, WoundI’ve admired the work of Nicole Monaghan for a long time, so I was very excited when she asked me to provide a blurb for her first collection of fiction, Want, Wound. The blurb I provided reads, “A loving exploration of the tender corners of the human heart and the empty spaces we all long to fill.” While this blurb does a decent job of capturing what Nicole does so well in all of her work, I’m not sure it does her book justice. Throughout the volume, she takes every opportunity she can to inhabit the skin of “the other.” Sometimes this involves imagining what it must be like to be a man. Other times, she explores the inner world of children yearning to impress their parents or insecure teens trying to make sense of the world or adult women struggling with addictions. In every instance, Nicole come across as a true empath, an author with a preternatural ability to feel the pain and love and longing of every character she imagines. As a result, Want, Wound is a moving, touching, tiny wonder of a book.

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.

Safe As Houses

bookcoverI’ve been intrigued by the phrase “safe as houses” since I first heard it in Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again” many years ago. What, exactly, I’ve often wondered, is so safe about houses? Doesn’t some high percentage of household injuries occur within the home? And why are so many of my best observations completely solipsistic?

In many ways, Marie-Helene Bertino’s collection of short stories Safe As Houses obsesses over all of these issues with a wry blend of wit, humor, irony, magic realism, and ultimately hope. Throughout the collection, Bertino offers her readers inventive scenarios in which her characters long for the various and frequently elusive forms that the comforts of home might take. There’s the young woman who loses her home in a fire and attempts to win the affections of her wayward father by buying him a dachshund with the insurance money — all while trying to avoid picking up a free ham she’s won at the local grocery store. There’s (How do I explain this in as few words as possible?) the estranged couple whose component members bump into each other while dating idealized versions of each other. (The story is called “The Idea of Marcel.” I assigned it in my American Lit. class. Trust me… It’s great!) There’s the former record-keeper for a group of rebellious college superheroes who combs through memories of the best years of her life in an effort to figure out how she ended up married to a millionaire and living a beautiful but boring suburban home.

To put it simply, if you like quirky, heartfelt short stories, you’ll find a lot to love in this collection. Throughout the collection, Bertino exhibits a proclivity not only for making the outlandish seem at least provisionally plausible, but also for effectively reversing that formula and making it clear that so much of what we take for meaningful and real is ultimately ephemeral. Though it would be a cliche to suggest that Safe As Houses reminds us that home is where the heart is, I’m half-tempted to say that this is the over-arching point of this collection. Yet Bertino takes that cliche and makes it new by exploring all of its implications and reminding us that home is as much a state of mind as anything else. We are all longing for home in one way or another. Though no story could ever fully satisfy that longing, Bertino’s collection goes a long way toward reminding us that we’re not alone in our quest.

(For a longish, meandering, and somewhat creepy prologue to this review, visit Abominations: Marc Schuster’s Random Musings.)

 

Conquistador of the Useless

Conquistador of the UselessIn many ways, Joshua Isard’s Conquistador of the Useless offers the perfect counterpoint to Spencer Dew’s Here Is How it Happens (reviewed here two weeks ago). Where Dew’s protagonists are college-aged rebels doing their best to avoid making the leap to post-college mainstream society, Isard’s novel finds a somewhat similar similar pair of lovers adjusting, at times uncomfortably, to a bourgeois suburban lifestyle about a decade after graduation.

The novel begins with narrator Nathan Wavelsky and his wife Lisa moving into a new home and learning upon meeting their new neighbors that the beloved music of their youth has been reduced to the status of a glorified tchotchke in the form of a Fender Jaguar signed by the members of Nirvana and mounted behind a thick pane of glass. That Nathan makes a good living as a corporate hatchet man only adds to his growing sense of ennui, and Lisa’s sudden desire to start a family makes matters worse.

The problem isn’t necessarily that he ever saw himself as a rebel, nor is it that he sees settling down in suburbia as a sign of giving up on his dreams. The problem, as far as he can tell, is that he never really had any big dreams to begin with — so he does what any red-blooded American would do. He goes out and gets one. Or at least he stumbles upon one when his old college buddy shows up with a scheme to climb Mount Everest. What follows is a journey of self-discovery that allows Nathan to recognize that what matters most in his life. (Hint: It has nothing to do with the mountain.)

In terms of style, Isard’s writing reminds me of Shaun Haurin and Curt Smith. Like Haurin, Isard places the musical tastes of his characters front and center through much of the narrative while, like Smith, he demonstrates a firm understanding of the compromises we all make on the long, winding path to adulthood. I’d mention that Nathan’s relative lack of direction and ambition echo the same traits in Charley Schwartz, the beleaguered narrator of my own novel, The Grievers, but that would be self-serving, so I’ll just say that on nearly every page of Conquistador of the Useless I found something that struck a chord. I’d even be willing to bet that anyone who grew up at the tail-end of Generation X will find something to love in this book — the protagonist’s angst over drifting, however late, into adulthood, his taste in music, or even his fraught-if-only-because-it’s-so-damn-pleasant relationship with his parents. All told, a fine novel about settling down without settling.