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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 Laborers are no longer essential to the workforce–they’ve been replaced by hot and sassy robots that can even satisfy one sexually, think the embodiment of Samantha from Spike Jonze’ “Her.”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.

Wally – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

Wally is a chemically imbalanced playwright in his late twenties who claims he is a part of a generation who has “lost the ability to be inventive,” and rather than wallow in “nothingness” and career ambivalence, he embarks on a mission of self-discovery in hopes of pulling himself from his troubled state of mind.

“I plan to communicate with you the old-fashioned way: through hand-written letters,” Wally writes to his wife, Elizabeth. “I’ll send the entire bundle once my therapeutic journey is complete…I realize that this is one-sided and inconsiderate; I’d certainly be a better husband if I updated you in real-time, but…I cannot experience a psychic transformation if you’re making me feel guilty about it.”

Don Peteroy presents Wally through a series of borderline-neurotic letters dated over the course of ten days as Wally treks across the United States and north through Canada. While stopping at random coffee houses, bagel shops, Denny’s restaurants, gas stations, campsites, and cheap motels, he reveals the painful memories of his childhood, his struggles as an adult to maintain a stable job, and the events leading up to the moment he first abused his wife by slamming a piano guard down on her hands, breaking two of her fingers.

Knee-deep into the novel, Wally admits how his grandfather, Marvin, would sprinkle Wally’s sandwiches with Ajax and kitty litter, stab him with safety pins, and line his soup with tinfoil: “He’d jab my leg with a safety pin he always carried. ‘That’s for safety, he’d say. ‘Always be alert. You never know what’s going to happen next.’ I endured the poking for years. By sixth grade, my legs and thighs were an astrological map of the universe’s reddest stars, a constellation of just how unsafe I was. Sometimes I wished he wouldn’t be so subtle, that he’d use a knife and just stab me in the thigh. Get it over with––one massive red supernova.”

Though the horrific abuse leads Wally to exhibit core emotions and behaviors of an extremely disturbed man, he never lapses into a “woe is me” point of view; he conveys the facts of his grandfather’s abuse with control and humility, and often uses dark humor, as if to distance himself from the reality of what happened: “I recall a book report I wrote that year. It was about child abuse. I got a C…Granted, it was horribly written, but I’m shocked that my teacher failed to recognize it as a cry for help… As an assurance, I wrote: You cannot be sued for reporting abuse. The kicker: at the end of the essay, I included the 800-number for the National Child Abuse Hotline.”

Peteroy has an amazing writing style, and his ability to convey an emotion or explore an image is breathtaking: “Shafts of sunlight shine through the tree branches, intersecting in a vast, golden cobweb. I can see the lake from my campsite if I stand on top of a rock. It’s like an iridescent silver coin bashed into the ground. When I stand, I see the sky’s blue refection on the water. When I sit, I see the inverted image of green trees. Had I not known any better, I’d be under the illusion that my positioning can change the properties of the lake’s surface.” At times, the narration feels a bit self-absorbed, as if I was reading the diary of an ADHD depressed and entitled Generation Xer; however, the stream of consciousness delivery effectively allows Wally to reveal details of his traumatic past with effortless transition.

Wally eventually reaches his destination in northwest Canada where he has a mundane exchange of dialogue with a stranger about a Soundwave Transformer he never received as a child (a toy he coveted so much, even into adulthood, that he put it on his wedding registry). This fizzling scene contrasts the book’s climax; at which point, in a guilt-ridden admission, Wally answers one of the book’s major questions: what atrocious thing did he do to his wife that caused him to flee town for the utmost northern region of Canada? [spoiler alert: that <insert explicit noun here> stooped just as low if not lower than Marvin by poisoning her with Ajax]

An epic emotional journey, Wally is more than a slew of diary entries and letters home. This novel uncovers a man’s psychological transformation as his medications leach from his system, and he travels the distance of nearly two countries. Wally exposes how his dysfunctional and abusive upbringing has left him a shattered man who passes his childhood horrors onto the only person who has ever truly loved and trusted him. A hard-hitting and beautifully written book, Don Peteroy takes readers on a gravely emotional and thought-provoking journey, one that resonates long after Wally reaches his destination. Available for purchase at Burrow Press: http://burrowpress.com/wally/

Into This World – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

Sybil Baker is the author of comical book The Life Plan, the dramatic novella Talismans, and recently, she’s released a third novel titled Into This World through Engine Books.

Into This World opens with a detail-packed introduction of the protagonist, Allison, a thirty-something divorcee who recently moved back in with her parents and is unsatisfied with the the state of her current life. She’s childless and still pining (fourteen years) over her married and womanizing asshole of a boss. The stress of her failed marriage and the distance of her lover infects her mind and body, resulting in heartbreaking consequences like repeated miscarriages and nightmares.

One evening, while Allison is sitting at the dinner table being mini-lectured by her parents about inexplicably giving up the stability of her job, her half sister Mina calls and quickly hangs up. The familial bitterness between the children and the parents is revealed early, and it’s easy to guess that Mina, the “adopted” daughter is actually Allison’s half sister, fathered when her dad did a tour in Korea. With some pressure from her parents, Allison decides to embark on an international excursion to reconnect with her half sister. Though a seemingly stereotypical tale of female suburban adversity, Allison uses the trip to rediscover who she is underneath all the layers of “coveting,” heartache, and misery, and also to find a connection with her distant sister.

At times, the story does come off soap opera-ish, the opening is burdened with an information overload of character facts and histories. However, as the text continues, Baker presents the flashbacks through a succession of well-crafted chapters which jump between Allison’s present and her father’s life when he was stationed in Korea. During this time, he had an affair with a Korean woman and fathered a baby girl whom he eventually “adopts” and brings back to the US. Fast-forward through some family drama, interactions with a few secondary characters, ones I felt needed a bit more build and personality, and in the end, Allison forces the two lying men in her life (her boss and father) to face the consequences of their actions.

Baker definitely presents the “stranger in a strange land” storyline well as exhibited in Allison’s culture shock of Seoul’s city life, the language barrier, and differences in things as simple as the local stores and housing accommodations. On the flip side, Baker also hit the mark with Mina’s cultural and ethnic identity crisis of growing up half Korean with no real tie to her roots in Seoul.

Baker’s writing has definitely matured throughout the years which she exhibits in this finely crafted piece of literary fiction. Into This World was truly enjoyable to experience, its prose so engaging and polished that the pages turned themselves. Pick up a copy over at Engine Books and definitely check out Baker’s past novels The Life Plan and Talismans.

So Different Now

Ben Tanzer is a machine when it comes to putting out novels, novellas, chapbooks, and short story collections, my favorites being 99 Problems, a chapbook released through the CCLaP, and his novel You Can Make Him Like You, released through Artistically Declined Press. Recently, CCLaP released another chapbook of Tanzer’s shorts called So Different Now, which consists of nine micro short stories about man-boys who’ve yet to mature (do any of us?). Central themes include reflections of childhood bullies and lost loves, and current dissatisfaction with marriage and life in suburbia. And a Tanzer collection wouldn’t be complete without his trademark theme of infidelity, or rationalizing the urge to cheat.

Each story ends with a punch to the stomach (or face or kidney) in the form of a twist or blatant shock. I read this collection from cover to cover with the takeaway message that life sucks sometimes. Growing up sucks. Suburbia sucks. Marriage can suck.

This may sound strange, but Tanzer is amazing at writing the tempted-to-cheat male mind. His narrators’ thoughts flow naturally, and the internalized cognitive dissonance is well-played. There are always plenty excuses and more excuses about why the protagonist feels the need to cheat or stray or maintain a wandering eye. Take this line from A Single Bound, where our subject tries to rationalize his cheating thoughts with something as arbitrary as Spiderman, speaking through a third-person POV: “He is a superhero at work, but the rest of the time he is just a regular guy trying to deal with people’s expectations of him, his wife included. It’s not that his wife doesn’t appreciate him. It’s just that his wife doesn’t appreciate him like the intern does. The intern has no expectations at all, and frankly it’s refreshing.”

There was a laugh-out-loud moment for me in Cool, Not Removed along the similar topic: “Now, does he feel like being married is like being in jail? No, of course not, not for the most part anyway. There are moments, though. Does he get to do whatever he wants whenever he wants? No, not at all. Does he care? Not really. But is that kind of like being in prison? Sure it is, a little.”

Every story left me feeling intense emotions about the protagonist or his situation, weather it was victory, defeat, or a just plain, that totally sucks, and that’s what Tanzer does. He can evoke an intense reaction in his reader in a mere flash fiction piece. All the characters yanked at my heart strings in one form or another, I felt sympathy for them no matter how confused or fallen they were.

So Different Now reflects on the protagonist’s past, growing up terrorized by the neighborhood bully only to find out twenty-five years later, that the bully is dating one of his childhood sweethearts, if one could call her that. In Stevey, the kid doling out sex and dating wisdom brings his friends home to a father who brags about how he cheated on his wife, the narrator ending the story with, “Maybe we found ourselves resenting the fact that [Stevey] wasn’t in control all the time, that he was flawed, and that we hated ourselves for trusting him so much when he struggled just like everyone else did.”

My only criticism is that I wish the collection was longer, I think there was still so much left Tanzer could have said in his chapbook, there was some missing element that I kept searching for. Regardless, I’ve always adored Tanzer’s writing style, and this collection, So Different Now, has taken a place at the top of my list. Get a copy now over at CCLaP. It may be short, but it’ll take a swing at your thoughts on life and leave a lasting red mark.

-Review by Lavinia Ludlow